Book projects – Whiplash: 3: Power and prejudice

Power. Everyone wants to be powerful: or, more precisely, no-one wants to feel powerless – a subtle distinction, but an important one… But there seems to be complete confusion about what power actually is – a powerful singer, for example, is hardly the same as a ‘powerful’ gangster. The word ‘power’ seems to be used in almost every kind of context, with a bewildering variety of meanings. Perhaps nowhere is the meaning more confused, or the word more abused, than in feminist theory: “my feminism is my power and my strength”, said a woman friend, as I watched her systematically reduce herself to angry impotence and helplessness by following its precepts… And angry demands that men should surrender their power to women are not going to produce much result, because most men feel pretty powerless already anyway. If men are to use feminism as a model for developing a valid masculism, power is obviously going to be a problem.

One way out is to step back and look at the meaning of ‘power’ from first principles. The only safe, certain definition of the term is one from physics: ‘the rate at which work is done’. Nothing else. Except that since we tend to think of power in terms of potential, it might be more useful to describe power in this physical sense as ‘the ability to do work’. Simple. Clear-cut. No problem. It’s when we start to apply that definition to our experience of power – or the lack of it – that we seem to have a problem…

We don’t: it’s just that some very rigid, but very limited, assumptions get in the way. Most important of them all are the assumptions that “it is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less”, or that “true power cannot be given, it must be taken” [1], or – the worst of the lot – that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”. [2] It will take a fair bit of work to show that these are only assumptions, and that they do get in the way: but once we’ve worked our way past them, we arrive at a place where we can begin to get things moving again. And also a place where we can begin to see a clear distinction between what is useful in feminism, and what is not – for both women and men.

For example, once we say that ‘power is the ability to do work’, we can see, immediately, that wielding a gun is not powerful at all – it prevents work from being done. Or rather, it tries to enforce one type of work being done, but in such a grossly inefficient way that it could hardly be called useful work. And it doesn’t make sense to say “it is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less”: one person’s – or object’s – ability to do work has no direct relationship with another’s, unless their power is always directed against each other – in which case, as with the gun, not much work is likely to be done at all.

This perhaps sounds too mechanical: power doesn’t feel much like ‘the ability to do work’. But it depends on what we mean by ‘work’. Work exists in many forms: even the limited Western worldview recognises at least four different levels of work – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual – and we can soon see many others once we understand a wider context of ‘work’. All forms of work require energy from us: to sit quietly with someone who’s upset is hard emotional work; to solve a technical problem demands a lot of mental effort; whilst parenting is perhaps the hardest work of all. And while many might dismiss spiritual work as ‘religion and stuff’, it’s nothing of the kind: it’s the very real work required of us to find a sense of meaning and purpose – and a sense of self, and of that which is greater than self.

The last of these is where our power comes from: the only source of empowerment – a power that actually works – is from within the self. It’s up to each of us to maintain our power, our ability in body and mind, heart and soul, to do the work we choose – others can help us, or hinder us, but no-one can do this for us. We each create it, or destroy it, within ourself; it cannot be taken, but it can be – and very often is – given away. Power is the expression of choice: which is why we feel so powerless when we’re presented with situations in which we appear to have no choice.

This may seem far removed from the meaning of ‘power’ in a political sense. It isn’t: in fact it’s the very basis of the slogan “the personal is political”. The political arises from our personal expression of choices: our acknowledgement of our own power, our own ability to do the work – in those many different senses – that we choose. “Sisterhood is powerful” – yes, but what work do you want to do? If the answer is ‘none’, there’s not much point in demanding power…

That’s the biggest problem with power: most people seem to think that power is the ability to avoid work… which is precisely why things get into such a mess. Power without purpose, without focus, is destructive: it tears machines apart – and it tears people apart. We lose our power, especially, in anger: like wheelspin, there’s a lot of noise and a vast expenditure of energy for no real result. Which means that we try harder; which means that we get angrier; which means that we still don’t get a result; which means that we get angrier still. And then we get violent. But that doesn’t work either…

