Structural or institutional dynamics are central in understanding actions for change taken with others – actions of groups, partners, organizations, businesses, governments, families, tribes, and all forms of affiliations. These dynamics are present even in a group of two people. As the size and nature of the group increases and becomes more complex, the dynamics become more complex.
Erik Erikson, a psychologist and cultural anthropologist, was helpful in conceptualizing how we move from individual action to collective action and ethics, and how a reformulation of the golden rule can be a guide for group action.
Individual development occurs in a societal context. Erikson stated, “Indeed, in the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of ego identity. Or else, there may be total self-abnegation (in more or less malignant forms).” And, at the same time Erikson recognizes the need for people eventually to develop ego identities that can embrace all of humanity and that will not treat any person or group of people as “other” or “lesser.” He explains further,
Let me restate that way in which I, as a developmental psychologist, have come to reformulate the golden rule: An adult should strive to do to another what will enhance the other’s growth (at his age, in his condition, and under his circumstances) while at the same time enhancing his, the doer’s, own growth (at his age, in his condition, and under his circumstances). For this, of course, we have to know a lot, but such knowledge today is within our grasp, and at any rate, such knowledge of each other today is a condition for a wider identity.
Erikson then moves from individual to collective ethics:
Interestingly Erikson comes to the same place, but from a different perspective, that Jean Baker Miller and Thomas Lewis, et al come to. Limbic or emotional resonance and rejecting power-over relationships are perfectly consistent with Erikson’s emphasis on the importance of the individual’s development of the “truly wider identity… [which] includes not only the capacity for empathic identification with other people…but also the willingness to understand the otherness as well as the all-too-familiar in ourselves.”
Now, I know as well as the next man that individual and collective ethics have different structures. Yet, collective ethics can be visualized and verbalized only by recourse to what the individual stands for. And so I think that groups living in the same period of history at different stages of collective development may well learn to strive along analogous “golden” lines. A wider identity, however, includes not only the capacity for empathic identification with other people – and especially with people at first perceived as incomprehensively “other” – but also the willingness to understand the otherness as well as the all-too-familiar in ourselves.
What does these people’s thinking tell us regarding social (and therefore also political and economic) institutions and relationships in a loving and just society?
All relationships among individuals must be based on this reformulated golden rule. And, all relationships among groupings of individuals must also be based on the reformulated golden rule. All relationships among individuals and groups of individuals become mutually empowering relationships. These mutually empowering relationships take a wide variety of forms which are constantly changing based on changing ages or experiences, conditions, and circumstances. We can begin the process today of creating new, just institutions while also we either transform, eliminate, or replace existing unjust institutions. We can begin now to act in little ways in our day-to-day lives to engage in the process of making the institutions we interact with become mutually empowering.
Of course, many current institutions manifest qualities which are contrary to a loving and just society – the materially powerful exploit others; benefits of labor are distributed inequitably; decision making does not include all parties affected by the decisions; and so on. For the most part, historically, these inequities have provoked adversarial relationships which have not and will not address root problems. In a mutually empowering relationship, all parties work together to transform the partnership through mutual empowerment and the redistribution of resources. All parties working together towards that transformative goal can bring about the transformation in a speedy way that also allows time for all parties to adapt to the change. In some cases, all parties will see the ultimate benefit of the transformation and will participate willingly. In other cases, those with the institutional power-over will not willingly relinquish power or the opulent will not willingly redistribute their resources. In those cases, those who others are trying to express power over and those who are impoverished will need to make legitimate demands and use, if necessary, creative, nonviolent forms of direct action or civil disobedience to help motivate reluctant parties to join the mutually empowering relationship. In short, those who others are expressing power over must claim and express their power to act for justice and the end of oppression.
