Tag Archives: power

What we enable

There’s a high profile man locally who makes a habit of putting hands on women and does not hear when women tell him they don’t like or want it. He tends to be a toucher of arms and shoulders, so a lot of people feel it’s no big deal. He doesn’t do it to men. I’ve talked to plenty of women who find it an uncomfortable invasion. I’ve also had a fair few people tell me (mostly, but not exclusively men) that this guy is ok because they think he means well and is harmless. I want to talk about the consequences of this.

Everyone should have the right to say no to being touched. Some of us are in pain and can be hurt by apparently innocent gestures. Some of us are dealing with the aftermath of trauma and can be triggered by unexpected or unwanted contact. Some of us just don’t want to be touched. The right of women to say no to contact – any contact – and have that heard and respected is fundamental to consent culture. When people decide that small infringements are ok, that a bit of ignoring consent is no big deal, it makes other infringements that bit easier.

If a woman tells you she doesn’t like a man persistently touching her, and you tell her why she shouldn’t mind, it has consequences. It makes it that bit harder to flag up worse encroachments. If you know that a person with enough power and status will be totally excused when he makes you uncomfortable, what support can you expect if he takes it further? What response is likely if you need to flag up serious abuse, bullying, harassment, groping and so forth from the same man, or another man? If there’s a culture of letting people off the hook, it’s harder to deal with bigger things.

As it happens, my local invader of space goes in for a lot of sexist behaviour, and mostly gets away with it. The touching is one facet of this, not the only issue.

In balance to this, I’ve had conversations with men who, when I’ve talked about this, have recognised that it isn’t ok and have had heard me out. I’ve talked to men who have questioned their own assumptions and beliefs, and reconsidered their own behaviour. Men who have been willing to be uncomfortable and realise that what they thought was fine, maybe wasn’t.

If you’re a man in a position of power, and you touch women socially, are you confident they feel able to tell you if they don’t like it? Have you ever asked them? Would you respect their wishes if they said no to it? Or would you, as a number of men have done to me, tell them why your social touching is ok and they should accept it?

‘It’s just…’

Except if it makes a person feel sad, anxious, insecure, afraid, imposed on, compromised etc, it isn’t a small thing. Just because the touch is no big deal for the person doing it, doesn’t mean it must also be no big deal for the person experiencing it. If we assume that a man’s experience of touching a woman is what defines the encounter (no big deal) we make no space for the fact that women are often having radically different experiences in the situation.

 

(This has been a rather gender binary blog, in part because this is a problem that most often occurs in the most hetronormative situations.)

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Too much responsibility

As a teen I really took on board the idea that we can only have freedom and power in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. On the whole, I’ve found that a useful approach to life. As with all things, you can end up with too much of it. Too much responsibility does not translate into too much power, or too much freedom. There’s a point somewhere on the scale when a lot of responsibility means a loss of power and a closing down of options.

If responsibility is taken by someone who does not have the means to deliver on it, there are going to be problems. Being given responsibilities in a job, or a relationship, but denied the resources to deal with those responsibilities, is a crushing thing.

There are things we definitely cannot and should not be made responsible for. Other people’s inner lives are a case in point. We are responsible for how we treat each other. We owe each other basic care and respect. We owe it to each other to listen and try to factor in each other’s needs and issues. However, too much responsibility for someone else’s feelings and thoughts puts you in a place of powerlessness and may be deeply harming. If I am kind, careful and respectful and it still isn’t enough… If it is my job to magically know what others want and need, without being told… If it is my job to twist myself in knots trying to give someone else what they want… responsibility becomes a noose around my neck. I’ve been here, and making a person this responsible for someone else’s feelings is a form of emotional control, and pretty abusive stuff.

Sometimes, if we take on too much responsibility, we deny someone else the opportunity to grow and flourish. Parents who try to do everything for their kids mean well, but do not allow their children to discover and own their own power. If we take on too much responsibility for someone else’s life, we can take power from them, undermine their dignity and sense of autonomy.

If we make ourselves responsible for things we cannot have any say in, we can drive ourselves mad. A person suffering from anxiety may feel that everything has to be perfect, even when many things are beyond their control. Not being able to make things perfect may cause a great deal of fear. On its own, this may seem preposterous, but when you factor in what happens to people when they are made responsible for things beyond their control, continuing with those expectations even after the situation has ended, is not so irrational. Who knows who else might want the same level of responsibility from you?

It is good to pause now and then and ask what we’ve shouldered, and whether we should still be carrying it.


