In this episode, we’re discussing Power! This is part 3 of 3, finally! The Co-Host is Ian, not currently findable!
The next episode will be a summary of the last five topics.
Transcript of the Elec-ture, below.
This is Under the Umbra: Using Empathy and Collaboration to Navigate a World of Shadows. In each episode, Electra and the co-hosts explore ways to think about and plan for difficult relationships with people and systems in a way that stays grounded in values and centers community. I invite you to try out focusing on Empathy and Collaboration as a realistic and compassionate model for interpersonal interactions. If you find yourself Under the Umbra, let’s find our way back to the light!
Support the show via Patreon.com Thanks to all my Patrons: Ian, Cali, Stacie, Roz, Kat and Hans! Extra thanks to KC and Ellery in the More, Responsive Tier! Thanks to the folks who provided mutual aid to me this month (and there’s some overlap because people are amazing): Liza, Molly Beth, Evan, Dan and Praj, Alison, Elissa and Ben, Ed and Emily
This podcast was created, recorded, edited and produced by me, Electra, and brought to you by Bridge to Becoming LLC. Music is by SoulProdMusic on Pixabay and used with permission. Show art is by Lo Carter, 2023. Subtitle crafted by Vera!
OK so this is a 2200 word essay, just about. Buckle in!
POWER IS GAINED AND MAINTAINED THROUGH A FOCUS ON OTHERS
Handling the power paradox depends on finding a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people. [We evolved several other-focused, universal social practices that bring out the good in others and that make for strong social collectives. A thoughtful practitioner of these practices will not be misled by the rush of the experience of power down the path of self-gratification and abuse, but will choose instead to enjoy the deeper delights of making a lasting difference in the world. These social practices are fourfold: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories. All four of these practices dignify and delight others. They constitute the basis of strong, mutually empowered ties. You can lean on them to enhance your power at any moment of the day by stirring others into effective action.
THE ABUSES OF POWER
[....] It isn’t just the wealthy and famous who can be undone by the seductions of power; it’s any one of us at any moment. To lose focus on others can lead to empathy deficits and the loss of compassion, impulsive and unethical action, and rude and uncivil behavior. When we are feeling powerful, we can easily rationalize our unethical actions with stories of our own superiority, which demean others. [....] Abuses of power occur in every corner of our social life—and lead to greedy [...] swearing, rudeness, lying, sexual affairs, sexual violence, racial violence, unethical behavior, and arrogant driving. By succumbing to the power paradox, we undermine our own power and cause others, on whom our power so critically depends, to feel threatened and devalued. Cumulative abuses of power lead to diminished trust at work, reduced commitment and closeness in families, and the unraveling of the cooperative fabric of civil society.
THE PRICE OF POWERLESSNESS
[....] How, as the scientists at the heart of this new line of inquiry like to say, does powerlessness —resulting from poverty, inequality, racism, gender bias— “get under our sin”? [....] The costs of powerlessness, which are so often the result of others succumbing to the power paradox, are profound. Powerlessness amplifies the individuals’ sensitivity to threat; it hyperactivates the stress response and the hormone cortisol; and it damages the brain. These effects compromise our ability to reason, to reflect, to engage in the world, and to feel good and hopeful about the future.The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence, Dacher Keltner page 8 - 9
Compare this to two things: a Sense of Coherence, and Social Support model for evaluating interpersonal support. I’ll talk about these two things later.
Actually, here is a reprise from within the conversation with Ian, here:
Sense of Coherence as a basis of Salutogenesis, developed by Aaron Antonovsky:
The extent to which people feel confident that they can reasonably influence how things will turn out. It's made up by these factors:
(paraphrased from the book Body Respect by Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramour)
- a sense that the world is predictable and explicable.
- optimism and resilience
- evidence that effort is worthwhile
- a sense of closeness to other people)
But first, more of the paradox. I don’t think this book adequately discusses lack of empathy and the turn towards abuses power, which Keltner only studies as Power Causing Empathy Challenge. I think that can go both ways, or can phasically feedback. More on that from Elie Mystal in a bit.
But also, this book doesn’t adequately provide a model for the phenomenon that is charismatic autocrats, like our 45th American president, currently indicted by several states and the Federal Justice Department, impeached twice by the House but not the Senate.
We live in a time when a self-identified caller from New Jersey on the Briah Lehrer show (Charlie Sykes as guest) said things to the effect of, the more indictments the Justice Department and State courts throw at Trump, the more she would believe him to be innocent. She also said, he seems like a mean person from far away, but she deeply believes that he is a kind person if you are close to him. Which, to people who feel the indictments are credible based on their experience watching the live coverage of the capitol on January 6th, as well as most of the news coverage about him for decades, this boggles the mind. The guest, Charlie Sykes, describes something to the effect of a profound schism of understanding and interpretation of the events before us. But it’s not just that.
Trump does not seem to have easy empathy; he is profoundly and consistently self-focused; and he embodies or has acted out most of the abuses of power studied in this book. I could go through and find examples of every single one, but this commentary is already too long.