Individuals in all of their communications – in the workplace, at home, in their neighborhoods, in government, and throughout civil society – need to commit to a course in new learning regarding communication and conflict resolution. Most all of us need to learn these new ways. We will support each other in the new learning and adopt ground rules, techniques, and processes which help us. There already exist many organizations with skills in these areas from which we can learn and upon which we can build. Here are a few ground rules and processes to promote mutual empowerment:
· All parties affected by a decision are involved in meaningful ways in the decision-making process.
· Maximum information relevant to the decision is available to all parties in a timely manner.
· The parties involved collaboratively attempt to identify, rank, and weigh all of the pros and cons relevant to the issue at hand.
· Facilitation skills are employed in all meetings and other communications to ensure that all voices are heard, meetings are orderly and efficient, ground rules for respect and collaboration are followed, and the like.
· Consensus decision-making processes are used to the greatest extent possible.
· Overall, the ground rules and the decision-making process are determined by principles articulated earlier in this paper regarding mutual empowerment.
Ideally, all entities from local to global will endorse these guidelines for communication and conflict resolution. Hence, these skills will be taught from the first days of formal education. Parents and children will learn these skills. Businesses will confirm the value of these skills both in the effectiveness of the business and also in the happiness and productivity of employees.
In the relationship or institution of the family, partners will no longer try to win arguments about family decisions. Rather, they will engage in mutually respectful, creative, collaborative problem solving.
Parents and other adults in their relationships with children will acknowledge that a fundamental dynamic in their relationship is power – the provision and transfer of it, from adult/parent to child. The infant comes into the world essentially powerless, vulnerable, and totally dependent. Ideally, the parent can provide through love all of the power that the infant needs so that the infant experiences the love and the total connection with the parent. Thus, the child knows security and interdependent power rather than vulnerability and powerlessness. The parent and child then enter into a process from the child’s infancy until he or she becomes a fully actualized adult. The parent transfers and enhances power to the child, celebrates the growing competencies of the child, and allows for an evolution of the love between the parent and child that eventually becomes an adult-to-adult mutually empowering relationship. From this context of mutual empowerment between child and parent a new way of thinking emerges – the child and the parent are both full partners; the child chooses to accept the responsibility that comes with his or her increased freedom and independence; the parent chooses to let go of her or his control and delights in contributing to the child’s increased freedom, power, and responsibility. Both parent and child learn to have choice as individuals and in agreement with each other regarding where they fall on various polarities or continua including power/powerlessness, irresponsibility/responsibility, freedom of movement/restriction of movement as they move through various ages, conditions, and circumstances.
However, throughout history, in most cultures, through happenstance, outmoded ways of thinking, and ignorance, child rearing has taken very different courses. So, it should come as no surprise that humans have created institutions where power is not equitably shared, where authority is abused, where people are oppressed. Through child rearing and through mutually empowering relationships in our institutions, this course can be changed, bringing about wonderful individual and institutional results that are barely imaginable in the environment of our current, dominant power-over modes.
This commitment to mutual empowerment is the most promising means for fundamental and systemic change because through these mutually empowering relationships the participants experience a substantial increase in the love and joy in their lives and also because we all can assume responsibility. For example, by transforming the currently prevalent teacher-student model, mutual empowerment offers greatly expanded possibilities for change. The current teacher-student model is the model of a teacher imparting or transmitting learning to a student in which the power relationship between teacher and student is static. Of course, there are some teachers who facilitate learning through what is essentially mutual empowerment. However, such teachers are rare. And, teachers who are so disposed may or may not have the opportunity to teach in environments or under conditions which support teaching in this way.
A qualified teacher, in the mutual empowerment model, enters into a relationship with the student that is based on encouraging the student to take on more power and responsibility regarding learning, and thus to create conditions for mutual empowerment and the transfer and enhancement of power. Practically, teachers need to understand that they will never be fully prepared to teach if they think they need to know all there is to know about a subject. And, students need to abandon the notion that all they need to do is find the teacher who will inject them with all they need to know. All of us need to learn together how to create and sustain personal and institutional relationships that are based in love and joy at the same time that they are highly effective in accomplishing the tasks that they decide to take on.
