Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Power

Maija asked the right question. Always best to define your terms. I think "strong" and 'weak" are false sorts, and forgive me for not being clear.

This whole line of thought got launched because Dr. Tammy Yard-McCracken started a dialogue about power dynamics in teaching-- and the can of worms got a whole lot bigger than either of us expected. I really don't know where that project is going. It could be a book or a class or something unexpected. But so far, just in the questions, the collaboration looks promising.

Power isn't an endstate. There are no weak or strong people, just people at different places on a given continuum. And power is not linear. I am stronger than K, but she is smarter and more artistic than I am. R has more money, but J has more skills. Q can access a deep level of viciousness, but W can access an equally deep level of empathy. Power is not a scale but a net of ever-interconnecting methods of affecting the world. And in each strand of the net, you have attributes and skills that both affect the strength.

But in the end, it is about ability to affect the world and, at least equally and maybe more: an ability to have choice in how much the world affects you.

And so when I say "strong" or "weak" in this case, it has nothing to do with where you are on this scale. It has everything to do with which direction you are moving in. Because you are either getting better, or you are getting worse. If you don't get stronger, you will stagnate and get weaker. You can't rest on this. And that "can't' isn't meant as an admonition, but as a simple statement of fact.

If you are getting better, you are strong. Maybe not as strong as you want or you could be. Certainly not the strongest in the world. But the very act of seeking to be better, to be able to affect the world more, is strength.
And, conversely, if you are not striving to be better, you have accepted entropy and you are weak. Doesn't matter if you have the genetics to be a world power lifter. Doesn't matter if you inherited wealth and political power. Doesn't matter what you tell yourself so that you can sleep at night. If you aren't striving to be better you are, by my definition weak. Sorry.

And there's another dynamic here, because power is only a small part of it. You are already powerful. You have a brain bigger than our ancient ancestors. If you have a decent diet you are likely much bigger. You have better communication skills. You have access to information your ancestors could never dream. And your ancestors conquered the world. With half of your gifts, with nothing much beyond rudimentary communication skills and opposable thumbs, your ancestors became the apex predator of this planet. Do you get that? You are fucking mighty.

That is your birthright. That is who you are. And no animal naturally weakens itself. Tigers never starve themselves to look better to other tigers. Snakes don't slither over coals to show their bravery.

So the second dimension is not just power, but comfort with power. If you have a working brain and a decent amount of mobility, anyone on this planet could assassinate anyone else. I may be stronger than K, but she is comfortable enough with the strength and skill that she has that she has no doubt she could make me pay. People who are comfortable with power have to be respected.

There's a huge amount here that Tammy and I are slowly working on-- the ethical element, toxic relationships to power, whether power can be given or must be taken-- a ton of stuff. But I think the bones lie in these two things:
Power is about growth or stagnation.
Comfort with power is required to use it.


Anonymous said...

Power has to be about ability to effect outcomes. It can't just be about progression in a certain direction (negative or positive).

Anonymous said...

If this is a project I'd love to see it come to fruition.

Something I've noticed in myself is how uncomfortable I am with power even when I'm asked to weld it. On the dojo or in the office I've reached a level of competency where I can teach and direct but even then I feel...embarrassed? to do so.

It's something I'd always wondered about - how can I move with more authority in the spaces I inhabit?

Unknown said...

I wanted to write a lot of things, but the topic is so deep that cigars and whisky is necessary to discuss it.

Charles James said...

When I first read the title, I thought this would be one of those articles on power use in defense and then you go and present a totally different perspective on the term, "Power." Wow! Talk about a paradigm shift in thinking.

The last week or so has held a lot of shifts for me and may result in another or different way of thinking, thanks for the article.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I like these definitions, especially the part about "how much the world affects you". Maybe also ability to choose HOW it affects you. The same conditions wreck some people & empower others.
Also comfort with other people in your life having power plays into this. Being comfortable with people you have relationships with (of whatever sort) becoming better, stronger more independent; rather than weaker and more reliant on you. Just a thought.

Rory said...

Point playing off Dan's point. Comfort with your own power automatically makes you less fearful of other's power. Comfort level, not quality. People with poor comfort levels have a default setting when afraid to weaken other people rather than strengthen themselves.

Tiff said...

Is this a zero-sum game? Does the nature of power require us to weaken others in order to strengthen ourselves? In a tribal sense, is it the opposite?

Unknown said...

"Comfort with your own power automatically makes you less fearful of other's power. Comfort level, not quality. People with poor comfort levels have a default setting when afraid to weaken other people rather than strengthen themselves."

Holly shit, you just expained what the whole gun-control/gun rights debate is about...

Unknown said...

Very nice read. Made me think a lot.

I don't think getting stronger (in the sense of Rory's article) requires us to weaken others.
One can get better, stronger and more powerful without others weakening. For example: If one gets smarter, it doesn't require anyone to get less smarter. If one is getting more skillfull in something, it doesn't necessarily mean someone else is losing skill.

Unknown said...

So glad I started reading the comments on Rory's blog!

@Juha and Tiff:
I think it's both. If I learn how to drive, you don't forget how to read. In absolute terms, your power is the same. But in relative terms, I have become more powerful (i.e. everyone else gets a little weaker in comparison).

But it changes if we're talking about power over people. If I put a gun to your head, I have gained power over your free will and you have lost it. Zero sum.


pax said...

Looking back through my notes from a class I took 7 years ago and (thought I) had long since forgotten, I'd jotted down a verbatim quote from one of the other students in the class. It must have resonated with me at the time because it made it into my notes.

