My wife, Dr. Cedar Barstow, is busy this week teaching her “basic” course,” “Right Use of Power—The Heart of Ethics.” She’s been offering it for years, not only here in Boulder, Colorado, but around the U.S. and in a dozen countries abroad. But this year is different for two reasons. First, it’s late-September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, this is the first time she’s presented it virtually via Zoom. She has some 31 students from five or six countries. Second, as her 76th birthday nears, it’s her last time offering this annual training—a huge milestone since, as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, she finds retirement about as comfortable as eating a full bowl of very hot kim chee.
In this training, which Cedar created, one traditionally has talked about four kinds of power: personal, professional, status, and collective. The first is one everyone has as a birthright. Think of how by screaming even an infant gets fed, held, or changed. The second is an add-on, like putting on a scarf. It’s based on the extra power of a job in which anyone else reporting to you is “down-power” from you. You can hire or fire them. You can give them a raise or not. The third depends on the values, for better or worse, of your society. In East Asian cultures, elders have higher status power. In the United States and other Western countries, having a white skin makes one ipso facto up-power from persons of color. Collective power, then, is that of teams, labor unions, protests, letter-writing campaigns, and movements.
Given the Black Lives Matter movement, many of us white people are slowly becoming aware of a fifth kind of power, institutional or systemic power. This is the power that institutions and unconscious cultural assumptions have over us. It’s a first cousin of both status and collective power. Think of a bureaucracy or governments themselves. Like all types of power, the institutional or systemic variety can be exerted for good or ill or a mixture of both. The power of the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt helped millions of Americans out of poverty and into a growing middle class. The current U.S. government, according to many of Americans, is having the opposite effect and making the United States, so proud of its thriving democracy, a laughing stock around the world. And then there is systemic racism. According to author Ijeoma Oluo, racism is more than simply prejudice against someone because of their race; it is this socially instilled prejudice “reinforced by systems of power” (So You Want to Talk about Race, 2019, p. 26.).
Power in and of itself is value-neutral, simply the ability to have an effect or influence. It’s how we use our power that makes all the difference. If there are right uses of power, there are also wrong ones. It’s up to us to use ours and make sure society uses its for good, not ill.
Dr. Cedar’s Rx – “You have power. Please use it wisely and well!”