Power and violence are intimately interwoven. Having thrown away our power in anger, or for some other reason, we feel powerless – being angry is exhausting. But other people seem to be powerful, and we still want to do what we want to do: so perhaps we can steal theirs… if we can ‘dis-empower’ them, that ought to mean that we’ll have their power, and they’ll have our problems. That’s the basis of violence. It’s unfortunate that it’s based on an illusion: unfortunate, because it’s an illusion so convincing that it seems to work – for a while. So convincing that most people think that this is power. But it’s not: it’s an illusion, because empowerment comes only from the self, and cannot be ‘stolen’ once we understand what it is.

But plenty of people will try: hence violence is very popular… Violence is any means, in any form, by which the illusion of empowering the self is created by disempowering any ‘other’ – human or otherwise (such as kicking the cat). People who feel disempowered, or who fear – feel threatened with – potential or actual disempowerment, will usually seek to ‘export’ that fear or that sense of disempowerment to some other: this is perhaps the most common source of violence. The trouble then is that the person to whom that sense of disempowerment has been exported will themselves feel disempowered, and will usually go looking for someone else to pass it on to in turn. And because the aim of violence is to disempower, and disempowerment leads to a desire to export it to someone else, violence breeds violence – hence the cycles of violence we see all around us. In fact the only people who don’t go dumping it on someone else are those who genuinely are powerful, who have enough energy to spare to cope with the chaos – and precisely because of the confusion about the meaning of power, there aren’t that many of them around…

At this point it would be useful to have some way to distinguish between ‘illusory power’ and ‘real power’ – which is where we turn to Starhawk for advice. Feminist theorist, anti-war activist and influential leader of the women’s-spirituality movement, her model of power is a superb example of why feminism is so important to our understanding of human issues – and also of how the gendered blinkers of feminism can create new problems that confuse our understanding of those issues.

In Starhawk’s model, illusory power is ‘power-over’; real power is ‘power-from-within’. She also adds a third form of power, ‘power-with’, the kind of power we share in order to encourage each other to find our own power-from-within:

Power-over is linked to domination and control; power-from-within is linked to the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential. Power-with is social power, the influence we wield as equals. [3]

Power-over is thus an exact synonym for violence: to seek to have power ‘over’ others – as opposed to with others – is an act of violence. So far, so good: this seems exactly the same as we’ve seen above. But not quite: because she then proceeds to describe power-over as if it is primarily, if not solely, a male problem – power-over, she says, “is ultimately born of war and the structures, social and intrapsychic, necessary to maintain mass, organized warfare.” [4] This is the wrong way round – war is an expression of the habit of power-over, not the source of it. But because war is easily perceived as ‘male’ – something that men do – this description enables her to maintain that same curious amnesia about women’s violence that we saw before. For example, to seek to gain ‘power’ by inducing others to disempower themselves – such as through the artificial manufacture of guilt or blame – is a form of power-over, one that we might more accurately describe as ‘power-under‘. We could illustrate this with a well-known joke:

Little Arnie’s mother gives him two shirts for his birthday. Pleased, and hoping to please her, he goes upstairs to put one on. As he comes downstairs, a smile on his face, and the new shirt proudly displayed, she snaps, “All right, what’s wrong with the other shirt, then?”

Blame and ‘no-wins’ are classic forms of power-under. We can see that, almost by definition, power-under is non-physical, and thus hard to identify and easy to deny; it is, however, functionally identical to physical power-over, and likewise an act of violence. It’s also the form of violence which our culture condones in women – and in feminist writing, which in many cases consists of very little else. And it’s one of the reasons why feminism has achieved so little, despite all the anger and the rage: violence is not powerful, whether in men or in women, hence very little work is done…

The crucial difference between power-from-within and power-with on the one hand, and power-over and power-under on the other, is that the first are concerned with creating empowerment, and the second are concerned with creating disempowerment. But there are also kinds of ‘power’ that look like power-from-within and power-with that are concerned with disempowering others: the arrogant “God told me…”, for example, that feels like power-from-within; or getting together as a group to put someone else down. And there are even kinds of power that look like power-over and power-under which are concerned with empowerment: restraining someone who’s hurting themselves or others, for example, or the subtle twists that are often needed to help someone break free of a self-destructive habit. Taking Starhawk’s terms too literally can lead us into a tangle that’s worse than the one with which we started.

