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Uncomfortable Essay #3: Taking a look at "Power"

“Power” was to be a simple essay, but during the week as I was gathering my thoughts I read a new book by a well-known peace advocate, and the writing complicated my thinking on the topic.

For this essay, I had in mind a simple recollection of a workshop I had attended over 20 years ago. It was a simple organizing workshop where the organization I was working with was in a minority, but vying to become the majority through a representation election.

The workshop leader that evening was discussing different kinds of power. There are many sources of power, he said. There is the power that comes with authority: for instance, the employer has the right to employ, or to fire, an employee. Or there is the power that comes with access to or control of information: “I know more than you”. Dictators are very nervous about an educated populace. There is power that comes with the purse: “I have the money and you don’t”. And being “father” – is an age-old title conveying power.

Taking the time, the list of power identifiers could be lengthened considerably. Some years ago for instance I recall looking at a large painting of a Danish royal family in the royal palace in Copenhagen, Denmark. Tiny Denmark once was one of the world’s most powerful countries. The guide told us that the Danish King had many daughters, and shrewdly married them off to powerful people in other places, thus accruing power through family relationship.

Back to the long-ago workshop: the speaker came to the final power which, he said, applied most directly to we, who were out of power. It’s called referent power. “Referent power”? Think the word “reference”. Referent power is what he called the likeability factor. It is the power of relationships within a community of people, and exercised prudently it transcends all of the other powers.

There aren’t many kings in this world. The vast majority of us are ordinary individuals. Powerful people know they are hopelessly outnumbered, and thus need to strategize to keep the rest in their proper submissive place.

Referent power has huge possibilities for the peace and justice community, but only possibility.The powers flowing from control of money, information, and the like are coveted by the Peace and Justice community, but elusive and very likely largely unattainable: ours are not the constituencies of money, etc. Yet we continue to seek entrees into these areas, and cultivation of our natural base seems to be only a second priority. Part of this is natural: why seek 1000 donors giving $1 each, when you might find someone who’ll give $1000? It saves a lot of work. But, I ask, what about those 1000 small owners who, once enrolled, could collectively make a huge difference, far in excess of the difference that single $1000 donor could make by him or her self? (I use money here, only as an example.)

In the seven years I’ve been around the peace and justice community there has been a huge shift in public attitude towards the never-ending wars which officially began with the bombing of Afghanistan in October, 2001. Back then, according to polls at the time, 94% of Americans generally approved of the violence against Afghanistan. The President had over 90% approval ratings shortly after 9-11.

The latest opinion polls are as close to the reverse of those 2001 figures as it is possible to get. Americans are sick and tired of everything about the wars. They want change. It would seem that referent power, which so championed War in 2001, would now be as vigorously championing peace, and the war would end.

Paradoxically, the violence continues. The visible participation in things like marches seems to have decreased very markedly. Energy has seemingly been replaced with resignation. What has happened? I don’t pretend to know. In fact, the answer might be complex. But it seems a bit more than simply a cyclical malaise.

In reading the previously referenced book I found an insight, perhaps unintended by the writer.
The book referenced a substantial list of international ‘heavy-hitters’ for peace and justice: household names for any of us who act for peace and justice. All were friends of the writer, and seemed to be his mentors and support system.

But these personalities came across to me as members of a pretty exclusive and possibly even lonely club, separated from the masses whose cause they so valiantly championed. They seemed closer to each other than they were inclusive of the necessary ‘referent’ masses of people who shared their common vision. This wasn’t necessarily their doing. They were possibly viewed as a cut above those masses: more gifted in their ability to speak, to write, more courageous or able to sacrifice their all. Perhaps the people who listened so attentively to their talks; or so admired their writing style, or their courageous actions, were disabled by the feeling that they could not possibly make even a small difference as individuals or in small groups.

Very possibly, people do want to be led: to be told what to do. I recall a commentator saying publicly, at the time of 9-11: “I’d follow a raised donut”. He probably meant it. When you're not sure what to do, you might prefer having someone else to take the responsibility for decisions.

If I'm right, this is just one more dilemma for the leader to think about: how to construct a movement filled with leaders, rather than dependent on a few high profile ones at local, regional, state or international levels.

Every person can be a leader, and has to be truly empowered and sent forth to take that leadership role, if only with two others.

Uncomfortable Essay #4, on Communicating on or about November 1, 2008.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 15, 2008 12:32 PM.

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