But I don't remember it.

I have no conscious memory of that segment of the class. No idea who said it, even -- just the little squiggle next to the words, that indicated it was a fellow student and not the instructor.

That student had power. He or she changed my life. And I know this, because I've been using that idea, in those exact words, for the past two or three years at least, as I've taught others.

Lots of weird permutations there. I wonder how much of who I am today, I owe to people I don't even remember. Every idea I've ever had came from somewhere -- where?

We have the power to change the world. And most of us don't even notice when we have.

pax said...

Comfort with power is required to use it.

Rory, I'd change this sentence just slightly, to read:

Comfort with power is required to consciously use it.

Kai Jones said...

Matt wrote: If I put a gun to your head, I have gained power over your free will and you have lost it. Zero sum.

We may have a definitional difference here, or maybe I just disagree with you, but I still have free will in that situation-I can decide to risk that you will shoot me if I do something, or I can choose to be still. And I still have the power to react to your actions.

Anonymous said...


Serious political operatives will intimate that “Power is pointless if you don’t use it”. In fact, all the backroom brokering of civic of power is based on this reality. And it can easily be as ruthless as those of us looking in from the outside imagine, always a monkey’s game. It has to be. They can’t actually kill each other in a civilized society. Anyone pays attention to history and world events can understand such is not an environment always available. Hard core pols live and breathe this and rely on power BEING the act of decision making. Maybe this is obvious, but power is not physical state it’s a dynamic. This is why politics drives human history. Power is a temporal, fluid by-product of our interactions.

This is entirely scalable up and down. So, empowerment becomes the function of giving or taking control over decisiveness, individually or collectively. Initiative and cognitive capability/capacity to operate freely is the environment of personal power. Power over the masses is simply having the freedom to make or restrict the choices of others. Even the perception of power is real to anyone who believes it. And it is (or is only) as frail as that belief. You can only lie to yourself if you can believe there is no other choice. One thing you can definitely count on in any case, someone intuitively decisive will eventually take ownership of deciding when others shy away from the responsibility.

Therefore the freedom to make decisions matters immensely. Scalable …your allowed to or you are not. This is something that can be either self-regulated and/or socially enforced. Humans seek the control of directing action more than any other creature we know. We write down lots of laws to make sure everyone remembers. Internally, differentiations between “good” or “bad” are only our subsets of a greater judgment structure. We don’t operate in a civil vacuum and we don’t think in a cognitive one either. At any level, our ability to effect change is completely dependent on an opportunity to believe we can. We all hold ourselves back in all kinds of ways to all types of ends. It is decision making to, as Rory puts it “act” on the tangible world. Pursue change, but also to maintain or allow inertia to preserve power. Hold onto control over deciding, or in fear of the unknown if lost.

Lots of tangents in there but I think this starts to circle back to a lot of other thoughts you've triggered before. Or, more likely that's where I just tend to be led.

-Billy G.

Josh Kruschke said...

Rory, I've come late to the last couple of posts, so I'm going to put this link here:

The Morality of Capitalism - executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook


Thoughts on power. Power is illusory and transitory. What one person can do another can counter. Just because someone can try to limit our options or make us believe that we are powerless doesn't mean that we are.

Ran across this video meme on FB the other day:

Your words and thoughts have physical power - Will Smith


Something I wrote a while back :

Monday, October 10, 2011

Weak / Strong
There are Strong and Weak people in this world. I'm talking in ability and skills, i.e., we all have our strengths and weakness.

One side believes that we should help the weaker among us become stronger. This way they can compete and hold their own.

The other side believes we should place limits on and weaken the strong, so that they can't take advantage of those weaker than them.

One side weakens the whole, and the other side strengthens the whole.

LarryArnold said...

They can’t actually kill each other in a civilized society.
I might go so far as to say there will always be sanctions for murdering someone in a civilized society, but I would treat it as unproven until I find an example of such a society.
Is power a zero-sum game?
Depends on the rules of the game.
In football every yard I gain is a yard you lose: I win at your expense. Zero-sum.
In a sporting clays match everyone can have a personal-best day. The person with the highest score is first place, but not at the expense of the other shooters. In fact, many of the shooters may be inspired to attain their personal-best scores by the pressure from the other competitors. Additive-sum.
There are also games where you end up destroying yourself, or what you are competing over. Those are minus-sum.
Socialism and communism tend to be zero or minus-sum. Capitalism, additive-sum.

Unknown said...


I might have just made a clumsy example. I was trying to posit that some power dynamics are zero sum. Sometimes power gained by one is power lost by another.

What I'm hearing in your comment is that the power isn't "lost" so much as "given". I can direct your movements with a gun to your head only because you let me. You still have free will and many choices that could deny me the power to direct your movements. I would agree with that.

So is power over other humans, whether political, in relationships, groups... always the result of complicit behavior of the powerless?

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

This begins to tie.in with previous discussions of Rory and Marc about force and power. In brief from my understanding. Power is given. Force is taken.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Oh, this is a good one you have started , Rory!
A slightly different way of wording - I surrender my power (or believe that I never had any an the first place - cultural conditioning?)and concede it to others and/or believe they have a natural right to power over me. Given or taken???

Scott Park Phillips said...

1. The immediate, performative capacity to act and clear away obstacles.
2. The capacity to plan the accumulation of resources, allies, knowledge, assets and abilities.

One has no time factor, and therefore is not concerned with getting stronger. In fact a key way to disempower people is to get them to believe they are not strong enough.

Two involves time and vision. It is not specifically about strength either, it is about potential power.