Dialogues about dignity, Part III: Claiming and using power to do good

Presenting about workplace bullying at HumanDHS workshop (Photo: Anna Strout)

Presenting about workplace bullying at 2013 HumanDHS workshop, at right (Photo: Anna Strout)

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.

2 responses

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and work on the issues of human dignity on this blog. I have been studying this concept of power for several months, especially as to how it pertains to personal power. Recognizing and developing one’s personal power or coaching others to understand their personal power can seem a dangerous undertaking because I too, often associate yielding power with its abuse.

    But I have come to conclude, like you, that the only way to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (gandhi) is to first recognize your personal power and then develop it to do good – or at least study and learn how it can be used for good. Empowering people who have the potential to use power that results in inequality or abuse is frightening – but I think that is what we experience today. When power is exercised in the name of an ideology like capitalism – or human rights is interpreted as personal freedom and license to behave in self-serving ways that have harmful consequences to the larger society – then as individuals and as a culture we are misusing power.

    I like your comment about ‘facing down the beast’. To do that we need to envision what we want to see in the world. We are learning the lesson of how we don’t want power to be used and that is a very valuable lesson! A lesson we should talk more about and discuss, ad nauseum, to educate about possible abuses, but also to decide what we wish our lives and our world to be. But the discussion about what we want, who we want to be, and how to change, needs to begin. We can no longer avoid the topic of power because to ignore it means those who abuse power will take it and use it for their personal agenda. Is that what we intend?

    To address the issues of social power and intentional change, personal power must be developed in individuals who will use power responsibly. Is this the business of higher education? I don’t think it’s the responsibility of an organization who’s sole purpose is to make money – at whatever price. Everyone should be educating themselves for power, responsible power, so we have a balanced discourse with intentional vision and action for a society that serves us all.

    When I look to Pope Francis, I see power being used unselfishly – for human dignity – and an example of use of power that is for humankind. His decisions about how to use his personal power allow him to inspire and redirect the world, and his action was immediate. He is a living example of how power can be used by one individual. If the power of one is so swiftly transforming, imagine what we could do together. But I don’t have big dreams!

    • Janice, thanks for those terrific observations. I was especially intrigued by your question of who is responsible for developing individuals to use power responsibly. At the risk of copping out, I’ll suggest that it’s every stage along the line from school through work. These messages need to be reinforced and become norms, and only by repeated, consistent education will they become so.

      I am learning a lot about personal and organizational coaching, and one of my focal points will be on this question of power. We may not all become like Gandhi or Pope Francis, but we can aspire to have a positive impact within our spheres of influence.

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