Friday, March 12, 2010

Let's reclaim the words "power" and "privilege"

"Power" from the same root as "poder" in Spanish, or "potere" in Italian, refers simply to ability or capacity. How is it that this word has so often come to refer to a very specific kind of ability, the ability to dominate others politically and economically? It is telling that we collapse ability per se into domination, as if one were either dominant or submissive, enabled to dominate or disabled. We forget the paradox or contradiction: that the possession of political and economic power, at the expense of the "disempowered", creates the need to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to preserving and defending that power, thus disempowering the "powerful" in many ways. Anxiety about the envy and hostility of others can come to preoccupy the "powerful" to the point of obsession. On the national level, consider how quickly the fall of the Soviet Union, leading to the ascension of the US as the sole "superpower" in the world, has devolved into an obsession with national security, a preoccupation with threats from small groups of individuals who can quite easily terrorize most of the population of a "superpower" the likes of which the planet has never seen. Then again, consider the preoccupation with "communism" and "socialism", the idea that wealth might be "redistributed", or the fear of immigrants taking US jobs, that terrorizes so many citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth.
Then consider the word "privilege". The root of this word come from the Latin words for "private" and "law", i.e. a law that applies to a private person. In time, this word came to mean special rights and immunities granted to a person by virtue of his or her position or office, by law. This background seems to suggest a special status that not everyone can have. In the contemporary world, the word has come to mean, narrowly, political and economic privilege, the special right to control others and to have access to material goods. But there are other possible contexts in which the word can be used. In a religious context, privilege can refer to the special access to God or to spiritual states conferred on priests. Spiritually based value systems tend to emphasize humility, charity, selflessness. But we have a hard time holding onto forms of privilege other than political and/or economic privilege. Ironically, the privilege of carrying forward the institutions built on these values sometimes becomes the springboard for a cynical disregard and undermining of those values. All too often, spiritual privilege has been perverted into the worldly sorts of privilege that allow people to exploit economically or even sexually those who are dependent on them for spiritual or religious services. Economic and political privilege, too, like power, is jealously and vigilantly guarded, with the subliminal knowledge that such privilege is always temporary and tenuous. We can see all around us that economic privilege leads to a ceaseless seeking for more, no matter how much one already has. Economic privilege can become the dubious privilege of being chained to a rat race, a ceaseless effort to keep up with the Joneses, or a step ahead of the tax man.
It is time to reclaim these words, thereby remembering that there are many things we might want to have the power to do, the privilege of doing, if we were free of insatiable and competitive acquisitiveness and the need to control others. Love and the need to control others are incompatible; we need to remember the power and privilege of love, of community, of time to reflect, of freedom from the domination of things and status and prestige. As Bob Dylan said "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose". The more you have, the more you have to lose.