a “perspective” on power

[Submitted to KQED’s “Perspectives”]

Everything I learned about power-sharing, I learned in San Francisco Bay Area college classrooms.

Growing up, I’d never seen or experienced power done in any other way than how I lived it in my family’s culture: with a father who was the sole authority, and who held and wielded all the power. Who chained the agency of his young children. My father, alone, decided that no one had the power to speak in our family but him. I tried challenging him, twice, and both left a mark.

But in college classrooms in the Bay, professors–humans who seemed like a whole different species to me–invited me to speak, to share the floor. To share their power. Teachers and other learners turned toward me, listened; they saw me. They responded with respect. In those Bay Area college classrooms, I existed for the first time in a world where I was allowed my full range of expression, without fear. It was like magic and it changed everything.

I learned how to do power differently. I learned: how access to accurate information shares power. I learned: how human acknowledgement shares power. I learned: how open processes share power, how listening shares power; how optimism, support, and encouragement share power.

I lived the health and well-being afforded those with the privilege to sit in those democratic classrooms.

Of course, academia isn’t some magic power-sharing place and magical power-sharing classrooms exist beyond the Bay. But, for this Bay Area learner who grew up in an authoritarian family culture, the power-sharing magic in those classrooms happened regularly for me.

I left the East Bay at the end of October 2016 for other worlds. I’m headed home there in November* this year. It’s an old cliché, but there really is no place like…the San Francisco Bay Area.

*Home on March 16, 2020.

Everyday authoritarianism

Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.

Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.  

Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is agency.

For instance:

  • When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
  • When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
  • When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
  • When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
  • When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
  • When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
  • When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those benefits
  • When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
  • When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
  • When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
  • When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
  • When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life. 
  • When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.

When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.

Living democratically every day means sharing power. Living a democratic ethic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.

Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions, we can understand fully, we are able to spend our time on our purposes; we can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with self-esteem; we are able to engage fully, effectively assess situations, live without fear of poisonous ideas. Living democratically means being able to confidently drive our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”

Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.


Other scholars who have studied or commented on everyday authoritarian practices

Brian Porter-Szűcs, Everyday life under authoritarianism in Poland, 17 July 2018

Insa Koch, Everyday authoritarianism in Britain, 2018

Nur Amali Ibrahim, Everyday authoritarianism in Singapore, 8 March 2018

Marlies Glasius, Authoritarianism is in everyday practices, May 2018

Emily Walton’s “misrecognition” in a US rural culture, 4 November 2019

Tom Pepinksy, Everyday authoritarianism in Malaysia, 6 January 2017