Social Power Series for Mediators, Lawyers and Activists, Part 2: Power and Privilege

“Perhaps …I am the face of one of your fears.

Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself-

A black woman warrior poet, doing my work-

Come to ask you: are you doing yours?”

-Audra Lorde, “Sister Outsider”

 

Restorative justice and peacemaking are not mere ideals but are practices that take place in a real world in difficult, messy terrain. (Ambassadors for Reconciliation, Myers and Enns, 2009)

This terrain may be shaped by historic and current inequality and violence in which some hold and exercise power more than others. In the first article I looked at gendered notions and how they affect or alter or give rise to social power, or the lack thereof.

I encounter far too many mediators who believe that anything can be mediated and that specifically lack insight into the dynamics of power at play within a conflict, be it gendered power dynamics, racial power dynamics, class dynamics, the stark imbalance in employer employee relations and the myriad ways in which excessive power and lack of power intersect.

I’ve spoken and written before, and often on the genesis of violence and the spiral of violence as explained in Camara’s Spiral of Violence and which I recommend for all Restorative Justice Practitioners and actually for anyone sincerely trying to make sense of the human experience. The spectrum of peacemaking strategies from mediation to legal remedies to activism require that we develop and pursue a careful understanding of the realities of social power.

We are surrounded by powerful institutions, ideologies and personalities but we are not typically adept at recognizing, naming, and importantly challenging them. Those of us who seek to transform social conditions and bring about more just conditions in society must learn how to “read” patterns and practices of power. (Myers and Enns, 2009)

At a Christian theological level we assume that power is a gift and a good to be shared in a just manner and not a good to be hoarded (Refer to the manna of Exodus 16). Similar thinking is to be found in other faith traditions and humanist philosophy.

The ancient Hebrews in the judeo-christian tradition held the fundamental vision of “enough for everyone” and the Hebrew prophets constantly challenged the distribution of power in their world. In the same tradition, Jesus of Nazareth located himself on the margins, amongst the marginalized.

The Jesus of the ancient world and the Martin Luther King of our modern world understood the need first to be “disturbers of the peace”. Over and over we see how Jesus predicates his alternative, restorative practice for adjudicating violation upon a careful analysis of relative power in the community giving radical priority to the “least”, those with least power. (Myers and Enns, 2009)

So as ambassadors of peacemaking and restorative justice one of our underlying assumptions must surely be that we are to work to promote just redistribution of power rather than a pre-occupation with individual or group power as dominant culture unashamedly models. MLK spoke about the dire need for non-conformists.

Sometimes it’s easy to see power at work around us-a police rade, a corporate take-over, a factory closing down and mass retrenchments, the fulminations of the playground bully or the spectacular excess of a celebrity function. More often, though, power is less easy to see-it’s mystified, obfuscated or denied-especially by those who have it (Enns and Myers, 2009)

So where a white person insists on being “colour blind”, someone with tertiary education attributes his or her success comparable to others to sheer “hard work” or a man insists that he is not sexist, there may be terrains of privilege and power that are going unacknowledged or unnoticed.

And when a bank CEO complains that he is at the mercy of market forces, or a millionaire politician dons culturally appropriated gear at a campaign function or a huge mining company advertises how much it is doing for the environment, we do well to exercise caution. Denial of actual power makes true accountability impossible. And unaccountable power is the true threat to establishing a just society.

So if we work in restorative justice or peacemaking on any part of the spectrum (as mediators, lawyers or activists), a central discipline should be our willingness and ability to apprehend critically how power is distributed in our own households and communities and in the broader societies in which we live and work.

So how do we “Map” social power?

Power is a combination of nature and nurture. For our purposes we are looking at power socially rather than psychicly. Of course we know and understand that someone who is marginalised can exercise tremendous spiritual power or that poor people can be inwardly deeply content. (Enns and Myers, 2009) I have often commented that I have encountered some of the most profound wisdom, joy and strength of spirit amongst shackdweller communities.

Social power is difficult to understand because it varies from context to context, and is usually unacknowledged by those who have it and wield it.

Social power can be understood as a combination of four capacities:

  1. Mobility the ability to be where one is “at home” and to move where one wishes. In my view the majority of South Africans living in suburbia where they are close to schools and workplaces are largely profoundly ignorant of the devastating and lasting legacy of apartheid spatial injustice that a large majority of our people are still subject to today.
  2. Access the ability to procure what one needs for health and well-being. If “at home” is far from schools, work opportunity and health care facilities then a large number of our people remain perpetually without power and “self-upliftment” is a virtual impossibility
  3. Self-determination the ability to make the decisions that most affect one’s life. In our context the rich typically lambaste the poor because the rich pay taxes and “subsidize” the poor. It is ignorance and lack of insight that allows the rich to disacknowledge that but for their exploitation of the labour potential of the poor and in many cases the super-exploitation of that potential they would not hold the social power that they do.
  4. Influence the ability to be heard seen and respected.(Enns and Myers, 2009)

In my next article under the theme of power and privilege I intend to look at the basic frameworks through which we perceive our social world.

Sources and Recommended reading:

Ambassadors for Reconciliation, Enns and Myers, 2009

Restorative Justice: Politics, Policies and Prospects. Van Der Spuy et al. (2009)

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