However, the nature of and publicness of his egregious behavior, and the particular lies he tells such as “if they get to me, they are coming after you next” (even with all the evidence that reality is in the opposite order), he does evoke the 4-6 things that Keltner says maintain power, which are —again— “empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, telling stories”, “dignif[ing] and delight[ing] others”.
By being a public example of being empathy-challenged and non-collaborative and receiving no real accountability and having constant support, his base who identify as similar to him or loving people who are similar to him, receives vicarious dignity and social power from him. Then the base is so loyal that it is dangerous to not support him, which means he continues to be an example of the power that his base wants for themselves; feedback, feedback, feedback.
He doesn’t have to be empathetic towards him if they are empathizing WITH him and seeing themselves AS him. And with that requirement swept aside, he has got plenty of giving, telling stories, and dignifying (through example) and delighting (through wish-fulfillment cruelty) others. He speaks to the people who accurately or inaccurately assess their powerlessness by dignifying their heightened sense of threat. He leans on their compromised ability to reason, and he delights them with hope for their future.
If you want another example of a less political but still publicly visible demagogue who is dignifying a group of people harming others while insisting on their sense of disempowerment, I’ve got you covered. You can listen to the podcast Witch, Please - Appendix: The Author. The amazing hosts describe how, usually, the power of The Author is created and then wielded by institutions (publishers and universities, movie studios who buy the rights, etc.) and ideologies (such as fandoms who write fanfic, or populations who see themselves dignified by the story) where the writer has little control once the Book is published. However, JK Rowling, in a Black Swan confluence of technologies and movements, refuses to relinquish control of her creations into the public and has immense power over both the canonical understanding of her works but also over other public discourse, a.k.a. Trans-Exclusionary feminism which causes real harm to trans people. Check out this episode about that power, and also check out Contrapoints' episode The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (which is just under 2 hours long).
But JKR cannot maintain power by herself, just by inserting herself into fandom and by continuing to double down on things people call her out on. The delight her works and her, uh, shenanigans bring to her readership and supporters create such a steady source of revenue from those institutions who usually have more control over The Author that they cannot easily disempower her. In order to gain access to that marketshare, they continue to sign contracts that funnel her profits from works she is excluded from having content control over, they continue to create theme parks and video games and new movies and plays. Even though there are numerous other authors and creators of fantasy worlds for children and teens, somehow the confluence of her specific fandom’s marketshare and her insistence on continuing to be involved means she maintains a grip on power… even when there is also a huge population of Critical fans, such as the show Witch, Please! and Natalie Wynn’s Contrapoints among many, many many others.
Speaking of holding onto power, let’s pivot and talk about the Supreme Court, which I am obviously fascinated by. (I actually cut out an entire other case I recounted to Ian; it is a very interesting case, and relevant, but redundant to these episodes.)
In the last 5 minutes of the Contempt of Court podcast, Elie Mystal’s outro essay is relevant, so I’m going to quote it here.
“Given the Republican resistance to ethics reform, my best plan of attack remains the Powerball. The trick that Republican Billionaires have figured out is that you don’t need to buy a justice’s vote on a case-by-case basis like a workaday sap if you’ve put in the time to influence their thinking to the point that they reflexively look out for your interest as if it was their own idea. You don’t have to tell them how to vote if they already think about the world like you want them to. The point of taking these guys on vacation isn’t to spend a week giving them the hard sell about your pet issue; the point is to make them think the only people and perspectives that matter are represented by you and the wealthy friends you bring along. The hard sell is just the exclusion of everybody else.” 46:30ishContempt of Court Podcast Episode “How to Fix the Supreme Court’s Ethics Problem”
If we recall that Power is Influence Over Others, billionaires like Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo bank on creating a selectively small group of people who engage in mutual “empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, telling stories”, “dignif[ing] and delight[ing] others.” They don’t have to empathize with the general public, or people who disagree with them. Because they have the perceived power of nigh limitless money for giving and expressing gratitude, by dignifying people who feel their dignity was impugned in the past (Clarence), they can use a very powerful lever to protect their own interests. Such excellent leverage, that yet a third case I haven’t mentioned because it was overshadowed by the Dobbs decision, was one where the Supreme Court justices ruled that corruption is basically only the quid pro quo of case by case rulings paid by check or bank transfer; all of the influence that has been woven around them for decades is no longer defined, legally, as corruption or even as unethical. Again, it makes the signs of abuses of power to be what are called dignified, what are seen as delightful.
After all, both Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh came onto the court facing credible accounts of times they abused power.
(By the way, Elie Mystal has an excellent book, Allow Me To Retort, about the Constitution in addition to his podcast. Link above! I listened to it at least twice through, and also told my tattoo artist about it!) And of course, I have links above to the Strict Scrutiny Podcast and 5-4 Pod where I gain my understanding of current and historical rulings.
So, how do we find our own power, when the currently powerful appear so immensely powerful?
First, we must —sadly— be careful how we wield our collective power, because we, the perceived powerless, have an increased sensitivity to threat.
