April 12, 2024

power and the harm of “we”

view of train tracks from a bridge through a chain link fence
photo caption: a pair of train tracks runs through lush green woods from the view of a bridge. lining the bridge is a rusty chain link fence that stretches across half the photo. no, this is NOT the damn equity fence people are always talking about.

Another heatwave hit Seattle last week. It was mild compared to so many places in the world. I complained as the heat and smoke descended, a regular marker now for the end of summer. But we were fine. Around the united states, people felt temperatures well into the 100s (+37℃), even the 110s (+43℃).

It’s clear that climate change is happening. We’re heating the world faster than any other time in its existence. We’re causing it. How many times have you read, heard, or said a sentence like that? We’re doing it. Are we all to blame for the climate crisis? No, stop blaming yourself for the climate crisis.  Yes, the human race is causing climate catastrophes that could end our very species. But we’re not all causing it in equal measures.

the harm of “we”

When we talk about “we,” we’re placing the biggest polluters on the same level as the average person. It puts them on the same level as people who have almost no choice but to live how they do. We all may live under capitalism, but not everyone benefits from it. Not everyone survives in the same way or with the same rate of success.

For example: fast fashion is cheap clothing made by people exploited into that labor. Their conditions are excruciating and most people know that.  There’s no way clothes made overseas and shipped here can still cost a few dollars. Here in america, we have people who work minimum wage in a country where nobody can even afford rent on that salary. For a person who makes $7.25 an hour, is a $4 shirt a better choice than a $40 one? Is that $4 choice equal to one made by a person who spends hundreds of dollars on fast fashion hauls? What we should all be working to combat is sweatshop labor. We should be talking about people who can afford to make different choices, but choose not to.

name it to tame it

When we name the real causes of a crisis, we can get to solving the problems. Too many people avoid the reality that many of us are complicit as consumers. We have a choice, we can afford an alternative, we don’t want to. That does make us responsible for these large-scale catastrophes, to some extent. Our responsibility is still small compared to the heaviest polluters.

What happens when we stop using the generalized “we”? For whatever problem you’re facing, get specific. Who’s responsible? To what extent? Who benefits from the current arrangements? Who does not? We may live in a society but our lives are not identical. We need to focus our efforts on the people who matter: whether they are big or less-big. Can we add some skepticism to the claims that Africa is a major contributor to the climate crisis?

In my mind, people responsible for injustice fall on a scale.

  • people in power who cause injustice
  • people in power who notice injustice and support it
  • people in power who notice injustice and do nothing
  • people in power who don’t notice injustice
  • people without power who notice injustice and support it
  • people without power who don’t notice injustice
  • people without power who notice injustice but cannot change it

If we’re going to blame anyone, let’s start at the top and work our way down.

power for liberation

This week I read an article by Archon Fung titled, “Four Levels of Power: A Conception to Enable Liberation.” Not surprisingly, it’s about power and how people can use it in the service of liberation. Fung notes that most power analysis relates to power’s ability to dominate. He argues that domination isn’t the core function of power. Instead, it’s liberation: the ability to do what you want. “[T]he appropriate measure of their power is their capacity to protect their constituents’ interests, not to bend the will of others.” He describes power as operating across four levels:

Everyday power. This is power exercised at an individual level. A person faces challenges to their interests in their everyday interactions.

Policy power. These are laws or policies that make it harder for a group of people to advance their interests. If you’re going to curtail the voting rights of a group of people, this is the level to do it.

Structural power. This level of power is about the rules of engagement. How is policy power exerted? Are decisions made, for example, by an unelected body of 9 people? Why 9? Who chooses them and how? That’s structural power.

Ethical power. This is society-level power, the values and dreams of an entire nation.

These four levels of power come into play for every situation. In food justice, I may be working to get food to one individual family. Policy power sets draconian welfare laws. Structural power is the red tape they must overcome to access benefits. Ethical power is the “bootstraps” mindset that sneers at that family wherever they go.

wielding power

The phrase of the 21st century may very well become “we’re all in this together.” I’ve heard it so many times over the past few years. While we may be in it together, we’re not all at the same level of fault. We need to focus our energy where it matters most.

As we approach our work of systems change, we can’t focus only at the policy level. We have to help change individuals’ lives for the better. We have to challenge and even rewrite the rules of the game, even questioning why we’re playing that game at all. We have to change the hearts and minds of people who oppose us. It takes choices at every level.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space