By Trudy Wischemann
“There are two kinds of power,” a black minister from South Africa once told me. I listened carefully, because his life experience surviving power—and using it—far exceeded mine. “Power over,” he said, “and power with.”
According to this powerful but gentle soul, “power over” is the kind we normally think of when we use the word “power.” Power over others can be used for good, as in the power of parents to protect and shape their children into adults with survival skills as well as good looks and manners. Power over others can also be used for bad, using other people’s resources, skills, time and energy for one’s own personal gain to those people’s disadvantage. As Americans, we tolerate a fair amount of power over ourselves until the disadvantage hurts ourselves or others. At that point, hopefully, we stand up and say “No more, that’s not fair.” That’s the functional meaning of “equality.”
Power with, he explained, is when we ordinary people bind ourselves together for a common purpose. It’s the power of orchestral or band music, the power of arts consortiums, the power of a picking crew working to get finished for the day before it rains. It’s the power, frankly, of the downtown merchants in Lindsay coming together to protest the special interests operating under the pretense of objectivity during the recent dispute over the Friday Night Market. Power with doesn’t always win over power over, nor does it always work for good (witness the crowds singing Hosannas in Jerusalem on what would become Palm Sunday twenty centuries ago, or the lynching crowds in the South during the last century.) But if you ask me, the power with form beats the bejeezus out of power over in general, and I’m guessing God’s got a preference for it, too.
There’s a third kind of power, power under. It’s what we mean by “going under the radar,” or lack of transparency. One of my small-scale orange grower friends taught me about it two decades ago, because it’s one of the ways he got by. It’s more a survival skill than a winning strategy, but if not being defeated is your aim, and it helps you stay undefeated, then more power to it. Unless, of course, the defeat you’re trying to prevent is your own greedy self-interest being contested by the public interest, the common good. Then I’m voting for power with.
I think these distinctions about power are what we were trying to make last week when Joe Biden’s physical familiarity was being held up against Harvey Weinstein’s predatory practices, or Donald Trump’s physical coldness. I think there’s also a generational dimension to pay attention to: these last couple of waves of people turning into adults have been raised by screens: screens on their TVs, their computers, their laptops, and now their phones. “What’s this thing on my shoulder trying to communicate? Oh, yes, they call that a hand. Its placement means something, but I don’t have broad enough experience with it to know exactly what I’m being asked…”
Joe Biden’s body gestures are invitations to join in with him, become part of whatever he’s doing. They’re inclusive, egalitarian. They might become offensive to you if you’re not sure whether or not you really want to be included, and yes, they have a power dimension in them. But you, gesture receiver, have the right to join in or stand your ground. Your call.
Donald Trump uses some of these same approaches, hoping to seem to mean the same thing. The problem (and the difference) is this: you, gesture receiver, are never equal. What you are being invited to is to serve under his over. And when Donald Trump gets what he wants from you (or stops getting what he wants from you), you’re fired.
It’s a great example of over versus with.
Trudy Wischemann is a student of power types who writes. You can send her your favorite examples of the differences c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.