Power is morally neutral. Power is neither good nor bad. Power just is. It is part of the universe in which we live, part of the human condition, part of life.
Power is: the capacity to achieve a desired outcome.
One way to think about power is to compare it to a force in the physical universe. Power is to human interaction what forces are in the universe. You have the “power” to jump, but the force of gravity, which has more “power” than you, pulls you back down. For you actual or budding physicists or engineers reading this, I do understand enough about physics to know the analogy begins to fall apart quickly. Anyway, the exertion of power in dealing with other people becomes a moral issue because, as I said in the last post on Obligation, “Morality is about other people.” Power becomes a moral issue when it is used with or against other people. So, “Moral Power” (I just made that up) is: the capacity to achieve a desired outcome where other people are concerned.
So far, I hope my assertion that power is neutral makes sense in light of my definition of power. I have defined power, including Moral Power, in the most broad sense possible. There are many ways we have and use power with other people that we do not think about as power because it is so common, trivial and seemingly neutral. When you buy Raisin Bran cereal instead of Cheerios, you are using your money to assert power in the economy, which helps Post (the company that makes Raisin Bran) and hurts General Mills (which makes Cheerios). You are exerting “purchasing power.” I am guessing this decision doesn’t come with political overtones, so there was no intent to help Post or hurt General Mills. You probably just prefer Raisin Bran or think it is more healthy or something. On the other hand, if you have a choice between organic raspberries and nonorganic, you might choose organic as a health, taste, political and economic exertion of your purchasing power. All of a sudden, power becomes less neutral because your use of it has an intended purpose.
If you are willing to consider power as morally neutral in its broadest sense, then I hope you’re wondering why we fear power, why we disdain power, why even the word “power” can cause anxiety? Part of the answer: the way power gets used. Above, I said power is “the capacity to achieve a desired outcome.” I chose this language carefully to leave out all ideas about how that capacity is used. Once we get into an examination of how power is used, we enter into the realm of “strategy.” There are many strategies for the use of power, and the one we fear the most (rightly so I think) is control. I’ll get to that in more detail in a minute. Control is only one strategy for exerting power. Others include influence, persuasion, participation, negotiation, organization, concession, manipulation, deception, collaboration, consensus, agreement, disagreement, assertion, aggression, intimidation, passivity, silence, and many other subcategories of management strategies. Each of one of these strategies could be a topic for a separate discussion by itself. For now, though, just think about this list as demonstration of the many ways we can use power without the use of control. One way to think about power in a more neutral, less anxiety inducing way is to think about “managing a situation” rather than “controlling a situation.”
Now let me get back to control as the primary reason we fear power. Control is the source of the abuse of power, because it negates and ignores the wishes of the person being controlled to just exactly the extent of the force being used to assert control. When we get pulled over for speeding (yes, I’ve had this experience more times than I care to admit), we fear the power the cop has over us. What is he/she going to say or do to us. I was once pulled over for speeding and ended up spending most of the night in jail because unbeknownst to me the person I had sold a previous car to had been issued several parking tickets, didn’t pay them, and then a warrant for the arrest of the owner of the car (me) was issued. Yikes! So, when getting pulled over, there is a huge power differential. It turned out to be a complete mistake to arrest me, but I was in no position to say, “Thank you for the offer to go downtown, but I decline.” He had a gun. He put me in handcuffs. He “escorted” me to the back of his car and then others locked me in a cage. Now, imagine if I weren’t white, if I were a person of color, especially an African-American man, and was being pulled over. The fear there is really unimaginable to me. The power differential there is so great, the risk of harm and even death as part of the uncertainty are very real for him, no matter what he does. He can put his hands up, do everything he is told, and still might be shot dead. This is power which is anything but morally neutral.