Teacher-student dynamics extend far beyond the teacher-student relationship in school, workshop, and academic environments – those dynamics also are pertinent to parent-child, employer-employee, preacher-congregation, coach-player, conductor-musician, commander-soldier, and numerous other relationships. Yes, in all these relationships it is appropriate at times for the accomplishment of specific tasks to have an agreement among all parties involved that there needs to be a hierarchy of command and particular tasks to be accomplished by designated people. And, that hierarchy and definition of tasks is best determined by the active participation and the consent of all parties involved. A problem or breakdown is present when one or more parties claim command and express power over others to the detriment and displeasure of those others.
In the parent-child relationship, when the child is a one-day-old infant, there exists an enormous disparity in power. And, mutual empowerment does not suggest that somehow the parent should negotiate with the infant regarding how much care the parent should provide. With the infant child, the parent assumes responsibility commensurate with the disparity in power. That responsibility is to love and to be of service to the infant in the context of empowerment for the infant, meeting all of the infant’s needs; and, helping the child learn how to communicate clearly about needs, how to acquire power and how to assume responsibility regarding meeting those needs. Since most parents have needs of their own that may at times, given finite time and resources, be in competition with those of the infant, the parent may be unable to be of full service to the infant. In the mutually empowering relationship, the parent is aware that there are consequences of having a lack of time or resources to provide the full service which is ideal. We can hope that in most cases the lack of time and resources is minimal. In these cases, the parent need not feel guilt or remorse and the impact on the infant may be minor. The parent can communicate, yes even to the infant through limbic resonance, that the parent loves the infant and that the parent is a finite and fallible human being – probably, a good lesson for all children. Given these same circumstances, but looked at from the teacher-student framework, it is too easy for the parent to slip into negative attitudes such as: I am the parent; I’m in control; my infant needs to learn a schedule that meets my needs; that’s the real world; and, don’t talk to me about how my behavior may affect the well being of my child.
In short, any time, in the context of the teacher-student model, the teacher, the parent, the employer/boss, says in essence, to the detriment and displeasure of the student, the child, or the employee, “do what I say because I am the authority or the power-over person,” there exists a problem of greater or lesser importance. When a teacher, parent, or boss in the context of mutual empowerment feels an inclination to invoke such power, they realize that there could be a problem and either puts forward another alternative which is effective regarding the task at hand and which meets with the pleasure of the person feeling disempowered; or, they engage the other parties to work together to find alternatives.
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To reach the goal of fundamental change, we must replace the power-over dynamic with that of mutual empowerment. There is essentially no change if those who are oppressed or abused overthrow the oppressors and establish their own version of the power-over dynamic. That version may appear somewhat gentler and kinder at first. But, it is nevertheless the same dynamic; only the roles have been reversed. The persistence of that new version of the power-over dynamic will push human civilization further down its destructive path. Yes, there is some emotional response that may lead us to feel that the oppressors got what they deserved. But, at heart, such a response fuels retribution, retaliation, or humiliation – dynamics which must end if there is ever to be restorative justice or transformation to mutual empowerment.
We must do all that we can to eliminate oppression and the power-over behavior of the oppressors. And, power can be, and probably must be, used to bring about this elimination. But, that power must be power-to – most fundamentally the power to affirm life. Individually, we must do all we can in our power to live lives based on mutual empowerment in everything that we do. Collectively, we must work to eliminate the actions of power-over people and institutions. As we might restrain a child from hitting another child, we can do the parallel action with a power-over adult or institution. In restraining the child, we would do so with love, without humiliation, with understanding, and with the space and exploration to allow that child to learn life-affirming alternatives to hitting another. We can have similar approaches with adults and institutions.