Self policing and policing others

In any community, there are always people who want to police things. People who want to be gatekeepers and set standards and say who is allowed in and who is not good enough. It is of course a position of power to be able to force others out, or define the boundaries. To be the person whose version of ‘the right way’ becomes definitive is a powerful place to be. Are you doing folk music right? Is your take on Steampunk really Steampunk enough? Are you a proper Druid? Are you a real geek? Do you know enough to be entitled to call yourself a fan of X, Y or Z?

It’s bloody miserable stuff. Mostly what it creates is discomfort, drama, power struggles, resentment and an undermining of creativity and new thinking. I can’t think of a single example of someone trying to play gatekeeper in a community in this way where things have been better and happier as a direct consequence.

If you think there’s a right and proper way to do things, it is better to lead by example. Live your truth. Demonstrate why your way is good, or best, or the only possible way. People may or may not agree with you. We have the right to make our own rules for ourselves, that’s fine. We have the right to adopt the ways of doing things that we see and are inspired by. There’s nothing wrong with following, and everything wrong with being told that you have to follow.

If you really are right about things then it will be self evident and people will come onboard. If your ideas are brilliant and persuasive, exposure will be enough to persuade people. Anyone who has to bully and harass people into agreeing with them is not really demonstrating a belief in the intrinsic excellence of what they’re advocating.


Telling people to be grateful

While I’m largely in favour of practicing gratitude, I’m also interested in the ways it doesn’t always work. Telling people to be grateful can be one of those problem points. I see this as distinctly different from encouraging people to practice gratitude, which is fine. Broad encouragement pokes people towards looking at the good things in their life, appreciating them, voicing that appreciation and so forth. Telling people to be grateful has a very different swing to it. It’s come up recently with newspapers telling black people that they ought to be more grateful over their personal achievements.

If you’re telling someone to be grateful, it assumes you know what’s going on in their lives. They may not see their situation as being one where gratitude is an appropriate response. If you’ve worked your arse off to get somewhere against great odds, being grateful for the crumbs others have dropped is not a healthy response. If we make something positive out of disaster or tragedy, we should not be pressured to feel grateful for the awfulness that set things in motion.

If one party is telling another party what to do, it tends to indicate a massive power imbalance. Telling someone how they are supposed to feel is a way of invalidating their emotional responses. It can be a way of writing off a person’s experience, background, struggles and personal effort. Focusing on the need for gratitude can draw attention away from both the work a person has done, and the barriers they faced to getting to where they are. If people are achieving things in spite of prejudice, disadvantage, illness, poverty, lack of privilege… telling them to focus on what they should be grateful for is a way of taking power away from them. It says ‘don’t look at what you did, think of everything that helped’. And that isn’t always appropriate, or fair. Using the idea of gratitude to stop people celebrating their own achievements really isn’t cool.

Telling people they should express gratitude runs the risk of turning gratitude into an act of public performance. It can stop people from being authentic. It can stop people talking about the difficulties they’ve faced. For gratitude to be meaningful, it has to be felt. If instead, it is something we feel obliged to perform to avoid criticism, it becomes a very hollow, potentially toxic activity.

It’s always worth asking why it is we want a person to express more gratitude. What do we want them to shut up about? What do we not want to think about or deal with? What of theirs are we trying to own for ourselves?


Taking back power

Loss of power sounds like a dramatic thing, doesn’t it? You’d spot someone stealing your power, surely? This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last year, struggling to find the energy I need to do the things I both need, and want to do. I started to ask where my energy was going, and over time I realised that apparently small energy losses can add up to a very large power drain. Based on a mix of experience and observation, here are some examples of how power is stolen.

Time is the most precious thing. People who feel entitled to use up your time with their things, who offer nothing in return. Who don’t pay any attention when you tell them you are busy, or need to be somewhere else, or can’t do it right now. Just a few minutes day by day of taking your time to no good purpose can be quite the energy sapper. People who are always late and keep you waiting can steal a lot of time.

Asking for unpaid work. Asking that you stay on for just a little bit, or just do an extra thing – always presented as small and no big deal. Again, when this happens all the time, a great deal of time and energy is sucked up by it. Unpaid work that you didn’t volunteer for is basically theft. I’ve also seen this where people with more power slack off to make people with less power bear more of the load, thus taking even more power from them.

Demanding you do emotional labour can be a massive energy sapper. In a true relationship, people look after each other. You hear each other’s problems when they come along, you support each other, help each other figure stuff out. When one person demands support of another but gives nothing in return, they are stealing energy. When you say ‘I’m in a bad place right now and I can’t really help you,’ and they say ‘sorry to hear that, but here’s my problem in great detail, what do you think about my problem? Let’s talk about me and my problem’ there’s power theft going on. People who pester if you say no, and use up more time and energy if you try to resist than they would have if you’d gone along with them, need avoiding as far as possible.

