Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Who's got the power?

I remember a song that had a chorus wherein the line "Who's got the power?" was repeated several times. When I searched...hmmm....multiple songs use the word power in their title. There's "Who's Got the Power" (here) and there's also "You've Got the Power" (here) and "The Power Lyrics" (here). I think the song I remember is the one associated with that first link. I don't recognize anything about the song lyrics from that last link...but...they seem to be associated with how I've been writing about social power.

Have Gone Vegan wrote a comment on the previous post about power that almost made smoke come out of my ears because it tripped off so much associating and so much cohering of pieces of information I had which were/are floating around in my head that it left me sort of reeling. And, I trust the sense of excitement I felt because that coherence sort of dissipated but when I focus on it again then some of that sense of excitement about some things beginning to make sense that didn't previously (make sense) begins to return. I've learned to trust that sort of experience because it sometimes suggests I'm onto something that's both powerful and meaningful.

HGV's comment included a quote from Professor Marilyn Frye's book: The Politics of Reality. If you don't have this book of essays and are struggling to understand aspects of the dynamics of oppression then...get it. You can find it for 99 cents plus the cost of shipping online.

In May of this year I wrote a post about narratives that referenced parts of this book. One essays works to explain how our position or positionality (our lived life experiences) profoundly determines that which we're able to comprehend or grasp. She uses the analogy of vision to elaborate about this by writing about our "seeing" (understandings, comprehensions) being influenced strongly by our particular positions (viewpoints, social locations, "identities").

HGV's comment included this quote from the book:

"One of the privileges of being normal and ordinary is a certain unconsciousness. When one is that which is taken as the norm in one's social environment, one does not have to think about it. Often, in discussions about prejudice and discrimination I hear statements like these: 'I don't think of myself as heterosexual'; 'I don't think of myself as white; 'I don't think of myself as a man'; 'I'm just a person, I just think of myself as a person.' If one is the norm, one does not have to know what one is. If one is marginal, one does not have the privilege of not noticing what one is." p147
In this passage, Dr. Frye points out to us that in addition to our knowing and comprehending being influenced by our social position (what we can "see") it also happens that if we are members of the dominant group then part of what we "know" are actually knowings/understandings that are transmitted to us (by our culture/society) but are out of our awareness (unconscious).

This means these "knowings" influence our comprehending/thinking/acting...but...we can't examine them or check them for accuracy or truthfulness or desirability.

It's critical to remember that what our culture presents to us as ways of thinking and/or understanding comes from people who lived before us and who decided (for various reasons, including self-interested ones) that this is how the "world" is or that such ways of thinking or understanding are just "common sense". Hmmm...

We "know" these things (meaning that they influence our behavior and understanding) but we don't consciously (or within our awareness) "know" that we know them. And that comes in seriously handy when we engage in or enact harmful/dominating behaviors toward subordinated group members but all the while simultaneously needing/wanting to cling to and experiencing ourselves as being "innocent".

Remember, in 1962, while the racist practices and laws of Jim Crow were in full effect in the U.S., 82% of white people believed educational opportunities were equal for everyone. An telling illustration of behaving horribly but maintaining innocence.

Being unconsciously influenced in how we behave and think is sort of magical really...because it can result in our doing shitty and hurtful things to our sister/brother humans (or sister/brother Earthlings) and simultaneously being unaware of the awfulness of what we're doing and thereby maintaining that very desirable sense of being "innocent".

It's often (not always, but often) suggestive of unconscious stuff going on when someone does something harmful to someone else and they are called out on it and their response includes howls of outrage and wounded innocence and denial of doing any such terrible thing or denial of harmful intent.

(I say often but not always because this is not a hard and fast formulaic thing, one way to try to confirm such goings on is to look for a pattern of repeated instances of harmful behavior and outraged denial. That's often a useful clue that unconscious factors are in play (either that or the person is just consciously lying). This sort of stuff is part of what makes learning to be an effective psychotherapist fairly demanding. Also this is why the average person usually isn't very skilled at being a competent psychotherapist. It's damned tricky to learn to recognize when unconscious factors are involved and you'll screw up often before you get to be half-way skilled. In other words, kids...don't try this at home...or if you do be prepared to screw up royally...and often.)

It's the outrage and wounded stuff that can serve as a clue that some "knowing" while not "knowing" (unconscious) process is in play because the outrage and woundedness is (usually, but not always) out of proportion to the situation and also sort of weird.

Think about it...if I accidentally or inadvertently harm another and they point it out to me...and I genuinely (no unconscious stuff going on) made a mistake...then I can take in the feedback I get, feel regret and remorse or whatever, and learn to avoid making that same mistake in the future. No need for wounded outrage. I mistakenly did a hurtful thing...I did not desire to cause hurt...I feel bad for doing the harm and...I'm responsible for learning more about what causes hurt so I can modify my behavior to avoid such harming in the future.

All well and good. Uncomfortable, heck yeah, but not some occasion for explosions of outrage and wounded innocence.

Or...maybe I did mean to cause harm...and I got caught...time to fess up and take my lumps. Either way...not an occasion for some sort of outrage type stuff.

