Check Your Power

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I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that I try to stay politically engaged, even though I’m sure there’s more I could be doing to make the world a better place. (Although really, the sheer number of orgasms I’ve been a proximate cause to has to be worth something, right?) The point is, I see a lot of stuff when people talk about both ‘little p’ politics and ‘big P’ Politics about injustices, unfairnesses, and general cruelty. And I’ve kind of come to a conclusion that I want to share. Because I think if more people understood it, the world would be a better place.

My conclusion is this: People really get off on exerting control over others, and we’re really really good at coming up with justifications for it.

That’s it. It’s that simple.

When you look at the human condition through that lens, a lot of things that seem irrational or absurd begin to make a lot of sense. From pro-lifers who also block women from getting IUDs, to businesses that treat their employees as expendable even though the costs of training a replacement outweigh the costs of paying a living wage, to a justice system that treats it as perfectly reasonable that locking someone in a box for five years is going to teach them how to better manage their anger so they won’t get into fights anymore… hell, even the reaction to Paris Hilton is on some level driven by irritation at a woman who is outside of all the normal structures society uses to exert control over them.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying this is a sex thing. (I’m also not not saying it’s a sex thing.) But there is a powerful emotional charge that comes from exerting control over other human beings, one that we very rarely are asked to think about or interrogate within ourselves. It feels good to have power, it feels good to have a tangible demonstration of that power, and it feels good to know that we have more power than the other people in our environment and that they don’t have power over us. On the rawest, most basic level, that’s a truth.

And one of the more important psychological concepts that’s come out of the last fifty years is the idea that we don’t necessarily follow a path of logic to a conclusion so much as we come to a conclusion that serves our emotional needs and then construct a chain of justifications that allows us to believe that what we’re doing is reasonable. The simple and silly versions are things like, “Oh, I took the stairs today, so I deserve that extra donut,” but it’s present in a lot of our social structures once you start looking for it. People find the contradictions between what they think they want to do (get my students to pay attention to the lecture) and what they actually want to do (berate my students because making them feel small and powerful makes me feel better about myself) and uses justification as a tool to paper over the joins (my students are unruly and this is the only way to get their attention).

The truth is, punishment is always a terrible motivator. This isn’t just me saying this, there’s reams of research to prove it. Cruelty and abuse don’t get people to do something, they get them to avoid the cause of the cruelty and abuse. Smacking your kid for lying doesn’t teach them to tell the truth, it teaches them to become a better liar. Rewards are always superior to punishments… but top to bottom, side to side, every system you look at from the classroom to the courtroom to the boardroom is built on the fear of punishment. Why? Because the people who maintain that system get off on exerting control.

And while certainly a system that rewards exerting control attracts people who get off on exerting control, it’s a huge mistake to think that the people at the bottom are immune to those temptations. The middle manager exerts control over their underlings to relieve the stress of being shouted at by the CEO, the bottom guy on the totem pole takes it out on his wife or kids, and the kid plays a video game to at least be in control of something in their life. (Thankfully, pixel people don’t have feelings to hurt.) And when the order of things is reversed, it just leads to different people taking control. During the Communist Revolution in China, the landlords were oppressed just as brutally by the peasants as the peasants were oppressed by the landlords. Putting new people in charge is not the solution.

The solution, and it’s one of those boring incremental things that has to be done person by person and day by day, is mindfulness. It’s being aware of the power you exert, and checking your uses of that power to ask yourself, “Is this something I’m really doing because it’s going to make the situation better? Or is this something I’m doing because I enjoy the feeling it gives me to yank someone’s chain a little?” And that may involve a lot of introspection, it may involve learning how to really interrogate your motives and thinking not just twice, but three or even four times about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It may involve having to recognize that you’re not always as good as you think you are, which is never fun but which is always necessary if you want to get better.

And it’s also teaching other people the same lessons. Obviously, we’re kind of constrained a little by the incremental nature of the change; you’re probably not going to enjoy what happens when you say to your angry, red-faced, screaming boss, “Are you mad because I won’t work late, or because you’re frustrated by the limits of your power over me?” But when you can, talk to people about this. Help them recognize the situations where they hold power, and the ways that they can avoid abusing it. Ideally, someday, this would be something they taught in schools as early as possible, just like reading and writing. How to Be Emotionally Aware and Coping Strategies to Deal With Difficult Feelings.

Ideally, taught by a very calm, friendly teacher who rewards their students for getting it right.

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