Our Habitual Responses to Authority

Submission may be so ingrained in us that we are not powerful when we can be

Posted Aug 16, 2012

by Miki Kashtan

Once I began to recover from my despair about not finding ways of changing relationships with people from my own position of limited power, I recognized, sadly, that the same forces that shape how those in power act also shape our responses to those in power. Unless we put deliberate attention into it, we accept without much questioning the notions of power that have been handed down to us as the only version of power there is. When I lead workshops about power, I almost invariably find that people have a deeply suspicious relationship to power. Invariably, this has been because of what they associate with power: lack of care for others, top-down unilateral decision-making, and power-over relationships. We accept, in particular, another either/or aspect of the prevalent power paradigm: that the only possible responses to power are submission or rebellion.

Submission Can Take Many Forms

First and foremost, it’s clear to me that people are not specifically aware of giving their power away, which makes it difficult to remember to wake up and make a different choice. It seems almost natural for many of us that “the person in leadership” gets their way, as if that is simply how it is, not a choice made by humans which can then be made differently. I so often hear that it simply didn’t occur to someone that they could say “no” or could ask a question when they weren’t clear about something, or make a request to do something different than what I proposed. These kinds of interactions took place not only within the context of the organization in which I am a leader. I also regularly experience them in the context of workshops, even while talking about power and learning how to shift from power over people to power with people.

Disempowerment is deeply ingrained in us through home and school to such a degree that the consequences are now internal. No one has to punish us any more; we suffer when we challenge someone in authority because of the doubt about whether we really matter; because we are afraid we would be perceived as rude, taking up too much time or space; not going along with the program. In short, we are afraid of loss of acceptance and shame more than of specific consequences.

Dehumanizing People in Power

My humanity is invisible in small ways, too. Just yesterday I had an example of this in a group that I’ve been meeting with, monthly and intimately, since February. When we each take a turn speaking of our lives, at least some people forget that I am one of the people who would take a turn and count how many are left without including me. It simply doesn’t occur to them that I am a human member of the group, because of the fact that I am leading the group. This is just one instance of a larger phenomenon of not seeing that leaders have needs like everyone else. It’s not about not caring; far from it. I’ve been with this group long enough to know the depth of love and appreciation that exist in this group toward me. I see it as being primarily about the invisibility of the human fallibility, frailty, and vulnerability of leaders. I have dedicated years of my life to learning to show my vulnerability at all times, including especially when I lead, because I want to counter such tendencies, and still it happens. I want to find a way to transform this dynamic, to support people in fully empowering themselves to see my humanity alongside theirs, not more, not less.

Rebellion Doesn’t Change Power Relations

So is rebellion and defiance the way out of the dynamics of power from below? Unlikely. One of the early lessons I learned from Marshall Rosenberg was that rebellion keeps the existing terms of the relationship. Even if I choose not to do what you tell me to do, even if I am bold enough to risk the consequences, I am not questioning the fundamental logic of how we relate to each other.

This was a hard lesson to grasp for me, because disobedience was an article of pride for me. I still remember the joy of refusing to do what I am told, risking, and sometimes receiving, the punishment, and feeling a rush of power inside me. I particularly remember the many times when rebellion took the form of doing exactly what I was told with an attitude of defiance that was not lost on my father. I told him, in every fiber of my body, that my sense of human dignity was kept separate from the choice to do what I was told to do. I wanted him to know that he didn’t have access to my spirit. If I am honest all the way, I have not fully shed the pleasure of rebellion, the intoxicating sense of being stronger than someone who appears to have the power to “make” me do something. I do, however, know fully now that an entirely different way is possible.

Rebellion against power sometimes takes an entirely different form, where what is being rejected is the whole idea of leadership and power, not just a particular leader or a specific action. This is the ethos that I understood to have operated in the Occupy encampments and movement more generally, a climate in which people were reluctant to provide active facilitation for fear of being attacked as taking power and leadership. Once again, the either/or thinking comes through: the only alternative to dictatorial power-over was seen as operating in a permanent state of full, inclusive participation. I am sad to say that I see the anti-authoritarian ethos as one of the reasons why the Occupy movement ultimately didn’t manage to catapult larger segments of the population into significant nonviolent resistance even though at one point the positions of the movement reached an unprecedented degree of support within the entire population of the US. More on this another day.

Beyond Either/Or

Although I feel myself in the early stages of understanding how to transcend either/or when it comes to power, I have walked long enough on the road to see that another way is possible. The obstacles, inner and outer, are clearly formidable. I refuse to consider them insurmountable. I say this word “refuse” with conscious awareness of its implications. It’s weaker than to be able to actually paint a picture of what it would look like from the position of not having power in a situation. I am inching my way there, and plan on writing more about it as I figure it out. Soon I plan to write about the glimpses I already have of what it can be like to choose to respond to authority with our full humanity, with power, with courage to face consequences, and with utmost love.