15 Oct 2014

Power and inequality

All situations of inequality come down to issues of power. Those who have less access to resources – be that money, food or shelter. Those who are denied a political voice. Those whose rights are restricted because of sexual orientation, religion, race, mental health and the like. Those who are not able to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. Those who are not taken as seriously. We often see inequality manifest in a lack of opportunities, in silencing and in loss of money, but this is all about power, or the absence of it.

Every time someone suffers from inequality, someone else benefits. It may be that they get a bigger share of the resources and the money. It may be that their voice in the decision making goes unchallenged, and their vote makes more difference. It may be that they are not obliged to change.
If we want to tackle inequality, we have to look at that power dynamic. We have to ask the awkward questions about where we might be complicit. How do my shopping choices, as a white western woman, impact on inequalities in the global market? How can men in positions of power deal with the limits on their scope to represent the other half of the population? Those of us whose biology and identity corresponds neatly have advantages over those whose situations are more complicated.

To be normal confers a certain kind of power. If you fit comfortably into your culture, you look right, talk like everyone else, share the same values and beliefs... you have a power advantage over anyone who doesn’t conform. Some societies use that power to force conformity and drive out difference. Even going so far as to kill and imprison people who are different.

If you are a wealthy, well educated white man in a suit walking into a place of power – a court, parliament, a board room, even the local council... the chances are that you will see plenty of other white male faces and suits, and hear them talk your language. Even if you don’t agree, you start from a place of similarity. Walk into that space as a person who does not match the norm and you are already on the back foot.

Power over is a key part of how our culture works. Through laws, social systems and money, we have a whole way of life that gives a set of people power over others. The people with power have the money, always. The people with no power have no money, the two go together. We have a history of giving men power over women, Christians power over other faith groups, white people power over people of other ethnicities, the abled have been given power over the disabled. For much of history, the rights of some to make life altering choices for others has been widespread. Our laws may have changed in the last century or so, but many of the cultural habits remain. Most especially, we still have the collective idea that status means having power over someone else.

If we want to end inequality, what we have to end is the culture of power over. We need to give people the power to do, not the power to control other people. We need to recognise that when people are empowered to act, that doesn’t diminish anyone, whereas in a system of power-over, someone, always, ends up being reduced and disempowered, silenced and kept away from opportunities.

This post is part of the http://blogactionday.org/ discussion of inequality.

1 comment:

Lesley McDade said...

Inequality is something you do to yourself via your own subjectivity;
Unequal is something that others do to you via their subjectivity;
Be equal - be objective

Lesley McDade