Power and Mutual Empowerment: Changing From Power Over to Power To
What is it about power and mutual empowerment that is central to bringing about fundamental change?
The fact that this question is so pertinent and that the concept of mutual empowerment is essentially unknown informs us profoundly. In our protests that these notions are irrelevant to our lives, we are admitting that even though we know that our spirits are being suppressed in so many ways, we have come to accept that we don’t have the power to make a difference – we cry or scream or whimper in silence; we accept cynically that this is as good as it gets. We will look at how and why our spirits will join to create a very different civilization.
However, let’s first examine a bit more specifically mutual empowerment and the difference between “power over” and “power to.” In everyday discourse, power is referred to frequently – most often without any distinction regarding this basic and highly salient distinction between “power over” and “power to.” Jean Baker Miller in her paper “Telling the Truth About Power” sheds light on these matters.
In the paper Miller states:
Along with the obscurity surrounding power comes confusion in the usage of the word. Without reviewing everyone else’s definitions, let me say that we have used the phrase “power-to” to mean the ability to make a change in any situation, large or small, i.e., the ability to move anything from point A to point B without the connotation of restricting or forcing anyone else. For the latter forms of power that imply force, we’ve used the term, “power-over.” In a
basic sense, power-over usually follows from the structural situation whereby one group has more resources and privilege and thus, has more capacity to force or control others. This is the structural power I just referred to above. Structural power is most influential and most important to recognize….
There is great confusion around our use of the term “mutual empowerment.” In all relationships such as parent-child, teacher-student, therapist-patient, and the like, one person clearly has more power than the other; they are not the same, nor are they equal along various dimensions, e.g., age, experience, knowledge of a certain field, etc. Note— these forms of unequal relationships are not the same as the inequalities forced upon certain social groups. In unequal relationships like parent-child, teacher-student, and therapist-patient relationships the goal is for the more powerful person to foster the growth of the other person, that is, to move toward change and toward equality (Miller, 1976). This movement may take a long time as it does in the parent-child relationship. Even without equality there can be mutuality and movement toward more mutuality, as we use the term. Mutuality means joining together in a kind of relationality in which both (or all) participants are engaged, empathic, and growing (Jordan, 1986). Martha and
Judy offer an example. Likewise, a parent and child and also the people in other unequal relationships may participate in many moments when they join in mutual engagement that is benefiting them both, though usually not in the same way or on the same level. We can see this even in studies of mother-infant interaction, e.g., in Tronick’s (1998) and others’ work. Obviously the two people are not the same, nor are they equal. Most importantly, in the therapist-client, the parent-child, and other similarly constructed unequal relationships the more powerful person must take primary responsibility for developing the relationship. The more powerful person has to keep trying to find ways to make the interactions growth fostering, i.e., moving toward fuller mutuality—and eventually equality. …
The issue of power may constitute another reason why we should all continue in ongoing peer or supervision groups because alone, we cannot easily become aware of what we’re not aware of. We all need other people’s input. Peer groups could add the stated goal of doing this inquiry about power for each other. In saying all this, we are really talking about trying to work beyond the values of our society, that is, when we talk about bringing authenticity, mutual empathy, and mutual empowerment to the relationship. …
It is not that [one person’s] greater power will mean less power for the [the other in the relationship]. As we’ve said, that kind of thinking usually follows from a notion of a “zerosum game.” It follows from patriarchal, power-over thinking. Instead, it is a question of reframing
the issue altogether in different terms. The answer is not to just flip over whoever is in the position of power so that the subordinates gain more power but continue operating in the same old dominant-subordinate framework. The issue is to create a new structure altogether. … But maybe we can contribute on an even broader scale in public life. Perhaps we can help to find the ways whereby less powerful groups of people can not only gain power but recast the operation of power, transform the very nature of power. This transformation would change life for all of us.
OK, that’s helpful, and who can disagree with the notion of mutual empowerment? But, I still don’t see what gives you any indication that people will choose to pursue mutually empowering relationships. The few have wielded power over the many for thousands of years. What makes you believe that this will ever change?
The irony here is that the strongest motivation to survive and thrive among humans is at the root of mutual empowerment. In order for an individual person to survive, she needs to be connected in life-affirming, emotional resonance with others. This connection flourishes when there is mutual empowerment among two or more people. Or, in simpler words, humans are most fulfilled, are happiest when they are loving – when they love and are loved. We all know the deep joy of being loving. We also know the deep pain when love is absent or taken away. Once again, it is the relatively unconscious establishment of our current dominant society over thousands of years which has left us disempowered and with the despair and resignation that we cannot experience such a strong presence of love in our lives.