How can those who want to advance human dignity claim and use power toward that good end?
I spent two days last week participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, held at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The workshop is a global, transdisciplinary gathering of educators, practitioners, and activists devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society.
At the end of the workshop, we stood in a circle, and each person shared a closing thought. When it was my turn to speak, I noted that the term “power” was not invoked often during our two days together, and I suggested that we need to summon our personal and collective power to address the societal challenges highlighted so eloquently by the participants.
I’d like to elaborate on my remarks here.
I submit that those of us who have witnessed excesses of power may be wary or downright fearful of it, and with good reason. All too often, power is exercised by those who use it to hurt others. Consequently, many of us have come to associate power with abuse.
To illustrate, I think this apprehension is why some progressives are uncomfortable with the labor movement. Organized labor is about building collective power and exercising it. On occasion it can misuse that power. So, yes, there are trade-offs when even the most valuable social movements and institutions demonstrate their imperfections. However, without a strong labor movement, the prospects of everyday workers are quite perilous. It’s no coincidence that here in the U.S., we’ve witnessed the simultaneous decline of union membership levels and rise of massive wealth inequalities over the past three decades.
My larger point is that such ambivalence can cause us to cede our own power to make positive change. Perhaps some feel comfortable with the term “empowered,” which is more likely to be invoked at gatherings of social activists. But I think we need to face down the beast. We need to build our individual and collective power, exercise it effectively and judiciously, and keep it in check when we are tempted to use it excessively.
I realize that my comments may sound more like a self-help rap than a call for a better world, but I have long believed that artificial dichotomies between individual change and social change cause us to overlook their interrelatedness. Power can be heady stuff, like holding a live wire. Those committed to advancing human dignity should carefully but decisively embrace it and use it.