Last night, I was reading The Nation (THE best magazine ever, in my opinion — I come back to it all the time) and I came across an article on online feminism and the fact that it has apparently gotten nasty between radical feminists online. A few weeks ago, a client and I got into it regarding authority. I was saying that I, as therapist, had power in the relationship by nature of my role. Further, while I knew of people who had taken advantage of their clients,it was my job not to. She argued that I didn’t have power, that’s we were collaborating on her treatment and, while she also knew people who abused power, she didn’t have to believe a damn thing I said if she didn’t want to. Oddly, we both believe the same thing, because there is nothing so misunderstood, controversial, and divisive as power — for liberals and conservatives. We use the same word and mean totally different things by it. All of this got me to thinking about conflicts between me, my liberal friends, and my conservative ones.
Power, in the conservative political world, is a good thing and we all have it. We can all rise above our circumstances if we just believe in ourselves enough. Freedom gives us that, and government doesn’t allow us freedom, so it dis-empowers, even –if its motives are good.
Power, in the liberal political world, is different altogether. For liberals, the world is sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ageist and so on. We might have individual freedom and the moral responsibility for standing up for ourselves, and others, but the world/ the “system” is the problem, and government must act to protect people from the -isms by making more laws.
My “guru” in the psychological world, Virginia Satir, didn’t deal with political and societal power issues in the sense that it wasn’t her frame of reference. She doesn’t subscribe to a particular world view, so the lens of “power” and “dis-empowered” isn’t a given. She (and I) are much more “reality based” in her approach. If the way you’re living is working for you, fine. If it’s not, it’s “dis-functional” (a word she coined) and you need to do something about it. She believes a non-hierarchical approach is healthiest in systems, like couples, families, and societies and is about breaking those down when she can and when it applies. In short, there may be hierarchies, but you don’t have to subscribe to them and it’s not healthy to do so in any case.
Jesus, my religious and spiritual inspiration, is quite clear about power — “You are not to lord it over others”, he says in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20: 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”
All of this is to say that some people will always want power over others, some people believe they have no power in their lives. Some people feel oppressed, some don’t. Some people feel they don’t oppress others, some do. In the words of the songs, “people everywhere/just want to be free” (the Rascals, in the 1960’s) and “everybody wants to be/closer to free” (the Bodeans, in the 1980’s).
Here’s where it gets tricky: What if you don’t see oppression and you are (supposedly?) oppressed?. Does seeing it mean believing it? Does denying it mean not believing it has any power in your life? If you don’t believe you are oppressed, are you?
If you’re one of those “in power”, supposedly, the same questions apply. If you don’t believe in lording it over others, are you anyway? Is “white privilege” the same thing as “being racist”? Is “male privilege” the same thing as “being sexist”? It depends on who you ask.
The reality is this: we live in separate worlds and we can’t know each others’ experience until we experience it with them or through them in some way — like literature or art. Years ago, when my friend Greg Coles and I went to a yacht club for lunch (he’s Black, I’m White, He’s richer than I — he chose the place), we were ignored for the 45 minutes until we left after Greg tried to get their attention. When I was growing up, people didn’t think women needed as much money as men. Why should they? Today, we fight the battles over whether LGBT people have the right to be included in every facet of society. As someone who grew up poor, many of my peers later in life had no idea what it was like and saw me as having more power than they did. I saw myself as poor.
So, yes, racism actually does exist. You can still get pulled over for Driving While Black. Sexism still exists — women still make less money than men do for equal work, generally. Homophobia still exists. Ask gay couples who go to Jamaica or Olympians in Russia. Classism still exists, but is seldom, if ever, acknowledged. If you never bounce a check in your life because you have a thousand dollars in the bank, you pay less than someone who bounces a check so they can get milk.
Actual political oppression has always existed. The Romans in Jesus’ time oppressed the Jews and everybody else. Within the Jewish world, a woman with no husband had no power to vote or make a “legitimate” living. At the same time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian points out, there was also “progress” in the areas conquered by Rome — roads, running water, etc. Does that mean the people were less oppressed? I don’t know. I bet some felt like they were and some didn’t. I bet some Romans believed they were doing the right thing while others had reservations about expanding the empire. In any case, I bet that you were more likely to be happy with the status quo/less likely to see yourself as an oppressor if you were a Roman and less likely to like the status quo/more likely to see yourself as oppressed if you were one of the annexed or conquered communities.