But...if I harm another and that harming was based on unconscious stuff and I get feedback that I hurt someone...oops...my unconscious stuff got outed...I got caught doing a shitty thing that i (unconsciously) intended to do. How to keep unconscious the fact that somewhere I wanted to do what I did? In other words...how to do something harmful but also to influence others (and myself) to see myself as innocent? (and...to complicate it further...all this maneuvering is going on out of my awareness...it's unconscious)

Pitching a fit about my lack of culpability, accompanied by shrieks of outrage and expressions of wounded innocence is one way to (clumsily) cover up the bad stuff going on with me.  (stuff that I'm unaware of...know that that which is unconscious resists...powerfully...being brought into consciousness).

Notice that suddenly...even though I harmed someone else...I magically become the victim, all pristine and shiny and draped in wounded innocence. I get to act shitty without taking any responsibility for acting shitty and if anyone calls me out on my shitty behavior...zip zoop...they're the shitty one because I'm innocent and pure and devoid of bad intent and they've insulted me and called into dispute my my "good intentions" and innocence. It's sort of childish appearing when written out like this (and it is pretty crude and unsophisticated) but when it happens in real life it often discombobulates anyone witnessing it or that it is directed toward.

If you want to observe a human being who often screeches outrage about his innocence and exhibits defensive attacking anger and woundedness...go watch the Bill O'Reilly show on television. He's either seriously influenced by unconscious processes or he's a really scary and malevolent liar...either way he most excellently illustrates the kind of stuff we're grappling with. Denial accompanied by attempts to intimidate and bully others scripts many of his interactions with others. 

You might recognize this psychic maneuver by a phrase that's come into rather common usage. It's called: "Blaming the victim". You might remember it from your own childhood if you or someone else ever trotted on the phrase "she (or he or they) made me do it".

One historical example (there are tons of them)...think about how the Nazi regime viewed people they identified as Jewish. The Nazis maintained that their murderous campaign against millions of innocent victims was...here's the magic of the unconscious...an act of "self-defense". The Nazis maintained that the Jewish people were evil and bad and and and (even though there was zero evidence of this assertion)...and the atrocities that were carried out in death camps were because the victims were threatening the very survival of Germany. In other words the Nazis maintained their sense of "innocence" all the while engaging in unjustified and unprovoked harm to a subordinated group of people. Blame the victim....see how it works?

Some examples closer to home if you're an American? Think about the "savage" Indians your history books referenced, think about the notion of a "happy" enslaved African American. Think about "reverse racism". Unconscious processes offer human beings a distorted and terrible way to justify enacting atrocities while simultaneously retaining a sense of innocence. It's deeply seductive and insidious and destructive stuff.

We often see these kinds of contortions (wounded innocence suggestive of unconscious stuff) when members of dominant groups are engaging in harmful/dominating behaviors toward subordinated group members. That way dominant group members can enact horrid behaviors and maintain their sense of virtue. 

If you want to see it in action in person and you're white, pay attention to other white people and when you hear them say something that's racist in nature or do some racist act...call them out on it (do it in a way that's gentle because they're likely to focus on how you pointed out their bad behavior: "the tone argument") and pay attention to how they react.

If they made a mistake without unconscious harmful intent being in play, they may struggle with comprehending but...there's not likely to be wounded outrage.

If the unconscious factors are present...you might get to see quite a show...and you're also quite likely to be attacked for being a mean person for daring to impugn their incredible innocence (think Bill O'Reilly). Welcome to the world of the unconscious influencing of behavior. By the way, it's usually not fun when you encounter it.

Now, go reread the quote from Marilyn Frye above.

What a wonderful thing being "the norm" offers. If we are members of a dominant group, we get to be harmful toward members of a subordinated group and...and...we get to retain our sense of being innocent all through the magic of the unconscious.

Go (re) read my post on power (the one with the thoughtful comment from HGV) and notice the examples of all the "good" (innocent) people enacting heinous atrocities in various societies and...all the while...maintaining (to themselves anyway) their sense of pristine innocence.

Struggling to comprehend aspects of the "isms" of oppression is complex. Especially when you're a member of a dominant group...part of how this stuff just keeps rolling on is that one of the components (usually, but not always) of being a dominant group member is being unconscious (unaware) of behaving monstrously.

That ability to behave harmfully while believing oneself to be "innocent" may be why a woman (who's postioned as  a person of color) that I have great esteem and respect for said that until she was 20 years old or so she just thought white people were "crazy".  She had never met, or even read about, any white person who had any sense of the horridness of their behavior toward people of color or even that white people had the ability to comprehend that their behavior and attitudes were disgusting and deplorable and that there was something terribly wrong with them (white people) for having such attitudes/behaviors.

Robin DiAngelo writes about aspects of this sort of innocence that's based on the operation of unconscious processes masking attitudes of negativity when she wrote about what often occurs when trying to engage white people in talk about race and racism: "Our socialization renders us racially illiterate. When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we don’t know what we don’t know), you get the break-down we so often see when trying to engage white people in meaningful conversations about race."