We should be clear then that while we are striving to eliminate oppression, we are doing so by eliminating the power-over dynamic and putting in its place the dynamics of mutual empowerment. Furthermore, while our compassion is quite understandably with those who are oppressed and our antipathy is directed towards the oppressor, we must give all people the opportunity to move into mutually empowering relationships. However, let us not be naïve, most oppressors will not willingly relinquish their power-over; though some will. As we would restrain the hitting child, we need to restrain the oppressor. Restraining an oppressor could mean some kind of physical confinement while giving the former oppressor every opportunity to learn new ways of mutual empowerment. While we realistically expect that those who are oppressed will be far more motivated to move towards mutually empowering relationships and thus be agents for fundamental change, we must allow for and invite former oppressors similarly to be change agents.
What does this all mean in concrete terms? How do we get from here to there? How do we deal with an oppressor who carries out evil acts and who will hang onto power over without the slightest inclination to change?
While the answers to these questions depends upon the circumstances in which we must act, and while those circumstances are often complex, we can provide some guidance by looking at a few examples. Blowing up a building would usually not be seen as a life-affirming action. However, when Jews in work details while experiencing terrible suffering and barely staying alive on the brink of starvation in Nazi concentration camps smuggled explosives bit by bit out of their work locations and made a bomb which blew up one of the killing ovens in that concentration camp rendering it inoperative for the duration of World War II, they took a life-affirming act of considerable courage which probably saved tens of thousands of prisoners. When slavery was legal in the U.S. and a slave chose to escape and was aided by those in the Underground Railroad, those acts were life-affirming and mutually empowering. There are many other examples of this kind in history in countries throughout the world in which people were successful in expressing their collective power to affirm life. Please understand that I am not advocating blowing up buildings nor wholesale disregard of laws. However, I am suggesting that we assess situations as completely and as wisely as we can in which there is human suffering. With that assessment we then need to determine the best ways to speak the truth about those situations and choose life-affirming actions which can mitigate or eliminate that suffering.
Situations other than Nazi concentration camps and slavery may be more difficult to assess. What makes an immigrant settler in Massachusetts in 1776 who from a place of hiding shoots and kills a British Red Coat a patriot or freedom fighter, while an Iraqi in 2007 placing a roadside bomb intended to kill U.S. occupying military is a terrorist? Probably, neither of these actions is life affirming. And, there is little to suggest that either party was involved in advancing a process of mutual empowerment. Both were most likely engaged in trying to reverse the power-over dynamics.
And yet, we are inclined to cheer when the “good guy” kills the “bad guy?” We get some deep pleasure when the non-human monster is slain? Some emotions associated with acts like these are learned. Other such emotions are deeply engrained in our reptilian brains. On the learned side, if we had long-established means and experience with those means which restrained “bad guys” and with compassion gave them the opportunity to become empathic, loving, mutually empowering people; we would find abhorrent and inhumane the killing of such a person.
In our human reptilian brain, there remains deeply engrained to this day after hundreds of thousands of years the hard-wired response of fight or flight which is stimulated in certain dangerous or threatening situations. That fight-or-flight response is not going to go away, at least not in the next hundreds of years. However, the good news is that our brains also have a limbic system and a neocortical system. The limbic system, if permitted the time and circumstance can establish sufficient resonance with the threatening party so that alternatives to killing become possible. Again, given even a second or two, the neocortex brings to the situation the human capacity of choice. So, given this potentially lethal mix of human capacities, it is especially important to take guns, not to mention bombs and nuclear weapons, out of the hands of humans whose reptilian brains might dictate immediate destruction before the limbic or neocortical systems can come into action.
What you offer is helpful. I appreciate the context that you have created. But, I still am unclear as to what to do. Concentration camps and slavery are not part of my everyday experience.
I will respond to your question understanding the perspective from which you present it. However, I must comment first that even though slavery has been abolished in the U.S. in any formal sense, institutional slavery may very well exist in only a more subtle way than slavery existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. In short, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. work long hours, for low pay, in jobs they find at best unfulfilling, have their family life undermined and still live in poverty. Furthermore, the maldistribution of income and wealth in the U.S. cannot be considered humane. The economic system that produces these situations is perpetuated, consciously or unconsciously, by the few who control the overwhelming majority of the wealth. This maldistribution of wealth and power may be exacerbated under different U.S. administrations. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that this maldistribution has existed throughout U.S. history and for thousands of years in most places throughout the world.
