Saturday, September 15, 2007

Power, Glory

It's goddamn weird, getting old. Maybe you, maybe your friends, start becoming respectable citizens, vested with authority and power. You become, to whatever limited extent, bosses, charged with the judging of others.

This made me think of this just now.

Most of the people I like talk a lot of trash. Are prepared to exercise judgment on the question of lime green leggings, too-short skirts, general capacity to irritate.

Now a bunch of them are trash-talkers with power. If they see somebody doing a crummy job they have the option of doing something about it. Depending on your attitude towards organizational loyalty, you could argue that they have the obligation to do something about it. Bad apples rotting the barrel, loose nails losing battles, whatever.

It's not a bad thing. They're not exercising that power on the basis of lime green leggings. Somebody has to be the decider.

It gives me vertigo. It makes me queasy. Some of that's my own childishness and irresponsibility. Some of that's my utopian dream of a world in which we're all naturally good and nobody is given any power at all over anybody else and all decisions are made by consensus. But there's something about the act of exercising power that freaks me out too.

When I have power, I don't just use it. I don't say, "Look, I have this power over you. I want you to do this for me and I will exercise my power to the degree I can to make it happen."

No. I think, "Want what I want. I should not have to exercise my power to make this happen. It is a sign of lack of grace in you that you don't understand that."

Which strikes me as grotesque.

I don't know.

3 comments:

Noko Marie said...

I exercise power over my students a lot, and even though it's not really the same as exercising power over, say, an employee, it's still a kind of power thing and it is, indeed, strange.

When I started teaching, I figured I could just build in a set of appropriate punishments and rewards into the structure of the course, and students could do as they pleased. No need to actually command anyone, yell at anyone, harrass anyone. I'd make judgments, but at least I didn't have to exert power directly.

It turns out this doesn't work as well as I'd thought. The whole class goes so much better when the teacher imposes his/her will on the students directly. It's not enough to say, "read this or you'll do poorly," you have to somehow convey: "you must read this." Amazingly, this is often effective.

It's funny but I am getting used to it. Of course, when you teach, students are sort of paying you to impose your will on them, so it's really not the same as yelling at an employee or something.

Liz said...

There is some power inherent in just geting older, or even taller. One gets better at hard looks and the timing of withering glances, derisive snorts, or rolling of eyes as one gets older (and perhaps is on the receiving end of said gestures), and that is a small but vital way to feel powerful.
In terms of a job, I have to disagree. The only thing I have learned as I have gotten older and now have some power over some people (sort of) that there is always someone who has MORE power. Which renders your own power small and petty and visible only in relation to access to office supplies etc. etc.
Speaking of power, I find that it is often tiring to exercise it. I would like to think that this evens out the playing field a bit. There are those small people who seem to delight in throwing around their will, but even they can be and often are reduced to lay and brief psychoanalysis which renders them sad and needy in a deep dark way, a result of simply having not crawled enough as children, or been invited to so and so's birthday party when they were eight.

Captain Colossal said...

I would definitely include exercising power over your students in the same category, although it is a funny example, because it does feel more optional to be a student than to be an employee. Given the wage differential between graduates and non-graduates, that may not actually be true, but it still feels that way. Plus the relationship is designed to be temporary.

N. Marie: I think it's fascinating that it actually works -- I know it must or people wouldn't do it, but it still surprises me.

Liz: I'm with you on the fact that a) you realize that there are always people with more power who dwarf your puny amount of power and b) exercising power is exhausting and debilitating. I think the net effect is that the exercise of power gets normalized because a) you feel your own insignificance and b) it feels like a chore. So that it doesn't seem qualitatively different from having other people boss you around -- here you are, with your limited resources, forced to make x do y.