She's not using the term unconscious...but it is in the very stuff she's referencing when she writes about racial illiteracy and an absence of humility and our not knowing what we don't know. What she calls a "breakdown" is what I've referred to as explosions of outrage and wounded innocence in this post.

And...what's really tough about all this is that it's even more complex than I've touched on here. Sigmund Freud spent a professional lifetime thinking and writing about the operations of the unconscious...as have many other humans.

In summary...what we know is strongly influenced by what we can comprehend ("see") because of our social positioning (whether we're situated in dominant groups or subordinated groups...or both) and also what we can comprehend ("see") is complicated by the operating of unconscious processes that usually (almost always) go along with being members of a dominant group.

Look...if you're a member of a targeted group (subordinated) then you damn well know that members of the dominating group are doing shitty things to you (usually...but not always) whereas if you're a member of a dominating group you may be doing shitty things to subordinated group members but...you're often hiding that from yourself (you're unconscious of it) and hence you feel all innocent and such. When you exhibit that false innocence to a member (who's aware of what's going on) of the subordinated or targeted group...they may see you as being either deranged or lying.

And...to make it even more convoluted, since positionality influences (determines) what we're able to comprehend ("see"), if I belong to one group (dominant or subordinate) I have to really work hard at trying to grasp what the other group members are comprehending and/or experiencing because I don't have their lived life experiences. But...if I belong to a targeted group and I'm being harmed by the actions of dominant group members and structures of society that they control...it's often not difficult to be aware of my being injured.

Dominant group members have two strong factors that interfere with their being coherent. One is that their positionality limits what they're able to comprehend or "see" and the second is the likely operation of unconscious processes...which means they're not in good contact with reality (they don't "know" what they know).

Whereas subordinate group members often only have one factor against their coherence and that's that their positionality limits what they're able to comprehend or "see". (this may be complicated by their unwitting acceptance of the dominant ideology and viewing themselves as "inferior" and deserving of the harms directed at them...that if only they "tried harder" all this bad stuff wouldn't happen to them)

Those last two paragraphs maybe explain why there's so much truth to the notion that members of subordinate groups generally have better or more accurate knowledge about what's going on in the operation of dominant/subordinate group interactions than do members of dominating groups. And...subordinated group members tend to understand and know more about dominant group members than vice versa.

(Note: there is, in no way, any comparison between being targeted for harmful behaviors and enacting harmful behaviors, do not confuse these two very different experiences...getting hit in the face is not comparable to hitting someone in the face...ok? In this post I'm just trying to tease out some of the factors that influence comprehension of this stuff. )

Want more? Well, my understandings are evolving which means I have to spend more time reading and thinking, in the meantime you can read some really good writing about this over on Dr. David Shih's blog.

And you thought resisting oppression was easy peasy, right?

Think about it this way, if oppressive actions and behaviors were fully transparent and comprehensible to us...do you really think they would be as persistent and widespread as they are?

Most human beings aren't shitheels (I don't think) and if it was easy to identify and recognize oppressive behaviors and social structures (don't get me wrong...in many ways it is easy...but in other ways it is extremely difficult and complex to comprehend) then the crap would probably have stopped a long time ago.

We (by "we" I'm primarily referencing those of us who are positioned as dominant group members...in the U.S. that means white or male or both. Also remember that humans are the dominant group in regard to other Earthlings) have much work to do.

Any comments and/or criticisms about this post you might offer will be appreciated. (No howls of outrage or wounded innocence, I promise. I'm getting a lot of practice at grappling with gaps and deficiencies in my comprehension.)



Have Gone Vegan said...

Complex indeed. No criticism from me, and I don't have much to add, other than that recognizing when some of this unconscious stuff is going on in others CAN make it easier to at least deal with. A personal, although maybe unrelated example, has to do with my mom. For decades her behaviour completely baffled her kids and drove us around the bend in trying to understand why she was behaving the way she did. Until I happened upon a checklist for narcissistic personality disorder, and all of a sudden a lot of things clicked and started to make sense.

So now it's easier because we can view some of her traits and behaviours (such as needing to be the center of attention at all times, complete lack of interest in others, insecurity and extreme sensitivity to criticism, and not being able to accept blame for literally anything) through the lens of that disorder, instead of taking it personally, trying to figure it out or even trying to make her see what's happening. We know, for example, that any criticism will elicit that show of outrage and wounded innocence you talked about, so we no longer bother (she's 89 after all), and can now actually laugh at some of the extreme lengths she'll go to to blame others for things she's forgotten she's done herself. It's easier, and has also helped to explain a lot of things that happened while we were growing up. Because of course kids tend to blame themselves, instead of realizing that their parent has a disorder they don't even know the name of.

It's the being able to name what's going on that then allows you to see, and seeing/knowing can not only give you more power, but take away (or at least take the edge of) the power that others have had over you. This is on a personal level though, so it's much harder when you have groups or even countries being unaware of the unconscious stuff that's driving their behaviour.

Almost makes we wish I were younger so I had more time to learn, figure things out, and help change stuff. Almost. ;)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Your comment is so rich and meaningful that I think I'll address aspects of it in a later blog post. Good for you for increasing your comprehension of reality (that's the being able to name and to know what's going on). Great stuff!! Congratulations to you.