Friday, May 31, 2013

Responding to power

This post was written May 31, 2013. It was expanded November 1, 2013 and March 29, 2014.

I have been referring to my explanation of Powers and how they oppress and doing that a lot lately. Because I'm doing it so much I thought I should create a post that is a much clearer description, that also includes some of what I've been thinking in the last year.

I'll start with a definition: A Power is a person or institution that uses a system of control. Most of the time the Power uses that control to oppress others.

A person (or institution) becomes a Power because:
* He (or she or it) is after power or control.

* He feels threatened.

* He has a privilege and feels that privilege is threatened. This describes many who are freaked out by a black man in the White House.

* He feels oppressed by another group and to counter that feeling oppresses others in return. An example of this point is the poor Southern white worker who is oppressed and who takes it out on black people. "I may have it bad but at least I'm better than they are."
The powerful maintains his Power through:
* Projecting power through laws. Break our laws and you will face our violence. That includes getting laws passed that reinforce the Power. Of course, not all laws are a projection of power: Traffic could get rather nasty if we didn't all obey traffic lights. Some laws limit oppression, such as the ones that demand full disclosure of mortgage forms.

* Making sure that others are unable to challenge that power. This is why public schools are now routinely underfunded. An uneducated person is unable to challenge the Power.

* Oppressing a target group, those that don't "know their place." That includes anyone who doesn't recognize and affirm the Power. The oppression is done through violence. There are four different kinds.
* Mental violence. This is done through several means:
* Convincing the oppressed they are supposed to be oppressed.

* Continuously humiliating the oppressed. This was the tactic of Jim Crow.

* Praising obedience to Power. This is the point of the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible.

* Keeping people fearful of various threats so the people will look at the oppressor as protector (the current GOP is very good at this). This includes fear of immigrants, fear of those scary Muslims, fear of gay people, fear of blacks, fear of Saddam's (or Iran's, or Syria's) weapons of mass destruction.

* Use fear to force others to join in the oppression so they are equally guilty.
* Physical violence. This one is straightforward -- actual bodily harm. Sometimes the threat of harm is enough. Lynchings in the South were this type of oppression. Bullying is a combination of physical and mental violence.

* Economic violence. Impoverishment accomplishes two goals. The first is punishment for not knowing your place. The second is to prevent a challenge to the Power.

* Spiritual violence. Yes, the church can act like a Power. They do that every time they say, "Do as we say or you won't be allowed into heaven." I've seen many examples of people so worried about their own place in heaven that they'll use spiritual violence against someone else. I see that every week at the Ruth Ellis Center where gay kids are thrown out of the family because their parents believe their religion is telling them to do so. The church uses spiritual violence against the parents, who in turn use spiritual (or physical) violence against the child.
* Making government appear, or perhaps be, incompetent so that the oppressed will no longer trust it to represent them. A well functioning and responsive government has enough strength to counter a grab for Power. An incompetent or dismantled government cannot. Yes, that means a Power is both using government to reinforce its Power and dismantling government to prevent the oppressed from seeking justice.

* Enlisting a third party to support the oppression. I'll give you these benefits if you let us oppress or take part in the oppression Here are some examples:
* I'll let you have low prices on fruits and vegetables if you let me oppress migrant farm workers.

* I'll give you better stock dividends or higher stock prices if you let me bust the union.

* I'll donate significant amounts to your campaign fund if you enact laws to legalize my oppression of the poor.

* An example from the movie The Help: I'll let you join my high society club if you oppress your black servants.
This enlistment to support oppression is so pervasive and unnoticed that the only way to avoid it is to be poor. I summarize one of George Baldwin's points this way: Unless you are poor you have a financial interest in maintaining oppression of the poor.

Charity that provides food, clothing, and shelter for the poor is good, but is of limited help. It does see an oppressed person through a period of difficulty. But there are two major drawbacks to charity.
* Charity cannot replace justice.

* Charity allows the giver to believe he or she has done enough, leaving the oppression in place.
Consider this scenario: We see a line of victims struggling in a raging river. We can use a boat to take food out to feed them. We can also pull the victims out of the water and dry them off. And we can find the Power who is throwing them in the river and convince him to stop. Charity is the first step. Challenging Power is the second and third.

It is possible to respond to a Power, to make them stop (or at least lessen) their oppression. Our own mental health and the health of our communities demand a response. The response has these components.
* It must focus on liberation, in freeing the oppressed from the belief that they are supposed to be oppressed.

* It must be non-violent. Powers know violence and can out-violence any who are oppressed. I saw this in the movie Les Miserables. The students, who see evidence of oppression, create a barricade and man it with guns. The French Army (under the command of the oppressive government) simply pulls out bigger guns. Yes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are right.

* The end of oppression must have justice as the goal. It must not aim for victory (and certainly not vanquishment) over the Power. A victory will only replace one Power with another.

* It must focus on grace, freely giving and receiving love, inviting everyone into the community. Only that will make the Power not feel threatened.
This response to Power is strong enough to liberate even the oppressor. Even so, be ready. The Power will likely respond with violence.

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