Synopsis: How should we make sense of the current labor activism in transportation and entertainment? Heather and Joanne explain how the faultlines in the UPS contract negotiation can be seen in the 1894 Pullman Strike. And they compare the WGA and SAG-AFTRA “double strike” in Hollywood to a similar walkout in 1960, led by none other than Ronald Reagan.
00:07:20 “But as I say, one of the things that jumps out to me as we talk about the strikes in industries that move goods, as opposed to strikes in industries that do something else, is that one of the key things we can see from previous strikes in those sorts of industries that move goods is that the American public turns against those types of strikes on a dime. So, it’s one thing to say, ‘oh well I can’t live without my widget. The widget makers are on strike from making. I’ll work around that for a few months.’ When goods stop moving, the American people turn against strikes instantly, and we can talk about that in our history. It makes it more important both for the union and the workers not to have that happen, because that really undercuts unionization. But also it really matters to an administration not to have that happen, because the first people who get blamed are the workers. The second people who get blamed are the people in charge of the country.” 00:08:20Now and Then “Unions, Strikes, and the Public: What Matters?” Heather Cox Richardson
Thought/Response: When we feel powerless and notice an oligarch/monopolist/monopsonist has power over us, it is a sort of baseline pain and fear dosed out over days and weeks and years. We accommodate. Then we see a group of essential workers e.g. railroad workers or UPS drivers, and their strike influences your life because the goods you need to survive are suddenly not where you need them to be. Rather than being inspired and feeling solidarity with the ability of collective organizing to create immense power with immense reach, we feel disempowered by and resentment towards this sudden and noticeable new power that has influence over you, and then you side with the oligarch/monopolist you’re familiar with; it is so easy for the narrative to say that it is this newly-visible-to-us immense power that needs to back down and return us all to being largely unbothered.
Messaging before a strike and during the strike is hugely important when the workers are so essential that their absence impacts daily life! The WGA and SAG-AFTRA, being in entertainment, had a huge ability to share their message but also their strike doesn’t change whether we can fuel or charge our car, or buy groceries for our home. The railroad workers were focused on their ongoing communication with the bosses and rail barons, and news outlets and political statements filtered their message and modeled the “correct” response.
We all want to be relatively unbothered. But that instinct and reaction is often used by people who want to maintain their already known and tolerated imbalanced power and control.
Also, I mentioned at the beginning of Power Part 1 how the book The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza radically changed my model for what power is and how it works, but I didn’t mention the work much. I would like, then, to have Alicia Garza be included. The following is an excerpt from Ch. 8 track 11 on the audiobook, starting at 4min25sec. The book is read by the author, all rights reserved by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, copyright October 19th 2020.
I know that in these episodes I am focusing on institutional power and organizational power rather than relative, interpersonal power in close relationships. But all the same things apply: there is power in working with allies, there is power in collaborating on related causes together. I strongly recommend folks read this whole book because Ms. Garza is a great writer and explains how it works to build power through collaboration and based on mutual empathy. Link in show notes! So here is a relevant quote, among so many that I had a hard time choosing just one, but this one is related:
Organizations also communicate to decision-makers about your relative level of power. Imagine a labor union with 2 members negotiating with an employer with a thousand workers. Imagine teachers trying to negotiate a higher salary from the school district, and yet because the teachers are anti-organization, each teacher has their own demand for salary and benefits. Organizations encourage collaboration, but they also demonstrate a relative level of power and influence.The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza
Alright, so, control the message to maintain our empathy, generosity, gratitude, story telling, dignifying and delighting others when we find ourselves individually or collectively wielding power. I pause to quote a screenshot meme:
Jonathan Louis Dent @jonathandent writes “Imagine if we measured success by the amount of safety that people felt in our presence” (and this was quoted by Rebecca Hershberg who was then shared by Insight Mental Health and then re-shared by Neurodivergent Rebel, across several social media platforms).
OK, so, how do we use our power to support others, right now, today, when we have so much learned helplessness? I have a tool to evaluate types of support you can give to others, which I learned about from Emily Nagoski PhD and Amelia Nagoski DMA in an episode of The Feminist Survival Project 2020, Ep 31 “Social Support”
I shall paraphrase these quickly, and then we’ll hopefully unpack them in another episode of their very own!
- Instrumental support - tangible aid and service (if you’re hungry, I hand you a snack)
- Information support - advice, suggestions and information (if you’re hungry, I tell you where the snacks are, how to make snacks, and that you can eat a snack)
- Emotional support - expressions of love, trust and caring (if you’re hungry, I empathize and validate that hunger is appropriate and that hunger is nothing to be ashamed of and we’re all hungry sometimes)
- Appraisal support - information and advice specifically used for self-evaluation –USE WITH CAUTION (if you’re hungry AND IT’S MY ROLE, I observe that your usual meal time has passed and you have a habit of not noticing you’re hungry until it feels urgent)
Also, as I talked about in the conversation with Ian, we can evaluate our own Sense of Coherence, and also evaluate each others, and boost the various aspects that contribute to a sense of coherence so that we feel more security and are ready to take risks.
And of course, we can look at our lives, our relationships and the institutions we are within, with the lens of promoting, fostering and insisting on empathy and collaboration.