People who make you feel responsible for their problems can be exhausting to deal with. People who keep having the same problems, doing all the same things, totally ignoring all advice but still expecting emotional support, are exhausting to deal with. I’ve had this one in combination and it took me years to find the resolve to step back and not get snared in it.

When a person is in crisis, things can become unbalanced for a while. There’s no problem in that, because we all have times when we’re in trouble and we should all have time to at least listen to each other when things are tough. However, people who are attention hungry, who need to be at the centre of all things at all times, manufacture drama, inflate problems, and ignore clear signs that they’re asking too much. If you’re wired up to take care of people, inclined towards healing or nurturing, this can suck up your life.

It’s worth doing a sort of energy stock take every now and then, I’ve realised. Pausing to look at what happens, and where your energy goes, who uses it and what they do with it. I find if I’m putting energy into something or giving it to someone, and good things happen, I don’t experience it as a drain at all. What wears me down is when my energy is taken, but nothing changes. When I’m given make-work to do, or badly directed so that my work is useless. When my advice is constantly ignored yet I keep getting asked for advice on the same problems over and over again, that grinds me down.

I find it difficult saying no to people. But, I’ve learned the hard way that if I keep saying yes to people who steal my time and energy, I end up drained and useless, with my self esteem through the floor.


Being attention hungry

I tend to be critical in my posts on drama, and attention seeking behaviour. I find it exhausting to deal with and I don’t feel much empathy for people who need to generate drama in order to be in the middle of things all the time, so I have challenged myself to try and look at this from some different angles.

Being attention hungry is a real thing. It can have deep roots going back into childhood. The need for affirmation can be all about low self esteem and lack of confidence. My answer to this comes from parenting – which is to reinforce the behaviour you want to see. Validate someone when they aren’t doing drama and you can change everything. Give people space and opportunity to prove themselves in other ways and they may not need to do drama at all. It definitely works with small children.

There’s an emotional intensity to drama. If life seems dull, thin and narrow, then drama can be an antidote to banality. People can end up creating it because they crave interest and excitement. That same intensity and excitement can draw people in who claim not to even like drama – I’ve certainly been that person. The answer is to find real stimulation and value, because drama tends to be empty, hollow and unsatisfying.

Just because it looks like drama to me, from the outside, doesn’t mean I’m right. I may have a poor grasp of what’s going on. I may not understand the significance of events, someone else’s triggers, how much they had invested, how much is at stake and so forth. I should not be too quick to discount other people’s problems. It may be more honest to say that I’m sorry but I just don’t have the spare energy right now, rather than making my inability to help the responsibility of the other person.

It may be that the person I’m dealing with feels very small and very powerless, and whipping up drama they are in the centre of is how they cope with this. If I support the drama, I may reinforce the idea that only drama makes them important or powerful. I should look at how I am treating them outside of drama situations and see if I can improve things there.

It may be that the person doing drama has learned growing up that this is the best way to get attention, or get things done. They may have learned habits of thought and behaviour from family members, or soap operas. If I get cross or upset with them over the drama, I can only feed into the drama and keep it attractive. I may be able to protect myself by very quietly withdrawing my energy from the situation. If I’m dealing with learned behaviour, then I need to model the behaviour I want to see rather than enacting the drama and then wondering why it won’t go away.

The problem could be one of perspective. People who have spent their lives in relative ease, privilege and comfort can get upset about things the rest of us find it hard to make sense of. If you expect life to be hard sometimes, then you just knuckle down and deal with the tough bits. If you expect it to all go effortlessly your way, then you may have no ability to cope when it doesn’t. Fragile egos, first world problems, and no perspective can have people whipping up drama around minor incidents because they don’t know how small their shit is. People who say they are triggered when they are uncomfortable, and so forth. Sucking up time and energy because of privilege isn’t cool, but education can be a slow process, and often an unwelcome one.


Disability and loss of power

Disability is a loss of power. At the most obvious level, it is the loss of scope to do what is considered normal in the way the majority are able to do it. That in turn often creates a loss of opportunity. For many people, disability means poverty, it means a massive disadvantage in terms of economic power. It can also mean a loss of social power, as a result of being excluded or ignored. It can mean people feeling entitled to act in positions of power over you – speaking for you, telling you what’s best for you, what you need, what you are allowed and how much the healthier consensus folk are willing to budge to accommodate you.