But we do need a clear distinction between real power and illusory power, between power that does work, and a ‘power’ that only gives the illusion of ‘ability to do work’. So I’ll cheat, and invent a term: ‘dispower’. Power, in a personal sense, comes from empowerment, and leads to empowerment both for self and (usually) for others; dispower comes from a felt sense of disempowerment, and leads to further disempowerment. Someone who creates ‘ability to do work, as an expression of choice’ – either in themselves or others – is powerful; someone who destroys it, for whatever reason, is ‘dispowerful’. It’s not wonderful as a word, but it works…

So power-from-within and power-with are powerful, in a real, practical sense; so are those strange empowering ‘power-over’ and ‘power-under’, but because of the risk of confusion I won’t use those terms in that sense again. The others are all dispowerful: we could call them ‘dispower-over’, ‘dispower-under’, ‘dispower-with’ and ‘dispower-from-within’. These are all variants of the same thing: Starhawk’s ‘power-over’ – the use of violence to create the illusion of power. The difference to Starhawk’s model is that the genderal blinkers have been removed: we can now describe transactions of power and dispower in human terms, without constantly being tripped up by gendered assumptions about power and disempowerment.

Not that gender should be forgotten. There’s no doubt that we do experience power and dispower very differently as a result of our gender – or rather of what our culture views as ‘right and proper’ for each gender: “… and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which Nature designed them”, and so on. (One of the saddest results of feminism, incidentally, has been the degree to which it has denigrated the very real power in parenting, in bringing up children and maintaining a home. It was bad enough when men were disparaging about ‘women’s work’ – especially as it was often a lot more actual work than ‘men’s work’ – but to have feminists do the same is particularly dispiriting…)

Any man in any doubt that many women at the very least feel disempowered by virtue of their gender should read some of the feminist classics, such as Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” or Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. But it’s noticeable that there’s been little acknowledgement of the enormous scale to which men are disempowered too by virtue of gendered assumptions [5]; and there’s been almost no understanding that, where men are violent, it’s not because they are powerful, but because they feel powerless – just like women. The standard method of ‘solving’ the problem of violence by ‘punishment’ – in other words further disempowering those who are already confused and disempowered – is not likely to be too successful… real solutions that do work in the real world have to be a bit more imaginative than the shallow niceties of ‘political correctness’ can manage.

Violence is a human problem. Everyone feels powerless at times: but although some people seem to make it a way of life to try to export their powerlessness to others, most of us do try not to, most of the time. And there’s a very good reason not to: violence gives only the illusion of power. Because it’s only an illusion, and not the real thing, it’s only transitory – the ‘high’ is followed by the crash as soon as reality returns. For people who fail to grasp that dispower is illusory, the result is that their dependence on violence to ’empower’ themselves becomes highly addictive: each time the illusion fades, the need to ‘re-empower’ will recur, leading to more and more violent action. And it only stops when someone truly is powerful, sharing their power-from-within as power with others, to break the cycles of violence.

When people assist each other in achieving empowerment, power – power-with – is created, seemingly from nowhere. Sometimes the power created in this ‘synergy’ – literally, a sharing of the same power – is greater than the apparent sum of ‘ability to do work’ that each person had – or thought they had. Everyone gains: a ‘win-win’. By contrast, when people seek to disempower each other, everyone loses.