Power in some situations, like the arrest story above, is a “zero-sum” game. This means that the more power one person has, the less the other has. Or, the more successful one person is in their use of power the less successful the other person is in the use of theirs. In other words, there can only be one winner. When I practiced law and went to trial, this was the case. There was a winner and a loser, and the more my client won, the more the other side lost. It all had to add up to “0.” If I won a million dollars for my client, the defendant lost a million dollars, so the total amount when you combine the winning and losing is zero. Zero-sum. There are actually very zero sum situations we encounter in our everyday lives. We often inaccurately perceive conflictual situations as zero-sum games, which then cause us to react in ways that prevent us from successfully resolving the conflict (see my chapters on conflict in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter).
Fearing the inappropriate use of power is not a mistake. All lives cannot matter until black lives matter. When we see power being abused, it is a very good idea to work toward ending that abuse. That’s why we have a constitution, with free speech, courts, representative government, all to limit the abuse of power. Richard Millhouse Nixon. Enough said.
Fearing power itself is a mistake and harmful. We need power. Just yesterday on the side of the road where I was driving, a woman was screaming at her toddler who’d gotten loose and was running toward the road. She finally grabbed her firmly, restraining her. Control, yes, inappropriate, absolutely not. If that parent had feared her own use of power, and been less demanding, controlling, even aggressively pulling her child from the side of the road, that toddler might have been hit by a car (how the child got away from her on the side of a highway is another question altogether).
If power is the capacity to achieve a desired outcome, we should first decide whether our desired outcome is reasonable and justified. If it is, we can then think of appropriate uses of power to achieve it. When we allow our fear of power to limit our appropriate and necessary use of power, we also limit our ability to achieve outcomes we need, want, deserve, and could have if we didn’t fear power itself. Coming to terms with power as morally neutral is essential to having what we want. Using the power we have, honestly, transparently, intentionally, and without fear doesn’t have to mean becoming hostile, controlling, nasty or disingenuous. Asking for what you want with the expectation that you should have it, assuming it is reasonable under the circumstances, is using power appropriately. When the response is resistance or refusal, you can and do use power to get what you want some other way, which can be completely appropriate or not.
Nearly every exchange you have with others in your life involves the use of power. Let’s say you and your partner are just finishing dinner. Your partner made a great meal and you are both full, you are ready to take a walk or help the kids with their homework or you want to call a friend who asked you to call them later. Who’s to clean up? Your partner made dinner, so you should, right? But you don’t want to. Last night you made dinner and did the dishes. You ask her if she wouldn’t mind doing the dishes and cleaning up (power: assertion). She gets irritated, says she made dinner (power: anger, mild aggression, persuasion). You remind her of last night (power: persuasion, influence). She says she has to meet a deadline for work (power: persuasion, argument, assertion). You concede but ask if she can help you get started by clearing the table (power: concession, negotiation). She agrees (power: concession, collaboration). You both (ideally) happily work together to get the table and kitchen cleaned up. If you had simply feared the exchange of power and conceded without a word your desire to avoid the dishes, you might have taken the victim role (I shouldn’t have to do the dishes but she is so difficult so I’ll avoid the fight and just do them) and ended up resenting your partner for an hour or all night. By embracing your power, and your partner’s equal right to use power with you, you begin on an even footing, work through the obstacles, achieve a desired outcome you can both live with and get most of what you want while recognizing her right to get most of what she wants too, if possible.
Another reason we (sometimes legitimately) fear power is that we don’t trust ourselves in its use. We want to be reasonable, wherever possible, to treat others as we want to be treated. So if we fear others inappropriately controlling us, abusing their power over us, we should also fear and avoid controlling others when it is not appropriate. The assertion of power is rarely a clearly defined thing, and often leads to uncertain outcomes when it causes conflict, which it usually does (again, see my chapters on Conflict, in my book Firewalking on Jupiter). The first step in learning how to use power appropriately and reasonably is to stop fearing power itself, thinking it is always bad, which as we see from the examples above, can lead to a warped (e.g. victim/perpetrator) perspective on our own and others’ use of power. If we can look at power head on, note it as a morally neutral thing, and a necessary thing in having the lives and relationships we want, we can more easily discern how to use power in ways that are consistent with our own sense of right and wrong, we can choose strategies that feel right to who we are, and avoid using strategies or allowing others to use strategies with us that feel wrong. We can become more adept at implementing “Moral Power.”
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.