Coming back to the question of what do we do. First, I refer back to the William James story of the climber in the Alps presented in the earlier pages of this paper and to the possible dynamic that too many of us already have accepted the inevitability of the disempowerment of our lives. Even though you have stayed with this paper this far, there may still be a significant voice inside you which is saying something like, “I like what you’re saying; I want to believe that fundamental change is possible; I still don’t see it happening; when I see any signs of it, I will jump right in there with you; in the meantime I have so many demands on my time that all I can do is keep scrambling to keep my life sort of together.” I understand what you are saying. I will discuss below some different contexts for action. I will make two points here. First, we make significant choices is most everything that we do, no matter how mundane and trivial those choices may appear. Second, those choices that we make either contribute to our sense of disempowerment or build our capacity and practice of empowerment. While these two statements are true, it is not always easy to know, particularly in our complex world and lives, where on the empowerment-disempowerment continuum our actions fall. We strive to serve and love our fellow human travelers. At the same time we must nourish ourselves. We must seek alignment, integration, and balance in the universe that is our lives. And, as we have seen earlier, we cannot do this alone because an essential part of each of our balances is emotional resonance and connection with others.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
From “A Great Wagon”
by Jelaluddin Rumi in “The Essential Rumi” Translations by Coleman Barks, p. 36
When those in power-over invoke power to the detriment and displeasure of those with lesser institutional power, they do so with positive/constructive or negative/destructive intensions. In the context of creating a loving and just society, intentions are secondary because by invoking power-over they have violated the mutually empowering relationship. When the mutually empowering relationship has been violated by the power-over party, the party who is the object of that power has the responsibility to point out that violation to the abuser. Preferably, the abuser will acknowledge the problem and re-engage in the mutually empowering relationship. It is also possible that the apparently abused party may feel displeasure, perceive that the abuser is acting in a way that is disempowering, and be wrong in this perception. Nevertheless, in that situation the displeasure still signals a problem. Time needs to be taken at that point to correct the perception in order for the mutually empowering relationship to move forward. In the context of mutual empowerment, the full range of alternatives is available including the mutual agreement that one party can assume the responsibility of taking on a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a given task, for a period of time, and/or under certain conditions.
Either or both parties may decline consciously or unconsciously to be part of a mutually empowering relationship. Many people today do not participate because they are unaware of the concept of mutual empowerment in which power is shared and can transition to a balance (equal or otherwise, but still equitable) to the pleasure of all parties. In fact, most of our society’s dominant institutions are based on outmoded teacher-student and adversarial models. Our U.S. democracy is a representative democracy – not a participatory democracy. Those in power have most always acted (possessing a range of intentions and values) with the belief that they have the right to wield that power with insufficient regard and sensitivity to the fact that by so doing they may be controlling others to their displeasure and detriment. Yes, there is some order in a representative democracy. Yes, there are many worse forms of government. However, as a result of this kind of democracy, root problems are not addressed. In fact, the roots of domestic and international conflict grow deeper. Resulting problems become more intractable, and more threatening to our society’s well being and to the natural environment our human existence is dependent upon.