What makes this extra difficult is that it can’t all be fixed. There are some disabilities that will keep you powerless and outside of things no matter how good the infrastructure is. If your problems are extreme and continuous, the loss of power can be absolute. There are times when we may need people to speak for us and to make decisions for us – for myself, if I’m deep in a panic attack, I often need other people to do things for me in the short term. To speak and act for me until I can speak and act for myself again. And then to give me that power back. To be unable for a while does not mean being unable forever, and if we don’t recognise how shifting these experiences can be, we take more power from people.

If we’re interested in inclusivity, then the power issues need considering. How do we give more power to a person who has lost power in this way? Listening is important. Being willing to hear what changes would help rather than being unwilling to inconvenience ourselves. The power to not be inconvenienced by change is a power held by people for whom everything is working just fine already. The experience of being exiled because nothing will change is a loss of power.

Speed is often a problem. Simply allowing people more time to respond, to deal with things and so forth can make a lot of odds. Many disabilities impact on people’s energy levels, their personal power and scope to get things done. Making a person move at a pace that they can’t move at further takes power from them.

We need to be alert to economic powerlessness, or the things we are doing become hobbies for the comfortable, and we can have no real communities. Poverty is not always visible or self announcing. Those who are not in poverty can have real trouble imagining what poverty means. Again, the people with the power are often in a position to ignore the problems of the people with no power, and to put their convenience ahead of inclusion.

If you have the power to exclude people by not trying to accommodate them, you have the power in a situation. Too often, people struggling for the means to participate are treated as though they have all the power, as though rights afforded to them mean a loss of power for everyone else. Accommodating someone is not a loss of power. Giving someone else the means to participate is not a loss of power to the majority, and it should not function to exclude anyone else. Too often, those who have power mistake being asked to empower others for being disempowered, and that’s not what’s going on.

It is so important to look properly at who has power and who does not. It is so important to know what kind of power we have and how that power impacts on others.


The study of power

To my mind, anyone interested in the idea of magic should be interested in the nature of power. Actual power as it manifests in the world. If you want to use power – however supernatural that aspiration might be, you need to know how power works. It is worth investing time in the study of real world power.

The ways in which some people have power over others are many, and often profoundly unethical. The power to make someone do something against their will is a pretty evil thing, when you stop to consider it. And yet, hard wired into many of our relationships with professional people is just such a power imbalance, because we accept that they know best what it is that we need.

When a child is first born, they need everything doing for them. They are absolutely vulnerable, and entirely at the mercy of those choosing on their behalf. As children grow, they become ever more able to take control of their lives. How long do adults keep telling them they know best? It’s not always a negotiated exchange, and it runs through to legal and political decisions that are made for children without their consent. Much the same can be said of power relationships with adults who are deemed unable to decide for themselves.

The power of money to influence us. The power of advertising to shape our desires and dreams. The power of television to tell us what kind of behaviour is normal. The power of the media to tell us what we should be angry about. The power of big business to shape our lives. The power of society around us to shame and exclude us if we stray too far from what TV has told us is normal and the papers have told us we should be angry about…

To study power is to study the language of power. It’s those who have the right words at their command who can work with the law. It’s those whose education gives them the right language who can access the best jobs. It is words that crawl into our heads from adverts, TVs, songs, films, newspapers to tell us who and how we are supposed to be.

And sometimes it is the absence of words, the silence when you can’t say you are gay, or a witch, or a vegan and so forth without fear of ridicule and worse. If you need to be silent to be safe, then there are things to know about how power works in your life.

The words you use, the words you are not allowed, the labels you wear, the titles you seek – these are all questions of power. If you want to use power on your own terms, it is as well to know how power already works within your life.


Pagan Community and predators

I’ve written plenty of posts critiquing aspects of the modern Pagan community, so I’m going to try henceforth to find more productive approaches. What can we do to mature as a community? How can we do a better job of things?

One of the underlying problems is the attraction and repulsion authority creates in Pagan circles. None of us wants to be told what to do. None of us wants there to be an outfit with the power to police their practice. However, it’s a different matter when some other Pagan is doing it wrong and we want someone to police their practice and make them stop. I’ve certainly been there and I know I’m not alone. Policing only works by consent, (leaving aside situations where policing is rooted in force)and it isn’t something we, as a set of people, are likely to consent to.

We don’t have collective approaches to witchwars, or to situations of genuine misconduct and we have no collectively strategy for telling one from the other. Obviously, an abuser is going to claim they are the victim of a witchwar. Obviously, anyone undertaking bitchraft is going to try and make out they are responding to a situation of someone else’s misconduct. I wish there were parallel Druid words for this, because it certainly isn’t a problem exclusive to witches! We don’t have anyone with the authority to step in and make a call, to investigate, or do anything else that might help us collectively deal with community problems.

