Tag Archives: power

Seeking discomfort

One of the hardest things to do is wilfully challenge the ways in which you are comfortable. Yesterday’s blog – Seeking comfort brought up a comment about white poverty in the southern states of America, “Why do people so often assume that to be white means to have a privileged life?” I’ve been in this conversation quite a few times before. It makes people uncomfortable.

Privilege is relative, and not an absolute condition, you can have privilege in some ways and be massively disadvantaged in others. You can be dirt poor and better off than someone else who is dirt poor and of a minority religion, sexual identity or racial background. It’s not that white privilege means we white people all have it easy, it means there are people who, by dint of skin colour, have it harder than us. In just the same way, having straight privilege, or male privilege, or cis privilege or being mentally and physically well does mean you live a charmed life. It means you have a certain set of advantages that you may be taking for granted.

If you’ve never looked at how your life may advantage you in some ways, it tends to be an uncomfortable process. If you are invested in the idea of your disadvantage, it can be really uncomfortable looking at how realistic this is. There’s a lot of difference between being poor in a peaceful country that has a social safety net and being poor in a famine or a war zone. And of course there are some vocal young men out there on social media keen to get across the idea that middle class straight white boys are the most persecuted minority in the world. If you think being able to flag up how persecuted you are creates some kind of social advantage, of course you’ll want to persuade people you are the ‘real’ victim. That kind of behaviour can only come from a place of not understanding what it means to be disadvantaged.

Having our stories challenged is never comfortable. We all exist in contexts that involve other people, culture, history… we are all still implicated in what colonialism has done around the world and what capitalism does, and the exploitation and abuse these things involve. It isn’t comfortable. It’s much more comfortable to pretend you don’t benefit from the things you benefit from. It’s much easier not to look at how you fit in the bigger picture.

Being able to resist such discomfort by refusing to engage with it, is the biggest privilege there is. Being able to deny your position in your culture and history is a place of power. Those who are trapped by culture and history don’t get to pretend it isn’t happening to them and have that be an effective solution.

Willingness to be uncomfortable is necessary for change. If we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, we won’t work for fairness, or justice or equality. And if we’re making other people uncomfortable, it’s important to ask are we doing that by doubling down on what’s already hard for them, or are we doing it by pointing out where things might be better for them than they’ve acknowledged. If people are living in a state of discomfort, the right answer is to try and ease that where we can. If people are comfortable and oblivious to how much they have – they urgently need to feel uncomfortable. Most of us fall somewhere in between, advantaged in some ways and disadvantaged in others and better off when we can see how that works.

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Seeking comfort

Our soft mammal bodies crave comfort. Climate crisis is going to give us a hard time on that score as we struggle with extremes of heat and cold, drought and rain. Those who have least will be hurt most by this. Those who have most will wack on the air con, or the heater and add to the problems.

Some people lack for comfort because they don’t have enough food, or can’t afford enough. Protein and good quality fats are expensive. Our bodies don’t always seem able to tell the difference between the comfort of sufficiency, and the kind of excess that will bring discomfort. We did not evolve to deal with routine excess.

Rest is one of the most important comforts available to us, and hard to come by. Rest requires quiet, space and time in which to do very little and feel ok about that. We’re encouraged to have hectic ‘modern’ lifestyles that deprive us of rest, and then to seek comfort other places – by buying something. A sofa, alcohol, junk food, holidays… None of the things we buy when we are trying to offset insufficient rest will give us the comfort we need.

Emotional comfort goes to those who have most and are most conventional. To be straight and white, middle class, financially secure, well educated, and home owning represents a selection of comforts that may be invisible to the person who has them. To be queer, poor, working insecure jobs and living in insecure conditions is to be much less comfortable. Many of these things intersect with each other to make things worse. Add in ethnicity, and the stresses and vulnerabilities this involves in any white-dominated society, and there’s a lot to contend with.

We seek comfort, all of us. For those of us who are systemically kept outside the comfort zones, this can be hard going, or impossible. For those who have too much comfort, this can lead to lack of empathy and understanding for those who have less. It can result in feelings of having deserved to be comfortable and being entitled to be comfortable. Thus when the uncomfortable make themselves seen and heard, the comfortable often feel threatened by this.

Too much comfort can make a life stagnant and unsatisfying – we do all need some challenges and opportunities to grow and learn. Too little comfort is a problem on a whole different scale. To live a life with no padding, no insulation against setback, much less disaster, is hard. Every day. To face only challenges and seldom know respite is emotionally exhausting. To fight against people who have too much and don’t understand what their comfort means, or what it means not to have that, is relentless.

Those with the most, and with the greatest sense of entitlement are also those with the most power, and they tend to reinforce the status quo – not always consciously. If everything supports your comfort and ease, it must be really tempting to see that as the natural order of things, and to see those who have less as less deserving, even if you never consciously think in those terms. It’s not comfortable asking how your comfort relates to the discomfort of others. When you have the power to maintain your comfort at someone else’s expense, it’s very easy not to look at how that works.


Labels, power and identity

Labels are certainly useful when it comes to finding people you have stuff in common with. The Druid, Pagan and Steampunk labels have served me very well in that way. When we give ourselves those labels and seek other people who identify with them most of what happens is good.

Naming things is essential if you want to talk about them. Finding descriptions we can agree about isn’t always an easy process, and the more personal and emotive the things that need naming, the harder it gets. When people are on an even footing trying to find language to communicate, the inevitable bumps in this process are, I think, largely worth it.

However, labels can also be stuck to people as an act of power-over. To have the power to label someone is to have the power to over-rule their self identification and replace it with your own terms. This may be backed up by notions of being ‘academic’ or more informed or having authority based on your job, or other forms of seniority. However, when you take away a person’s right to name themselves and put a label on them, you reduce their power and assert your own. When that happens, the basis of the authority needs questioning.

Labels can also be refused and taken away. There’s always someone keen to say who isn’t a real Steampunk, Pagan, Druid, Briton, Jew, to tell disabled people they aren’t really disabled… to tell people they don’t look poor so they can’t be working class, that their gender identity doesn’t exist… It’s nasty stuff. As many of those examples flag up, it’s not just a name you lose when this happens – it may be state aid, the right to self expression, safety, and other essential things. Miss-labeling is so often where we start when we intend to strip people of other things as well.

If we aren’t on an equal footing when labels are being ascribed, then labels are something that are done to us. Politicians calling refugees migrants is a case in point. That’s a re-labeling with massive consequences. Think about the kind of language used to label the LGBTQ community, or the habit of less inclusive Christians to insist that all Pagans are Satanists. Miss-labeling tends to disappear something of who you are and replace it with who you are assumed to be. It can be anything from annoying through to life threatening, depending on the context. It’s definitely not something to take lightly.


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.)


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.