In cities all across the United States, both large and small, at least one million women, men and children marched this weekend to protest the abuse of power and to regain power from those presently in power. They were protesting the Machiavellian power dynamic that runs rampant now. They were contending that this dynamic is antiquated and destructive and must yield. Social science shows that they are correct.
Dacher Keltner, a Psychology Professor at UC Berkeley, has written a new book, The Power Paradox. He reviews several decades of social science experiments on the use of power and analyzes its application in history and at present. He studies what power is and how it shapes the structure of a culture. He demonstrates, “the surprising and lasting influence of soft power (culture, ideas, art and institutions) as compared to hard power (military might, invasions and economic sanctions).”
Keltner shows that our culture’s historical perceptions of power: force, ruthlessness and strategic coercion, is antiquated and is no longer useful to us. Instead, he asserts, what governs the modern world is a different kind of power, softer, more relational, predicated on reputation rather than force. Keltner asserts that power seized and exerted in the traditional way wains and expires. Its time is finite because the people who exert such power lose their reputation, lose the support of those over whom they seek to exert power. This is very much like the Declaration of Independence’s position that exercising power requires consent of the governed. Keltner argues that power in the modern world is “gained and maintained through a focus on others.” It is relational and significantly dependent upon reputation. In lawyer talk, we would call this “good will.” Good people inevitably win the day.
We certainly see the centrality of power when we consider our government, but do we appreciate the pervasiveness of power in our homes? Keltner asserts, “perhaps most critically, thinking of power as a coercive force blinds us to its pervasiveness in our daily lives and the fact that it shapes our every interaction, from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues.” “Power defines the waking life of every human being,” Keltner argues. “It is found … in every interaction and in every relationship … Power is the medium though which we relate to one another.”
Every relationship is molded by power. Every interaction is shaped by power. Every home is governed through power. We readily see power at home exercised in domestic violence. We get that. We condemn it. But do we perceive that power imbues every interpersonal transaction in our home? We can’t escape it. It is how we all operate.
That doesn’t mean that the power exercised at home must be Machiavellian, that it is exercised by force, ruthlessness and strategic coercion, however subtle that coercion may be. Rather, the power could be softer, more relational, and predicated on reputation. Good will at home.
A million people marched this weekend to try to bring about the change in power that is gained and maintained through a focus on others that Keltner says endures. Their march alone tarnishes the crumbling reputation of those who pursue forceful, coercive, ruthless power. Their march presses the message of softer, relational power, to create a stronger social collective.
We must examine the use of power in our homes as well and likewise root out efforts to rule by force or coercion. No home should be ruled by force. No home should be governed by coercion. No one should ever endure ruthless power exerted by a president or a spouse.
If power is about making a difference in the world (and our homes) by influencing others, then may our homes be safe havens, incubators of that soft, relational power that asserts itself by the strong good will of irreproachable reputation. May it be power exercised, not by coercion but by consent. May it serve to create that stronger social collective we call the family.