If we insist that misconduct, bullying and other abuses of power are individual problems, then we are not a functioning community. We are leaving our least informed, least powerful, most vulnerable people open to predation. To function well as a community, we need ways for dealing with the problems that invariably arise between people. Scope for power and income attracts people who want power and money. Holding power can enable abusers to operate unchallenged. It happens in politics, in business, in celebrity circles and in other religions. We are not magically immune.

So, what can we do?

Firstly, if someone is accused of acting in a criminal way, support and encourage the victim to report it to the actual police. Fear of making our community look bad must always be less important than dealing with the problems. If you ever catch yourself wanting to protect Paganism by covering something up, remind yourself about how well that’s gone for the Catholic Church.

If there is, or appears to be a problem, encourage people to collect evidence – screen shots, for example. Write down the day, and if you can, the time things happen, write down exactly what was said. Keep those notes. You can show them to the police. Detail is key in proving that someone is out of order. Small acts of infringement may not be of interest to the police, but a record of dozens of them over months could well be.

Always look for the power balance. Abuse always involves a power imbalance, although that might not be easy to see at first glance. It is practically speaking very difficult to bully or use someone who has power over you. It is very easy to bully or misuse someone you have power over. We come back to the attraction and repulsion of authority here, because while Pagans can be really resentful of authority, we love our gurus as much as any other group does, and when we’ve set someone up as important, we can be reluctant to see what’s out of order.

It is a commonly held assumption that any sensible person will just get out of a bullying situation. It is important therefore to understand why people stay, and that staying is about vulnerability, not consent. People stay because they’ve been given reasons to fear leaving. They stay because gaslighting has damaged their ability to make good judgements. They stay because their self esteem is so trashed they don’t think they can find anything better. Victims can be surprisingly defensive of their abusers. If it takes someone years to get out or speak out, this does not undermine their claims.

As it stands, we may not have community solutions to community problems, but we don’t have to turn a blind eye to them. Be prepared to notice, to listen, to take seriously and if needs be, to take sides. Remember that to do nothing is not a neutral position, it means you are effectively supporting the abuser, if there is one. Sometimes there are two sides to a story, two people or groups, or more, equally responsible for the shit storm they’ve brewed up. Sometimes, there aren’t two sides, there’s someone lying and abusing, and someone suffering.

For some people, Paganism, magic, ritual and roles within the community are always going to look like opportunities for power. For a minority, that can play out as getting money, sex, influence or the freedom to hurt people. So, if you see someone wielding a lot of power, ask what that power serves. Does it serve the gods, the land, the community? Or does it serve the person wielding it?


Controlling the movement of people

For the mediaeval serf, movement wasn’t an option unless your Lord moved you. If you didn’t like how your feudal master behaved, you could not vote with your feet. You had to stay where you were put, and live and work there your whole life. You could be moved of course if you were marched into a war, but you wouldn’t get any say in that, either.

These days we don’t need permission from Barons and Counts to move around – at least not within the countries of our birth. We generally need permission to move country, and countries want to control who can move where. Young, qualified, able bodied people are more welcome than others. The rich are always welcome to move and the poor are discouraged. Unless we need them for something. Plenty of industrial projects have been built on the backs of very poor workers. From the Irish navvies digging the canals to the modern Eastern European fruit picker, those with power like to move those with less power about to work for them.

It’s not so very different to the mediaeval model. Companies replace baronies, and the scales are bigger, but the effects are much the same. Now if you want to change country it’s not a baron who needs to write a letter of consent, but a company that will employ you.

We’re told it’s for our own good, and our own safety – to make sure we don’t have too many, and that we have the ones who are needed, and to keep the dangerous ones out. Our mediaeval peasant friends were told that it was about eliminating vagrancy and crime, and it meant there wouldn’t be rough, unruly people from other places coming into their place and making it all worse. Nothing much changes.

Much of the terror we experience in the west is home grown. We’re encouraged to think it sneaks in across borders to attack us from outside – something other, that we could keep out if we tried hard enough. Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans than by anyone from ‘away’. We’re more likely to die to air pollution, traffic accidents, heart attacks and our own lifestyle choices than we are to a terrorist.

Freedom of movement can really undermine exploitation. If workers can move, then screwing someone poorer becomes that bit harder. It can help people remove themselves from wars – which are generally harder to sustain when no one is there to fight. It can help people get out of toxic systems, and escape persecution. Freedom of movement has the potential to be a source of good for the vast majority of us. It’s never been popular with feudal overlords because it undermines their power.