In physics, power is the capacity to do work – like lift a weight or boil water to make steam- work is something that might be exploited in some useful in some way.
Human systems are far messier and understanding power is more complex, notions of power, work, useful, especially exploit are laden with layers of meaning most of which aint good but power can still be understood as that same capacity to do something – to act in the world to affect the world.
Now, one person’s acting in their world impacts the capacity of others to act in theirs. Power-over refers to one person or one group having power over another, using their power in ways that delineate how other can act, delineate who they are. Sometimes that’s blindingly obvious in its intention and effect -and human history is replete with examples of that.
Often though it’s much less obvious, here’s one example of how power over is exercised subtly yet with great impact. Acting to define another’s experience is, definitively, a definition-in-action of using power as power-over them.
We each have the same right to use our power to describe our own experiences in terms and language of our own choosing. We each have the same basic right to name our world and to name our experiences in the world, name ourselves.
While we have the right to name ourselves in our own words, it pays to be careful when we name the experience of others. The words we use to name others and their experiences says more about us than it can ever say about them.
Whenever we use our power, and the power of the groups, societies and institutions we belong to or work for to define the language others use to describe their experiences then we are using our power as power-over them.
We are determining that we have more right to name their experience than they have. Whether we do that consciously or unconsciously that is a choice we make.
We can choose to use our power to make the world smaller for others- defining, on our own the terms, the words they use name their world, the words they use to name their experience in it and the words they use to name them themselves.
We can instead seek to use our power to make the world easier and larger for others – to use our power to aid them finding and using their power and using whatever language best suits them in communicating their experience with the world.
Our role is not to tell others how to name their experience our job is to listen and seek to understand.
When we impose our words or our specific meaning of a word on other we impose our world over theirs, we impose ourselves on their lives, we colonize them they can become accepted only when they learn our jargon, when they adopt our reality as theirs, our definition of them as their own.
There are some who use their power to define use of language in new ways as “symptoms” of illness – dismissing it as meaningless “word salad” and “neologism”. As neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran says:
“if someone says something we don’t understand it doesn’t mean they are crazy, it means we’re not smart enough to understand.”
Others might call it poetry.
We can use language to define a dystopian world where only a privileged few get to decide what words the rest of us must use, and how we must use them but our experience of language is as a creative process- one in which we all participate- and we can use language to create a world that’s easier for to live in for all of us.
Words as gift or words as weapon.
Klaatu barada nikto.