And there are only two options: ‘win-win’, or ‘lose-lose’. Power is either created, or destroyed: there is no such thing as a ‘zero-sum’. The popular notion of ‘win-lose’ – that “it is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less” – is not only too simplistic, but fails to recognise that it’s actually a special case of ‘lose-lose’: so much effort is expended in avoiding being set up as the loser that no-one actually wins much, if at all… Much like violence, the gains from ‘win-lose’ are illusory, especially on the subtler levels: even when I win, it brings on the fear that next time, or the time after, will be the time that I become the loser…

Power and fear are inextricably interlinked; so are fear and dispower. “Where there’s power, there’s fear; where there’s fear, there’s power”: an old witchcraft saying, which Starhawk quotes in her books. [6] We create our power when we face our fears; or at least we stop wasting our energy on being frightened if we do so. And if we don’t, we feel more and more disempowered, and more and more restricted, oppressed, fearful – and then blame someone else that we feel afraid. Or try to pass on the fear to someone else – which is much the same thing. There have been all too many times in history during which men have been so afraid of women’s real inner power that they’ve kept women apart, isolated from each other, like dogs on leashes; now, according to ‘politically correct’ feminism, the same should be done to men. [7] But in neither case does it work: disempowering others is not powerful, it’s dispowerful – an illusion – and the more it’s promoted, the less ‘ability to do work’ there is available to rectify the problem.

All through this mess of a culture, people try to make others frightened, in the belief that those others will deal with their fears for them; or else manufacture fear, in the belief that it will make them powerful. It doesn’t work: it’s dispower, not power. The owner of the builder’s yard down the road keeps a dog to snarl at passers-by, in the hope that it will dump onto those others his fear of loss: it doesn’t work, because any serious burglar will know how to bypass the dog, but it does increase the fear of harmless passers-by. The self-styled ‘health-insurance’ company tries, in all its advertising, to manufacture fear of uncertainty in the state health system, so that it can increase its profits from extra sales: it only succeeds in increasing inefficiency in the use of limited resources, and creating an unnecessary fear of ill-health which cannot be resolved by unnecessary ‘insurance’. And the gun lobby, still promoting its own bizarre myths about ‘the right to bear arms’, or that ‘guns don’t kill people’, launch new sales campaigns to play on women’s fears of violence, in order to sell more guns that certainly do kill people – usually the gun-owners themselves… [8] Almost everywhere we look, our culture confuses dispower with power – a situation for which no-one, it seems, wishes to be responsible.

And yet responsibility is the key to the problem. Current feminism seems obsessed with avoiding responsibility, with laying the blame for all the world’s problems squarely and solely on the shoulders of men. Yet blame is not only an act of violence – it demands that another must go back and change the past, which no-one has the power to do – but is also dishonest. Blaming is a way of attempting to export responsibility, or fear of responsibility: but everyone is responsible for the evil of violence – even if only, as Terry Pratchett put it, “they accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no”. [9] And blame, perhaps surprisingly, is also self-disempowering: responsibility is ‘response-ability’, so to reject responsibility is also to reject the very real power interwoven with it. In acceding to our fear that we might have to work to resolve a problem, we blame others, claim that only others have the power to resolve the problem on our behalf: but in doing so, we deny ourselves the power, the ‘ability to do work’ – and then complain about it. It’s not exactly honest… and it’s futile, because no-one else can face our fears for us. Ultimately, the only person who has the power to face our fears is ourselves: and although others may help us, or hinder us, we alone have the responsibility to find that ‘ability to do work’ on our own fears.

To choose to be responsible for our actions, to be responsible for our own empowerment, is an act of maturity. It’s what distinguishes maturity from childishness: to deny responsibility for one’s own actions – including blaming as a means of exporting responsibility – is an act we would recognise as childish. “It wasn’t me that broke the plate”, said a friend’s young son, “it was my hand that did it. Abasson [an ‘imaginary friend’] told my hand to do it!” In the long years of parenting, we aim to discourage this attitude in children – only to have it reaffirmed in ‘adulthood’ by politicians and feminists, and others who want the illusion of power without responsibility. Hitler’s Nazis blamed the Jews for all the world’s ills; feminists such as Monica Sjöö and Marilyn French blame men in much the same way and with much the same dishonesty [10] – hence American talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s harsh but not entirely inappropriate term ‘feminazi’.

