Most people seem to know exactly what they talk about when they talk about power, but what seems to be clearest in our experience of power is not the power that we have but the power we lack. When we talk about power in relationships, between people, or different groups of people, the situation becomes even more complicated, because there is no symmetry in the way we experience power.
A man and a woman walking past each other on an empty street at night. It is easy to make certain assumptions, but if we really want to know what kind of power dynamic is going on, we cannot just look at the general constellation or role of people and their gender in society, we need to get a sense of their concrete experience in that moment. And, what he or she experiences, can be, but does not have to be, related to what the other person in that situation experiences.
Or, imagine standing next to a person who is much taller than you. You might experience that as a power difference, while he might experience it as an inconvenience. Or vice versa. Imagine you are both standing in a room with a low ceiling which allows you to stretch out while he is forced to walk hunched over.
If every experience of power would be equally obvious to the person who has the power and the person who experiences the lack of power, discussions about power would probably be much easier. The problem is, one person's helplessness, which might show up as fear, anxiety, worries, or back pain, might not be at all visible to the person who does not experience it. And, looking at the circumstances abstractly from a distance reveals nothing about what is actually happening. This is why the only way to start making sense of power is to listen to and start with the minute concrete experiences of people.
This conversation is part of a series titled:
Deconstructing power: What are we talking about when we talk about power?
A lot of people might have heard about a book by Reni Eddo-Lodge called:
"Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race"
Intriguingly, this could easily be extended to a whole series:
- Why I'm no longer talking to men about sexism
- Why I'm no longer talking to cis people about gender
- Why I'm no longer talking to young/old people about age
- Why I'm no longer talking to rich people about money
Why do all these titles sound plausible? To me, it seems the underlying issue is that it is hard to talk to people who experience power differently. This is because I am a white, middle class, middle aged, educated man, i.e the typical person no-one wants to talk with about power. And, for a long time the way people talked about power just made no sense to me.
So, why is it so hard to talk about power? Starting from my personal struggle with understanding power, I came to see three main stumbling blocks: the way power is experienced, the kind of stories we tell about power, and the way how challenging these stories challenges the way we think about ourselves.
The rough plan for the sessions is:
- Session 1: The devil and the detail - Why do we need to talk about power and what seems so hard about it
- Session 2: Jackboot meets hand - The asymmetrical & paradoxical experience of power
- Session 3: The power of narratives and the narratives of power
- Session 4: The chemistry of power - how its different aspects work together
The sessions are being recorded live as part of the onlinevents interview programme and will be able to view in the onlinevents CPD Library.