Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power and No Glory

"Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Lord Alfred Tennyson

There are many facets of human existence, yet none are as insidious as an individual’s hunger for power over other people. The hunger for power over others and the exercise thereof – the most obvious manifestations of Nietzsche’s Will to Power – has caused untold suffering throughout human existence. But the hunger for power is not unique to Homo sapiens; it extends back long before the birth of our species. Gorillas and chimpanzees, for example, in fighting over resources and mates routinely go so far as to kill their competitors (if not within, then outside of their group). This behavior is not unique to our closest genetic relatives either; such behavior can be observed in animals far older and removed from us, but who with whom we still share a common ancestor, such as lizards.  [Lizards share the same Phylum as Homo sapiens; Chordata.] The behavior of one human seeking power over another human has a long history. This raises some questions: What is any one individual getting out of it? What are we getting out of it collectively, as a species? Are the ramification for better or worse? Should we accept this aspect of our nature or seek to overcome it?

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

What does an individual get out of seeking power? The reasons for any one individual seeking power over others is pretty clear as it is the same reasons mentioned earlier – it is a battle for resources and/or mates. Seeking power may also be for the sake of securing one’s own safety or the safety of their group (though their own safety typically supersedes that of the group’s) or to inflate one’s sense of importance, from which other ventures requiring confidence can then take place. We can see these reasons manifested in examples such as an unscrupulous CEO that suppresses information concerning the safety of their product for the sake of making money, any clergyman or self-described mystic (or any person in general) who claims special knowledge, authors of self-help books who must first convince you that there is indeed something wrong with you, and we can see it in porn that typically treats women as objects. A March 2013 paper that appeared in Psychological Science concluded power makes people happy. Happy people are generally healthier than unhappy people, so there appears to be a biological benefit to having power on several levels, so long as you’re the one who has it.

What does a group get out of seeking power? Since groups consist of individuals, it stands to reason that groups of people would seek power for the same reasons individuals do. By extension, you get similar examples of this behavior as before; a CEO extends their power to a board which runs a company with a clear hierarchy and agenda, the mystic who creates a religion around themselves, a multibillion dollar sector of the book-selling industry, and institutionalized misogyny. Even capitalism, assumed by many to be a mere economic system with no inherent flaw, in practice ultimately becomes a system that sees people working in unison to gain power over each other through the accumulation of wealth. (If you’re going to argue that this is a stretch, I would counter with the need for reports on a country’s health in which economic growth is a heavily considered factor.) The social arrangement of groups that seek power form hierarchies where those closer to the top benefit more from the arrangement. Even those at the bottom get something from the arrangement, assuming they are not forced into the group by coercion or threats of violence. Individuals run great personal risk to their freedom (if not overall health and safety) by operating outside the confines of the dominant group. You need only to ask anyone in the U.S. who is not a Christian for confirmation. Even at a most basic level, social groups form some kind of hierarchy; there appears to be a need for some people to be more important or thought of as more important than others.

“What do men of power want? More power.” The Oracle to Neo in The Matrix Reloaded

Without doubt, there are benefits to seeking power whether as an individual or group, but it is clear that both individual and group survival and reproduction are the driving forces behind the behavior. But, what are or have been the ramifications on a scale beyond the individual or group? Generally speaking, death, suffering, repression and imprisonment for those of a lower or outsider status at the behest of those in a group fearing giving up whatever status they have attained. Those who have power don’t want to share resources or are reluctant to change their own ‘tried and true’ ways. Historically, groups seeking more and more power have formed tribes and tribes became nation states (though tribalism is still very much alive), with the leader of any given group easily leading their group to war with another group. What all this power-seeking does is legitimize the notion, through killing or some form of repression, is that some lives are more valuable than others. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is easy to understand why individuals or groups would think this way. If this is the way we really want to think or want to believe that it is perfectly okay to seek power though other people’s lives are the price, then we have to be able conclude – across the board and without question – that some people actually are more important than others and are therefore deserving of their lofty or privileged positions.

“Judge not, least ye be judged.” The Bible, Matthew 7:1

Traditionally, there are several ways to examine a person’s worth; it can be measured in terms of a person operating within a society or in terms of the individual itself, free from the constraints of a society. But to talk of a person’s importance free from the constraints of society is irrelevant; there’s no need to measure a person’s importance if they stand alone on a deserted island. A person’s importance is then measured by that individual. Again, irrelevant. Individual worth can only be measured by those outside of any given individual and in being given this power to judge another human being is to begin the process of power-seeking itself. Any judgment by one person upon another person is for the person doing the judging to effectively say, I am – in at least some way – better than you and should therefore have power over you. In Western societies at least, the rush to judgment is so quick, so automatic that it implies that collectively, we think that some people are in fact better than others. If some people are better than others, than to seek power over other people is perfectly acceptable.

“Since mankind's dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so, they took our power. By doing nothing, we gave it away. We've seen where their way leads, through camps and wars, towards the slaughterhouse.” Alan Moore in V for Vendetta

Certainly, we draw arbitrary limits on exactly how much power one person should have over another. Murder and rape are generally illegal. So are many predatory economic practices. (Though, if you’ll notice, there is often a loophole regarding such things.) But, in general, it’s okay to seek power. Those, who when being judged angrily lash out with “Don’t judge me!” are saying so because they don’t like power being in the hands of others. Of course, those same people judge others all the time, though I suppose for people to be hypocrites is nothing new. Again, collectively, at least in Western cultures (and surely many others), we agree that power-seeking is okay and that the global impact it has is not so great that we regard the consequences as acceptable. Think about that – billions of lives lost since the beginning of recorded history alone – means there are lots of people who have existed that essentially deserved to be put to death or repressed for the greater good of others having power (or for anyone in general to seek power). If the consequences of power-seeking are not acceptable, the only recourse is to treat each person as equals with no regard for gender, ethnicity, personality or skills. Naturally, this is completely impossible, especially when it comes to personality and skills.

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” Mahatma Gandhi

It may be that we tend to seek power over others because the alternative is impossible. Yes, we can and do place limits on the amount of power one has over another, but those limits are always governed by the ones who have the most power and the will to use it. So what do we do? I suppose recognizing the behavior is a step towards dealing with it, like alcoholics who have to recognize they have a problem before they can get clean. (Where by “dealing with it” I mean start a dialogue towards finding a balance between power-seeking and treating people equally since the alternatives are either negative while the other is impossible.)

I do not offer any solutions here; this is merely a reflection on what I perceive as a problem for the human species. Do you think there is a problem? If so, you have passed judgment on the human race. It is not so easy to fight our nature.

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