Without intense scrutiny of the shortcomings of our representative democracy, most people in the U.S. continue to take for granted that this form of government is the best that we can have and that it eventually will solve root problems. To the contrary, our representative democracy is not the best that we can have and it will not lead to a socially just society because the competitive system that produces our political and economic leaders – the power-over people – for the most part effectively screens out those who might be inclined to engage in mutually empowering relationships that work to redistribute power. Those who may have had values needed to promote and live consistently with social and economic justice have had to compromise their values in order to get ahead, to not appear naïve or too idealistic, to be “realistic.” They may have genuinely believed that they needed to do what they did in order to get to a place of power and influence in order to make the changes that need to be made. But, when they got to that place of power-over, they found that they had given away too many of their principles and that they do not have the integrity and the moral foundation or the popular constituency necessary to support the change they had earlier imagined. The failure of the U.S. democracy to form the bedrock for social and economic justice has led to widespread cynicism regarding the possibility of ever having such a just society. The way out of this cynicism is through large and small mutually empowering relationships at all levels of human relationships committed to mutually agreed upon, shared power to the long-term benefit of all people. Through such a course of collaboration rather than competition, people can learn step by incremental step that families, neighborhoods, communities, societies can, in fact, manifest love and justice.
As the less powerful-over parties wishing to engage the more powerful-over in mutually empowering relationships, we can be savvy about the real world and effective in dealing with reality in the same way that the aikido master is effective and loving. We can stand strong in our centers of clarity and love knowing that the attacker is always off balance. We can deflect attacks, if and when they come, in the same way that the aikido master uses the force of the attack to throw and control the attacker. The aikido master does minimal harm to the attacker since self protection and control of the attacker are the main objectives. The aikido master offers the attacker the opportunity to join in harmony while making clear that repeated attacks will continue to be dealt with effectively.
The party wishing to transform power-over strives to live each moment according to principles of love and justice, always inviting the power-over parties to join in the mutually empowering relationship. If the power-over parties declines the invitation, the change agents do all that they can to manifest their values and to avoid the control and influence of the oppressor. Oppression results from the unjust or cruel expression of authority or power-over. Consistent with the values of a loving and just society, the change agents will strive to bring the power-overs into a mutually empowering relationship by exhausting every legal or formal institutional remedy available. If those approaches fail, the change agents’ most appropriate recourse will probably be various forms of nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience. Sufficient numbers of people following these steps will produce societies based in mutual empowerment. Following these steps will often require discipline – taking stands while inviting all parties to engage in creating mutually empowering relationships – and carrying out hard work. Increased practice in engaging in this work will increase the joy with which the work is done. Some of the power-overs will voluntarily work to redistribute their wealth and power. But, many will be fearful of changing their ways of accumulating and holding onto wealth and power.
The political and legal systems plays an essential role on society’s path to mutual empowerment. Currently, most political and legal systems, including those practiced in the U.S., while advancing some degree of justice also reinforce to a significant degree the current unjust distribution of power and resources. If our society or individual parties were to adopt a path of mutual empowerment, the political and legal systems would provide a set of rules, laws, contracts, agreements, and the like which would ensure that there is an orderly and as-speedy-as-possible process to move from where we are now to the desired condition.
Many of the power-overs will be understandably fearful of what will happen if they give up their power. The less powerful in many cases need to learn the skills to manifest the responsibility that goes along with the assumption of increased power. The political and legal systems can establish the structure which permits this transfer of power to happen successfully. As it occurs successfully, step-by-step, the power-overs will learn not only that their fears are alleviated, but also that they experience greater security and happiness as they move into lives of service and justice.
While we may have sympathy with the oppressed, we should be clear that even though they are oppressed they are not always right, positive, or constructive in their actions. Whether they are more or less right or constructive than the power-overs is of minor consequence in the pursuit of the establishment of mutually empowering relationships. The goal is for all parties to participate in mutually empowering relationships. Only then can problems be solved rather than temporarily held in check or exacerbated.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder he lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already void of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr. - 1966, Eutaw Alabama church
The unjust expression of power is oppression and violence even in its subtle forms. Humans, consciously and unconsciously, have created and held tightly, often out of fear, to oppressive governing systems for at least 16,000 years with the result that the human spirit is weakening, suffering and injustice are far too prevalent, and we are destroying our natural life-support systems. Human civilizations have traveled this path for so long that we have difficulty imagining another way. However, it is not too late for us to adopt another path.