The Power We Wield

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that another round of Me Too accusations burst open in some of my online communities. The pressure cooker of the pandemic is making any problem that was simmering come to a full boil. Once again, my communities must grapple with harm that was done, with the harm that exposing the previous harm does, with trying to decide whether restitution is possible, and with whether apologies are sincere or sufficient. Once again, I’m reading through threads and posts, not to judge others, but in an attempt to understand how I can exist in these communities without accidentally doing damage to others. Power dynamics are hard, particularly when I don’t always recognize that I have any power. The thing that I’m learning is that if I have any respect or friendship in a community, then I have power in that community. Even if I feel like a tiny fish in a big pond. If I have power, then I have the ability to use that power as a shield to protect others or as a weapon to hurt them.

My own power can be hard to wrap my head around because women are socialized to abdicate their power. We’re trained to back down and keep the peace. Sometimes our survival (either physical or social) depends on keeping the peace or not making waves. Or maybe it is not about female socialization at all, but is instead my significant conflict aversion linked to my anxiety. Either way, I’m much more likely to try to de-escalate a conflict rather than lean into it. Much of this is selfish. Making people upset is a huge anxiety trigger for me. Even a small conflict has physiological and psychological consequences that last for days or weeks. Yet my efforts to save myself from that distress can have the effect of reinforcing a status quo that is inherently unfair or even harmful. I keep thinking about how different this week would be if, early in their careers, a friend (or three) had pulled the abusers aside and told them to cut it out. If there had been small consequences for small digressions, then the abusers may never have become abusers at all. It is my job to step up and have the uncomfortable, small conversations which could help prevent the formation of the next generation of abusers.

It is on me to honestly, and without self-deprecation, look at the power I have in my communities. I need to be brave enough to identify my power, name it, claim it, and then wield it with conscious choices instead of unconsciously knocking others over because I didn’t realize how much space I took up. I need to ask myself some questions. Who am I shielding so that they can have relief from pressure? Is my shield creating a space for someone to grow, or is it protecting someone from consequences they need to have in order to grow? Who am I making space for so that they can have a chance to step forward? Am I taking up space I ought to yield to someone else? Because community power is fundamentally different than structural power. It isn’t a zero-sum game. When I yield some of my community power to another person, I’ve increased the sum total of power in the community without necessarily reducing my own. Lifting up others makes the whole community stronger. Gently, privately (or aggressively and angrily if necessary) confronting bad behavior makes the whole community stronger. I need to be better and braver about this.

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