In our culture, we venerate power. Perhaps many cultures do, but ours seems particularly fascinated with it. When we see a problem, we tend to approach it through domination. We place international struggles in the frame of military conflict. We immediately handle social problems like crime through increases in policing. Parenting is viewed through the lens of who is in charge. Educators’ consistent obsession is classroom management and parents want a “good school” for their kids, which means one where adults have control of young people.
I believe that this obsession with power comes from our underlying sense of fear. Scholar Tema Okun writes, “We fear not being good enough, not being enough, not deserving love or happiness. When we are afraid … we are easily manipulated by any promise of safety. The promised safety is false because it is always based on the abuse and misuse of power.”
Of course, all people in every culture experience fear. But in American culture, particularly white American culture, our emphasis on rugged individualism denies us the opportunity to process our fear in community with other people. We are encouraged to handle our problems, our emotions, and specifically our fears, on our own.
When we can’t tell others about our fears — when we must sublimate them or risk looking weak — our only choice is to respond to those fears publicly by emphasizing our own power. This is all the more true for men, as our culture tells us that men must be particularly strong and powerful. When we perceive physical challenge, we respond by displaying our own physical strength. When we perceive intellectual challenge, we respond with intellectual strength.
When viewing society-wide dilemmas, we bring these same relationships to fear and power. Thus when we see conflict between nations, we ramp up the military response. When we see crime, we ramp up policing. Politicians are consistently judged by how forcefully they respond to challenges. We look for them to express power in their campaigns. We look at how forcefully they speak about addressing America’s conflicts, both internal and external.
What would happen if we shifted our view from power over others to power with others? What if we could admit our fears and process them in community? What if we could respond to our challenges through liberation rather than domination?
We would no longer need to spend more on defense than the next nine countries combined. We could fund job guarantees and social safety nets that would allow people to thrive and reduce crime as a consequence. We parents could be authoritative partners to our children rather than authoritarians. We could educate our students in schools that view them as brilliant, valuable contributors rather than empty vessels to be poured into and controlled.
This is no simple shift. It would require us each to do a lot of internal work on our own views of power. It would require us to give up our preconceived notions of what solutions to our societal challenges should look like. But this is the work we must do to transform ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.