Power is the ability to make people do things they would not otherwise have done. The gangster who points a gun at your head is, of course, exerting power, as is the politician who uses the apparatus of the state to enforce new measures – which we may ultimately obey in order to escape punishment from the state. The manager who gives you the sack is also, of course, exerting power. But then there are more subtle kinds of power, not so much formalised in political or economic structures, but rather implicit in the language of certain social relationships. When reviewing a draft of my latest book with a friend recently, I was struck when he drew my attention to the power of the writer. When I wrote “relativism, postmodernism, atheism” (to distance myself from all three of these isms) he said he felt “thumped” by the complex words that I was defining and using for my purposes. Such words, he implied, are weapons or tools of power.
Since I had never thought about what I was doing when writing philosophy in quite that way before, this episode made me think about a whole associated set of issues to do with the power of words. I guess my normal model of what is happening when I write something and someone else reads it is of a kind of voluntary mutual relationship: after all, nobody is obliged to read it, so I am being offered the opportunity to communicate with someone else. Could this be an act of power?
Well, this seems to me to have a lot to do with the Middle Way. Absolute claims seem to involve an act of power, because they lock people into a particular way of thinking in which there are only two alternatives – one controlled by the group and the other highly undesirable and rejected by the group. For absolutist theists, for example, ‘atheism’ is highly undesirable, beyond the group, but the only alternative to it is the theism sanctioned by the group. Talking or writing in a way that effectively excludes any alternative views is a way of keeping people in the group’s control. “If you don’t believe me, you’re condemned to be one of them – and we don’t want that, do we?” The Middle Way challenges that dualistic construction in order to avoid a power relationship.
So, much depends on whether what one is writing is absolute or not. But this depends not only on the words one uses, but on the states of mind of the audience and thus how they interpret one’s words. Eventually it occurred to me that my friend’s problem when reading my words was that he was interpreting them absolutely. One of the problems with words is that we also tend to think of them as having a meaning and power in themselves, rather than gaining their meaning and power from us and our interpretation of them, as we use them for a particular purpose. If, for reasons that have emerged from your own background and states of mind, you interpret the writer’s intention as that of making you think in a certain way, rather than as offering you an alternative that you might consider, you might well feel as though the words are being used as weapons against you. Of course, that might be particularly the case if there is any kind of social pressure to read or accept what is written. But the writer may have merely intended to offer you an alternative. Or, of course, it could work the other way round too: she might in fact be trying to shove a dogma down your throat, but you interpret her as just offering you an option. It could go either way.
Of course, it’s the writer’s responsibility to try to write in a provisional way, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to solely blame the writer if you ever feel thumped by what you read. It’s also your responsibility to interpret it charitably, if there is any ambiguity about whether it involves an absolute claim or not (though very often, the context makes it fairly plain – for example, papal bulls do not shrink from absolute language). I’ve written in previous posts about provisionality markers (which means language that tries to signal provisionality) and about the principle of charity (which involves our responsibility in interpretation). Paying attention to provisionality markers is just as important as using them (though there are also some circumstances where provisionality markers are only employed to sweeten dogma – again you have to judge from the context).
So, it seems that words are much more ambiguous weapons than guns, because they depend on the interpreter to a much greater extent. Nevertheless, their power can hardly be underestimated, and the ability to manipulate people by using language that absolutely distinguishes the beliefs or interests of the in-group from the out-group is something we have seen demonstrated recently in politics: whether it is the anti-EU sentiment that drove the Brexit vote, or Trump’s Mexican Wall and rants against the ‘liberal media’.
In the final section of my book Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire I have written about the justification of the use of power. We can hardly avoid having to use power in certain circumstances, for example as a parent with small children or an agent of the state dealing with criminals, but the question is how we use it and with what justification. It seems to me that the integration of the judgement that justifies using power is the crucial criterion for whether it can be justified. If one is addressing conditions better by using power than one would be by not using it, and the judgement to do so is more integrated than the judgement of the person whom power is being used against, it can be justified. Merely appealing to greater ends, or traditions, or motives, is not enough if we do not have a good enough judgement in assessing the relevance and application of these kinds of judgements. So, for example, you might forcible restrain your toddler from running into the road, and you are justified in doing so, not just because you think it’s in the toddler’s interests and is an expression of love, but also because you are in a much better position to judge the whole situation than the toddler is.
As with uses of power for violence or bodily restraint, so also, it seems to me, for language. We might use absolute language with the toddler to stop them running into the road for very similar reasons to the reasons we would forcibly restrain them. Sometimes practical necessity makes the use of power-speak justifiable, but in most cases, when talking about political or other issues with other adults, there is no call for the use of power, whether that is in words or any other way, and it is essential for the issues to be resolved without power. Most people in Western democracies recognise this, but often they do not recognise to what extent the use of absolute language is a use of power. For my part, though, it seems that the difficulties of judging how to communicate with urgency and commitment but without power will probably never cease, given that absolutisation depends on mental states as well as words. Whatever one says, one may get it wrong, because one does not know the mind of the audience. One can only try to find the Middle Way in each new situation, and fall down and try again.
Picture by Todd Huffman (Wikimedia: CCA 2.0)