Blame is dispowerful: it provides the illusion of power at the same time as denying responsibility. It enables feminists such as Charlene Spretnak to promote the myth that “men are the problem; women are the solution” [11]; but because it is dispowerful, it actually makes it harder for women to be part of any solution… Such feminists demand that all men – and only men – should bear the blame and the guilt for the actions and inactions of all other people, past or present: but we can only be ‘response-able’ for our own actions – we can’t do much, if anything, about those which others arbitrarily assign to us, actions which we simply did not do. No-one has the power to be ‘super-responsible’ – to change the past, or to be responsible for anyone’s actions other than their own.

But in a characteristic double-think, feminists demand that men should indeed be ‘super-responsible’, all-powerful, to take the blame and the responsibility for all women’s problems, all women’s fears: and then complain either that women feel powerless, or aggrieved because – not surprisingly – men fail to succeed in their impossible tasks. The demands are childish; to attempt to resolve them on others’ behalf is futile, because some of the responsibility – not least the only source of power to face fear – always lies with the blamer, not the blamed.

Blame is futile: it doesn’t work. As a form of violence, it’s addictive – and like all addictions, it can easily escalate into something worse. When children fail to get their way, they change from blame to hatred: and feminism’s reliance on the myth of ‘the man you love to hate’ is legendary. Before we can move on, we must first dispell that myth – and, in the process, discover a means to distinguish between what is powerful and dispowerful in both feminism and masculism.

[1] This was used as an advertising slogan for the film “The Godfather III”.

[2] [Eldridge Cleaver? Che Guevara? One of the classic Marxist revolutionaries, anyway.]

[3] Starhawk, “Truth Or Dare”, p.9.

[4] Ibid., p.9.

[5] Both David Thomas and Neil Lyndon discuss this in some depth in their respective books: see especially chapter 1, ‘For What Is A Man, What Has He Got?’, and chapter 2, ‘This Working Life’, in Thomas’ “Not Guilty”, and the ‘Prologue’ in Lyndon’s “No More Sex War”; see also Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, for first-hand descriptions of the experience of maleness in a culture that is now almost fanatically anti-male.

[6] Starhawk, op. cit., p.9.

[7] Notice, for example, the ferocity with which men-only gatherings of any kind are attacked: as is illustrated by most of the articles in Hagan’s “Women Respond To The Men’s Movement”, feminists assume – in other words fear – that the sole purpose of these meetings is to disempower women. The fear is ‘exported’ to men by demanding that men should disempower themselves – which does not, however, of itself empower women…

[8] Naomi Wolf comments that women had become the fastest-growing segment of the firearms-buying public in the United States: by 1992, with the strong endorsement – or propaganda – of new magazines such as “Women & Guns” (which has a circulation of ‘several hundred thousand’) one woman in nine owned a handgun legally, and many more illegally – see Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, pp.230-5.

[9] Terry Pratchett, “Guards! Guards!”, p.302. Pratchett’s series of ‘Discworld’ novels often seem more like studies in human nature than off-the-wall fantasy: see especially his “Equal Rites”, which, as an essay on gender issues, is not only superbly observed but a great deal funnier than the usual approach to the problem!

[10] See Sjöö’s “New Age And Armageddon” and French’s “The War Against Women”: both of books these actively applaud blame and avoidance of responsibility in women, using a mish-mash of pseudo-academic ‘scholarship’, statistical subterfuge and emotive appeal to promote a factually untenable and deeply dishonest case.

[11] Spretnak, “The Politics Of Women’s Spirituality” (Anchor Books, 1992), p.554, quoted in Keen, “Fire In The Belly”, p.199.

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