I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our society has a tremendous reliance on power built in.by
I’m not talking about electricity here, although it’s particularly important to the operation of our society on pretty much every level. Electricity, and the ability to produce it, basically determines how prosperous your society and its individual members can be, on average. In any society, slight differences in ability or starting position can make huge difference in the long run. Big differences in those same areas can increase those disparities by orders of magnitude.
And that’s the kind of power, fundamentally, I’m talking about. Even if the electrical kind, however generated, is critical to our overall and individual success, the actual operation of our society requires the other kind of power, at least the way we’re set up.
Let’s start with a little disclosure. For those of you don’t know, I am a straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged male. I reek of privilege. In fact, the only way I could have more of it is if I were also Christian, a discussion for other times. The point is more that, by my very existence, I have a certain amount of power in our society just because of what I am. That starting point, that very nature, those things that I am, have certainly granted me in life free passes I shouldn’t have, power where it isn’t deserved, and a head start in life over a lot of people.
It will also make it more difficult for some of you to believe that I am loath to exercise power almost in any way.
Really. I don’t like giving specific, detailed direction, I don’t like giving orders, and I don’t like making decisions for other people. If our particular power dynamic, and if any kind of relationship exists between us, there is one, places you and I in relative positions where I can do that, please believe me when I say that I will try really hard not to unless you tell me it’s exactly what you need.
So, power. Our society, whether any particular part of it wants to admit it or not, is extremely hierarchical. Our government, pseudo-democratic as it may be, is the most visible demonstration of that when you look at media. Our economy is driven by organizations, from the smallest to the largest, that almost all have clear hierarchies, clear expressions of power dynamics. Someone reports to you, you report to me, I report to someone else, who probably still reports someone else. Everyone is responsible to someone, although not everyone considers it as responsibility.
We can talk about the authorities, by which we usually mean law enforcement, but, in different contexts it can mean different things, like the government-owned corporation that probably delivers your water if you live in an urban center, like your local electric company, like the police and the military, like the policy analysts working for the government who figure out how things affect people, like your HR department.
There are a lot of people out there who study power structures and hierarchies and know a lot a lot more than I do. Maybe you’re one of them. I’m not trying to answer big questions with this post and I only know and understand what I’ve experienced, inferred, analyzed, read on my own. And that experience, limited as it is to one person, tells me that human beings seem to default into hierarchies because it’s comfortable, and easy, and, for most of the people involved, requires less thought and effort. It’s easier to accept direction than it is to be actively involved and intellectually contribute to what’s going on around you.
There’s a quote from one of Hitchhikers books, I forget which one, exactly, but I’m sure somebody will let me know if they want to: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.” Okay, not a direct correlation, but similar in principle. And isn’t it what hierarchies come down to? Maximum return for minimum effort for the majority of the people involved in the hierarchy? If I outsource my thinking and decision-making someone else, does that make my life easier?
Whether or not that’s the case, it is a fact of life, of existence, that there are power structures and fluctuating dynamics in every organization and relationship. Personal, professional, political.
Now, my experience suggests that there is Artie a certain amount of power inherent to the existence of any individual, and certain predetermined factors that I had nothing to do with initially have put me in a generally superior position. The nature of my personality has, once I began to show some maturity in my 20s, generally pushed me to seek out bigger, more interesting, and sometimes more intricate, challenges. That has often, particularly in the second half of my 40s pushed me into positions of greater authority and power professionally. If fact, that drive for greater challenges has pushed me to the second tier of power in reasonably large business, one that I’m responsible for about a third of. If I follow a direct line, there are only four steps between where I’m sitting and the person who actually runs the company.
And yet I hate wielding any kind of power directly. Matching that up with my personality makes me wonder how I got here. I like discussion rather than direction, consensus rather than ruling by fiat. Raising my children, I’ve tried to save the dad voice to interrupt a clear and present danger and once I have their attention, we talk.
So every morning, and throughout the course of the day, I ask myself questions that boil down to using the power I have effectively. How can I make things better for the people I’m responsible for? How can I make things better for my family, especially considering the position I’ve risen to at work? Is this thing I’m trying to accomplish going to be a good thing?
And, I suppose, where do I go from here?
Be well, everyone.