This website is about digging deep into power and oppression. In trying to make sense of oppression, I’ve stepped back from focusing exclusively on the specifics of the (many) forms it takes and how it manifests. Instead, I’ve tried to get a handle on WHY in some people, the impulse to oppress exists.
Many famous and not so famous people have blithely said that it is just human nature that spurs the impulse to oppress.
Unfortunately, this “human nature” level of analysis about power/oppression is very common, but it is also really superficial and incomplete.
Categorizing a dynamic or act as “human nature” is an incredibly slippery slope. But people do it all the time. Is speaking English “human nature?” No, but the desire to communicate and the ability to learn language as a youngster does seem to be. Is eating crickets or plants from the nightshade family “human nature?” No, but eating is. Is putting on clothes human nature? No, but the desire to fit in AND express oneself appears to be. My point is, for humans at this stage of our collective social awareness, It is incredibly easy to mix up what is “natural” in our cultural context with what is human nature. Every person on Earth is utterly surrounded by millions and millions of bits of cultural norms we all (mostly unconsciously) respond to.
Beyond that, our cultures still vary widely. We in the Western world live with the legacy of “colonizer mindsets” that ended up being frighteningly successful. Colonizer mindsets allowed mostly males to invade and then actively trying to wipe out untold numbers of cultures. Folks from these mindsets not only tried, but in numerous cases succeeded in completely wiping out some cultural traditions. So there’s that lovely little reality.
As a result, remnants of “colonizer mindsets” still greatly infect our cultural contexts today. When looked at objectively, the reality is we collectively accept (in modern Western cultures) absolutely horrific amounts of cruelty, violence, and senses of completely misplaced superiority. Many of the cultures that have survived have been pretty violent, while others who were more egalitarian have been…mostly obliterated.
That’s a very difficult reality for people to accept, but it’s true. So many people will try to say that’s just how humans are built. But even if there is some “human nature” at work around oppression, could “human nature” ever be reduced down to a simplistic monolith?
These questions and observations have been routinely, hubristically, and sometimes purposefully overlooked when people point to “human nature” to excuse or explain oppression, greed or selfishness.
And yet the idea that it’s human nature to try to dominate over others is taken as a truism, not a cultural construction. In that way it is like so many other historically and utterly wrong ideas about human nature that have served as organizing principles. For examples: the Earth used to be scientifically known as the center of the universe, men were known to be superior to women, white people were known to be better than others, and a male god who acted in capricious ways was utterly seen as factual, despite no one ever being able to prove his existence. These were “obvious facts” to millions of utterly wrong people for the entirety of their lives. So yeah, people have uttered variations about the “natural” selfishness of humans so often over the course of hundreds of years, that this idea is taken as if it were fact by most people.
Having said that, many sense that the idea: ‘it’s human nature to oppress’ isn’t quite right, but we collectively don’t really have very satisfactorily fleshed out alternative explanations. We have noted the many symptoms of problems around selfishness, but we’ve haven’t really gotten too far with figuring out the differences between what is a symptom of the disease, and what the disease itself really is.
Chickens and Eggs Are Not The Same
In my thinking, oppressive impulses born from beliefs about “might makes right” are the disease. In this view, serious problems like patriarchy, economic exploitation, racism, homophobia, environmental and animal exploitation, fascist, authoritarian thinking, religious persecution, colonization and other oppressions are symptoms, not root causal agents.
Don’t get me wrong here, you can definitely (and in many cases horrifically easily) die from these symptoms—I’m NOT dismissing them at all. However, you can also die from a myriad of opportunistic infections and cancers brought on by HIV that develops into AIDS. If you try to cure AIDS by only focusing on curing the specific infections or cancers that ail specific individuals, it will only get you so far. Medical researchers figured this out relatively quickly in the case of AIDS.
But cultural illnesses are not nearly as widely understood as medical diseases. And understandably, if your group has been affected by a particular symptom, it does make a lot of sense to try to address that particular symptom, especially in the absence of understanding that it is a symptom of a larger disease.
As a species, humans are much less adept at understanding sociological forces and anthropological determinants in social problems than we are at understanding the determinants of physical illnesses such as cancers, or even how to set broken bones. The reasons for the lack of sophistication in the social science realms are complex, but an important reason is because simple social facts get lots of pushback from lay people who are threatened by…the social facts themselves. So we still live in a pretty primitive and very fractured time in terms of cultural understandings about what ails us.
Why Should I Care If It’s A Chicken Or An Egg?
The reality is the majority of people have very simplistic ideas about power.
This is a horrible reality, because our ills are—clearly— related to power.
