A Thought Adventure

Monday, October 12, 2015

9. On Power

Let me start by clarifying what I mean by power.

Like psychiatrist Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving, I see power--in the sense of having a measure of control over our immediate environment--as necessary for both our physical and our psychological survival. Defined as being able, competent and significant enough to feel that we count in our interactions with others, power is in my view a primary motive of human behavior. I even call the need for it a fifth instinct, by which I mean a self-preserving impulse as indispensable to us as the four instincts we share with the other species: to feed and breed, flee and fight in the face of danger (the Four Fs). Or, as psychologist Rollo May puts it, “Power is the birthright of every human being.”

So adamant do I think it is for us to have power in this basic sense that, if lost, our drive to regain it will never stop but grow insatiable and threaten to destroy both others and ourselves. When coining the expressions ‘saving’ and ‘losing face,’ (face meaning an individual’s prestige, honor, reputation), the Chinese certainly knew the importance of personal power. In the movie The Help it’s a black person, interestingly enough, who is most keenly aware of it. As the nanny of a plump little white girl whose mother rejects her, this woman insists that the child repeats after her, not only every night at bedtime but several times a day, "You is important!"

How do we get that life-saving power? When we're newborn it comes naturally, because then we know how to trumpet our needs loudly enough to have them fulfilled. But as we grow and must contend with similar needs in others, it becomes more problematic. That's when we begin to realize that power is an ambiguous concept.

Primary and secondary power
There are two major kinds of power, inner and outer. I can be strong enough within myself to gain both the self-respect and the respect from the community that I need. I can also be strong because something outside of me assists me in obtaining that respect. When I draw on my own resources (knowledge, experience, personal qualities, self-reliance), I've got primary or inner and genuine power (Indian writer Deepak Chopra calls it 'self-power'). When I rely on external props (anything from a famous name, an impressive title or great wealth to buddy networks, laws or weapons), I’ve got secondary or borrowed and compensatory power (what Chopra calls 'power of agency').

Primary power maintains itself without support from the outside and can’t help attracting cooperation from others, whereas secondary power needs to pressure others, whether subtly or palpably, to conform to its will. Says Mencius, Chinese philosopher in the 4th century BCE: "When men are subdued by force, they do not submit in their minds, but only because their strength is inadequate. When men are subdued by power in personality they are pleased to their very heart's core and do really submit."

It's important to keep in mind that the two kinds of power, though mutually exclusive (or because of it!), are dynamically related. The need to borrow power to be able to make others do our bidding is directly proportionate to our inability to muster up subtler means of persuasion. Let's not forget that when it comes to inner, primary power women have a huge advantage over men thanks to society's different view of femininity (something innate in a woman) from its view of masculinity (something a man must must earn).

The reason why men don’t stop accumulating compensatory power--yet never seem to get enough of it--is that no amount of external strength can ever still the desire for inherent strength. There simply is no way gratifying ego needs will ever gratify the deeper needs of the psyche as a whole. This doesn't mean, however, that men don't have all kinds of primary power too and avail themselves of it in their work; it just means that they don't rate it as highly as the use of props inluding force

Gender-biased power
Since throughout history women have mostly exercised power person to person (as mothers and wives), theirs has been a primary or ‘soft’ (=unforced) kind of power. As runners of the social machinery, men, by contrast, have mostly wielded a secondary or ‘hard’ (=forced) kind of power, one that in a purely material sense is often formidable thanks to the many coercive measures at its disposal. In a psychological sense, however, as Fromm points out, it is not a strength at all but an impotence. 

The reason we can say that women have as much impact on society as men is that soft power affects people directly, through their emotions. And since the most impressionable people are children, those most influenced by it are tomorrow’s men and women. This kind of power works from one person to another, often without intermediaries or outer props; it communicates by setting examples, sometimes even without words using only facial expressions and body language. If skillfully handled, very little of it goes a long way. Because for all the respect we tend to pay to the more conspicuous outer power, it has no more influence over us than inner power. 

Or to quote 18th century author Oliver Goldsmith, ”How small of all that human hearts endure/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”

Today things are changing. Gone are the days when women had no other outlet for their potential than the family and so, hopefully, are the days when men used up all of theirs outside of the family. But to get to a future free of gender bias we must begin by asking how we arrived at it. Which takes us over to my theory of how men got saddled with their inferiority complex, and to why I assume it happened in a matriarchy. See next post.

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