In America today, it’s much the same among liberals and conservatives. I wonder if people like Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain are oppressed simply because they don’t acknowledge racism. I find it hard to believe that a gay man or a lesbian running the halls of power on the White House staff is really all that oppressed, and I find it easy to believe that any person on the White House staff is in power. And yet, they are both true in different forms and to different degrees. There are some who would say that the very existence of Barack Obama as President of the United States means that he is no longer oppressed and that racism no longer exists. See? That one’s in the most powerful position in the world, so he can’t be oppressed”, goes the logic. Furthermore, “because The Most Powerful Man In The World is Black, they have an ally in power and racism can no longer exist”, they say. If there is one thing that this administration has taught us, it is that even The Most Powerful Man In The World can be held back by racism. How else do we explain the unprecedented gridlock in Washington? I don’t know that any other President was called a “sub-human mongrel”.
(A brief detour here: Is “authority” necessarily the same thing as “power over”? Obama’s got authority, clearly, as the President. Does he have power? Yes, of course. Does he have power over anybody? That remains to be seen, if he doesn’t take it. Caring people, people with a conscience, try not to “lord it over” others. Hitler had both oppressive power and authority. Hitler would have killed Ted Nugent before the sentence about “mongrel” was complete and no one would have questioned him about it. Obama’s Secret Service detail “had words with” Nugent. Did they rob him of his free speech? Maybe, but he’s still a free man, and he can still speak.)
I have two white male friends who believe what I believe — that real authority is the antithesis of oppressive power. My minister growing up, Bob Kyte, once told me that “the only power we (ministers) have is trust”. A colleague in therapy-land, Will Foremaker, once said “a relationship can either be about power or it can be about love. It can’t be both”. Both of these men have power as politically defined, by nature of their jobs, by nature of the their gender and sexual orientation, and yet both men are about as egalitarian as they can be. Are they racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, classist, or the new one in the news this week, “transphobic”? By some far-left standards, yes. By some far-right standards, no. The more important question is this: “Are they jerks?” and the unequivocal answer is “no”. They both have authority in certain circumstances, but they don’t abuse it. Their having power over themselves means that they don’t need it over others and this is the thing that liberals don’t get in their power analysis. At the same time, this is the thing that makes conservatives cringe because “good” conservatives know this. Power-analysis liberals get into these dysfunctional battles about “who’s the most oppressed?” as though “being oppressed” gives you power in some way. In this way, we eat our young. Feminism has suffered because there are mean feminists and nobody wants to be mean, so women distance themselves from the label. The fact of the matter is that there were feminists who were feminists who didn’t like men and there were feminists who liked being strong women. The second group is alot more fun to be around, while the first kept everybody — men and women — away. It seems to me that this first group are still around, still arrogant, and creating the “toxic environment” that the Nation article talked about.
It is this way, by the way, for any liberal group. Conservatives don’t go there. For them, if they’re not trying to be racist or sexist or homophobic, they aren’t.What I learned in seminary is this: labels like “sexist” and “racist” and “homophobic” mean nothing to our souls if everybody is racist, sexist, and living in a homophobic society. Some people internalize their oppression (and are thus racist to themselves and others externalize it (and are racist to others). If that’s the case, the answer to the statement, “You’re a racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobe” is “Yes, but I’m trying not to be”. Anybody who is trying to be is a jerk, but most people aren’t trying to be. They aren’t jerks — and that is where the bridge can be built among people of left or right persuasions and within each camp.
We shouldn’t waste our time on whether the -isms exist. They most certainly do, in all of us. We shouldn’t be wasting our time on who but ourselves is a racist, sexist, etc. Nor should we be wasting our time fighting over who’s most oppressed, because it doesn’t matter. The important thing is who is being a jerk and who is not, who is intentionally being a jerk and who is not. The important thing is that we look at ourselves honestly, take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and do what we can to fight those people who are jerks to others — intentionally so. If you are doing that, labels don’t matter to me. Conservative or Liberal mean nothing. Nice and trying mean everything.