Theorists who have studied power, tend to study ‘power over’, as if it were the only form of power.
‘Power over’ is conceiving of power in terms of the ability to compile others by force, when necessary. is often seen as a scarce item that is related to ‘leadership,’ to war, and to political power. If we limited our studies this way in the field of say, chemistry, the whole field would be a narrow one, focused on explosives, and not paying any attention at all to less dramatic, but incredibly useful ways chemistry works to create crystals in rocks, cellulose in trees, or in creating the very air we breathe. So, as a species, we really—haven’t —gotten much further than ’Nah, I don’t think that’s it,’ in our understandings of power and why —some—people resort to or are prone to becoming authoritarian, have we?
This primitive level of knowledge about power again makes a certain kind of sense, since the most dramatic ways power manifests —are—through force.
But it’s a huge problem for us currently when many prior “great” thinkers about power have —ended— discussion on the topic by inferring or even blithely proclaiming that it’s just human nature to do evil things, or that it’s just human nature to lust after power.
I don’t discount the fact that the vast majority of these “great thinkers” have been mostly white, privileged, and male, and neither should you. It’s surprisingly easy and wondrously convenient to believe in untested assumptions that help your status in life. It really is. But I will say it again for those in the back: the widespread and seemingly simplistic idea—that “power over” is the natural state of things—is an outright lie that people tell themselves. A lie they may very well believe, but it’s a lie nonetheless.
So What If It’s Wrong?
There are —at least— a couple of fundamental errors in the whole idea that ‘power over’ is the natural state of things. One has already been briefly mentioned. It is the conceiving of power as –only– manifesting as ‘power over.’ Power has been so fetishized that many humans honestly get confused or lost (and then usually quickly descend into defensiveness) when it is suggested to them that there are others ways of organizing life beyond a simplistic elementary school level “top of the food chain” hierarchy.
The point is, people have grown up seeing and learning about certain, very specific ways of wielding power. So they believe that is the entire universe of what power is. Getting people to think about power in different ways can be a lot like trying to describe snow as a weather phenomenon to someone who has always lived in the tropics, and has never even seen the stuff in videos, much less in real life. It is difficult to imagine for many. So there’s that piece.
But the other fundamental error is more experiential. At least for me and many people I know. I do not lust after ‘power over’ others. I simply do not. I can see its allure, I can see its advantages (as well as its many drawbacks), but I don’t want to live in that way.
Well, on further reflection, I do sincerely wish for them to not try to oppress others, so in that —very— limited sense I guess I do want to “control them.”
I find authoritarianistic ways of relating to be quite confining, and feel relationships built on “one up, one down” arrangements are pretty unsatisfactory ways of living, actually. And I’m human, as far as I know, so there’s that.
But there’s more to the experiential part: Because in my observations, to a person: people I consider to be brave, heroic and admirable, the most extraordinary people I know (or just know of, like the Dali Llama, for example) simply don’t lust after having power ‘over’ others. I would encourage people to reflect on this relatively simple idea for a minute or five every single day, actually.
Furthermore, it’s also undeniably true that every single person I find to be oppressive, regressive, utterly wrong, lacking in compassion, and who engages in acts of corruption and other injustices do —actively— seek to have power over others.
Unfortunately, people who do not -consciously- realize their beliefs are rooted in beliefs in supremacy also hold these beliefs about wanting some measure of ‘power over.’ These are accidental racists, sexists, homophobes, apologists for billionaires, etc. Plenty of people don’t -realize- they’ve internalized cultural norms that specify that only certain folks “should be” in charge. But knowingly or not, holding these beliefs is a big part of the problem. It’s a cultural delusion. Just as people held cultural based delusions around gender in the 19th century, people often cling hard to their stunted beliefs and mistake them for facts on a frighteningly regular basis.
If It’s Not Human Nature, What Is It?
So anyway, my observations lead me to believe that the compulsion to want to wield ‘power over’ others is simply not a universal “need.” And whether it actually is or is not a real “need,” it is clearly perceived to be a “need” for some. Indeed psychology has known for some time that what some people perceive to be needs, would be much more accurately be categorized as compulsions.
Currently, millions of psychologically ill people mistake their compulsions for “needs.” For example, plenty of people are stuck with psychological compulsions for certain drugs, sex, internet connections, food, lack of food, and other compulsions. These desires are not really needs, but they feel like them to the people in the grips of being afflicted by them. They are…compulsions, driven by psychological dynamics that are complex, but have already been better and more thoroughly deconstructed by other people.
Soooo, with that said, let’s try to decode why power over exists, and how we can change how much influence it has on our problems, shall we?