Sunday, 11 July 2010

Forms of Power

A post here just got a very interesting comment. I'm going to reproduce it here, and then make a few comments of my own.
"Why do we condemn the patriarchy if not for the fact that it is a power imbalance? What theoretical footing can feminism have if it is not the rejection of power imbalances?"

A frame of reference I have found useful is the distinction between a "rational and temporary" imbalance of power and an "irrational and permanent" one. For example, as the parent of a child, I held a "rational and temporary" imbalance of power vis-a-vis my daughter which derived from my greater understanding and mastery of many aspects of the environment and my responsibility for getting her safely to the point where her knowledge and mastery allowed her to function independently. It was an imbalance intended to come to an end, a goal for which I bore - in my very power - a great deal of responsibility for achieving. My daughter is now in her late 20s, and we both work hard to weed out the last remnants of that old, once-rational-but-now-outdated imbalance in order to achieve the *balance* of power that is more appropriate to two adults in relationship.

The context in which I learned this way of distinguishing two types of power was that of the therapist-client relationship. As a radical feminist practicing psychotherapy, one of my main concerns was to acknowledge and play my part as one whose experience and expertise placed me in the position of having greater power in a way that guaranteed its "rational and temporary" nature. Everything I did was ultimately in the service of shifting that power balance so that ultimately my client and I would be in a relationship in which our power was equal.
A second concept which has served me well has been the distinction between "power-over" and "power-as-personal-potency." Patriarch only has one concept of power; it is synonymous with "domination," or "power-over." Feminism (re-)introduces another form of power, that of "potency," which does not require the subservience of another in order to exist. When the personal power/potency of all parties is a 'given,' then an exploration of power-as-domination, it seems to me, can have an entirely new reality.
I honestly can't tell whether this commenter is pro-SM or anti-SM. She mentions being a radical feminist, and most of those I've met are anti-, but there's a difference between speaking of a group and speaking of an individual. So I'm not sure.

But I like the idea of "rational and temporary." When I was studying Wartenberg on power, he spoke of two different kinds of power as well. He called the sort of power that a good parent or good teacher has over a child "transformative power." His analysis is very similar to the commenter's here: this power is intended to be wielded temporarily, and intended to phase itself out over time as the child develops her own control over her life.

I like that very much as a base for talking about why healthy D/s isn't abusive and has nothing to do with patriarchy. Still, it's not perfect. Obviously, participants in consensual BDSM are not children, and most D/s is not intentionally set up to change over time. (Of course, being realistic, we should recognize that it actually will -- no power dynamic is ever completely static.) It's certainly not intended to bring about its own obsolescence. So opponents of D/s could make the argument that it's not the same thing.

The thing is, I don't think that all of us magically outgrow relations in which concensual hierarchy or consensual power dynamics exist. Yes, most of us leave school at some point in our lives, but plenty of us still learn things, take classes, put ourselves under the informal tutelage of friends. We all have limitations, things that others we know do better than we do. We all have situations in which we want to be sheltered and comforted, and to lose ourselves at least in the illusion that a more powerful loved one can protect us. We all -- I hope -- have situations arise in which others respect us as trusted authorities too, whether as wise bosses, senior members of organizations, or even just good givers of advice.

Which leads me to see power relations in which one person has more power than another as quite natural and, much of the time, rather unremarkable and boring. Hence my confusion when people of a "radical" bent want to shine a spotlight on "how power works" and throw most of it out, envisioning a more "egalitarian" (so it's termed, anyway) world.

And when we get to BDSM, or to D/s specifically, I blink. It's right to worry about the potential for abuse, just as it's right to be careful when using a knife or lighting a fire. Those things can harm you, or even kill you.

But the fact that they are dangerous does not make them so terrifying they're no longer useful. We could choose not to use a knife or a match and still live a perfectly productive and interesting life, though we might have to make some interesting adaptations. So if radical feminists want to try and eradicate as much hierarchy as they can from their lives, that's fine with me. It's just like the person who goes through some interesting convolutions because she's scared of knives. It's none of my business.

But when someone goes on a crusade against knives, saying that we can hurt ourselves with them, or mentioning that sometimes they're used in violence or homicide, that's when I roll my eyes and decide that someone's being truly unreasonable. It's not someone else's choice what risks someone else takes, especially when their own life is structured to avoid risk in a way that most of the rest of us would never do. No, it doesn't make the rest of us right that we all do the same thing -- hundred thousand lemmings can be wrong -- but the simple point that the knife is dangerous does not thereby prove that none of us should be using them.

Or that if we do use them, we should see this as a regrettable, necessary evil that stems only from the fact that our society has not yet advanced to the point where we can cut food without sharp things. That we should see enjoying cutting our vegetables as some sort of sign that we're inherently broken, damaged by abuse, or possessing "false consciousness" taught to us by a culture invested in selling us Ginsu knives.

When we grow and become adults, hopefully one tool we develop is discernment in the power relations we enter into. Some of us, of course, will not do this -- and sometimes the most fine-honed discernment in the world is useless in the face of a sufficiently charming con artist, deceiver, or abuser. But the mere fact that some of us don't have discernment, or that we can be bamboozled by the cruel and unethical, does not mean those of us who do should be told not to use it.

And that's the thing that gets me in all this, really. The society that many anti-SM people envision as Utopia is built for the lowest common denominator: no sharp edges. No matches. No knives. The poor, poor women could get hurt!

Perhaps I'm wicked for this, but I don't believe we build a successful and healthy society by choosing the maximum level of protection and telling the smartest and wisest they'll just have to suck it up and not take risks so as not to confuse the vulnerable. Protecting the vulnerable is important, but that should be done in a nuanced way. That should not be done by forcing the rest of us to live tapioca lives because someone who doesn't understand might see, might see!

That's the thing. I do believe people have some responsibility for other people seeing and emulating their behavior, but I don't think "think of the women!" is any less disgusting than the kind of "think of the children!" that forgets that thoughtful children, when engaged in deep and age-appropriate discussions of the world around them, can actually understand a lot of things.

Besides, I'm female. I don't want people protecting me because they're "thinking of me." I don't want people protecting my partner from me without, you know, at least saying three words to her first. I want a fulfilling life with my partner that includes the kinds of dynamics she and I choose for ourselves, thanks.