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?Power Todd Huffman CCA 2-0

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)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Power-speak

  1. If the question arises whether there is power or not, there are of course intermediate states. But the other end (no power) is not just THE nothing, but something else thereby resulting into a dual pair between which there should exist a gliding scale. What this can be, depends on the coordinate system you are using. In natural sciences power is defined either in the material world of space and time as force multiplied by the length of the way, and/or in the world of energy by kilowatts. In the social or cultural world power is defined by conviction and/or influence, and in the individual world of a living being it is exerted by body strength and/or sex. Therefore we always can assume to have a pair of values, between which a balance is or should be found defining a middle way for the special point. We simplify too much by just saying that there is power or not what might be kind of fundamentalism like any one-sided such position.
    © Hans J. Unsoeld, Berlin 2017

  2. Hi Hans, I think we are defining ‘power’ in slightly different ways here. I wouldn’t define ordinary energy or desire as power in the sense I meant, though I appreciate that in the terms of physics that word is used. I was using ‘power’ as a term for the political implications of absolutisation, which is a particular human left-hemisphere phenomenon. ‘Power’ in this sense seems to be discontinuous because its own terms are discontinuous. For example, a dictator who wants obedience will not be satisfied with only a degree of obedience, but will represent that obedience as total. This sets up fertile grounds for deceit either of himself or by others, as he desperately tries to impose a power-shaped world on his environment.

    So I would say that there could be no power where that absolutisation isn’t happening, even though we can never be quite sure that we’re not doing it unconsciously somewhere. It’s an epistemological problem of uncertainty rather than an asymptote. It is desire or energy that is always there for us to some degree rather than power. Similarly, there will always be some belief (explicitly or implicitly assumed representations of the world) for us, as part of our embodied experience, but that belief doesn’t have to be absolute, and one could feasibly be free of absolute beliefs, even if one can never be sure that one has in fact gained such freedom, and our concern in practice is with being incrementally free.

    This probably also relates to our different views about the extremes avoided by the Middle Way. For me it is both positive and negative absolute beliefs that we avoid, rather than rigidity and chaos, because I am concerned with the Middle Way between beliefs as we encounter them rather than the possible results, and I think that chaotic results can be the outcome of rigid beliefs. I am not trying to describe the Middle Way in naturalistic terms but phenomenologically, because I think that every attempt to describe it in terms of underlying states or results carries a danger of shifting our focus to represented goals that can then be absolutised, rather than focusing on the experience and the process. For that reason I have studied the different forms that can be taken by absolute belief, and see the Middle Way as an approximate avoidance strategy. Power is one of the elements of absolutisation as I understand it.

    1. Hi Robert,
      not to criticize but to enlarge the scope was my intention. But for sure we are defining ‘power’ in not only slightly different ways here. You started by claiming that power is the ability to make people do things they would not otherwise have done. Sorry it sounds for me just like a claim, which seems to be at least arbitrary and showing tendency towards fundamentalism. Definitions are often scaled down, but reveal underlying beliefs which often can be doubted.
      I advocate in my books to bring humanities and sciences together. This seems for me expression of modernity. It of course could also be put down as unfounded belief, but here a BUT might be justified.
      Therefore allow a look towards the world of natural sciences which should be compatible with the public and also the private world of all higher living beings, thus in all three main worlds of consideration. In sciences energy and power are clearly distinct. I gave acceptable (ie. compatible) definitions for power in all three of them in my first comment.
      In addition the notions of positive and negative include beliefs, and the notion of power being switched between black and white as well. The Middle Way might recommend instead a gliding fuzzy choice between moralistic and Darwinian, and between law and order on the one side and anarchy not condemned by everybody on the other side. Such a preferred way should be reigned by choice fostering joy and not by avoidance which often can involve fear. Is that also a detestable belief? The inclusion of beliefs in the necessary axiomatics ought to be the essential problem.
      read German Ebooks by Google Translate!

  3. Hi Hans,
    Of course a definition involves a claim, but not necessarily a dogmatic claim – a stipulation. I find stipulation an essential tool for any kind of creative thinking. One has to say how one is using a word, and then use it for that purpose. Of course, the definition could be revised for another purpose, but I continue to find the way I have used ‘power’ useful for the purpose I have used it, which is related to helping to understand and explain absolutisation. I think it’s important for philosophers to show each other the courtesy of allowing free stipulation, rather than attempting to dictate the use of language, but merely noting differences between definitions to enable mutual comprehension.

    The avoidance process of the Middle Way does not have to be motivated by fear – but instead can be motivated by wisdom which just recognises the need to avoid a particular set of assumptions. I agree with you that a positive motive is required too, which is why I talk just as much about integration as I do about the Middle Way. If you haven’t come across the materials on integration yet, this video is quite a good place to start. http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-6-integration/

    I don’t have a problem with the use of the term ‘belief’, but rather I distinguish absolute belief from provisional belief. ‘Belief’ here refers to any assumed representation of the world or oneself, including representations that are entirely unconscious or implicit in behaviour. Belief in this sense is not optional, but it can be made more provisional.

    1. Hi Robert,
      quarreling with you certainly is not my intention, because I agree to a large extent with you including your views on stipulation and provisional belief. The only statement I cannot digest is the very beginning of your article: “Power is . . . .” In this form it seems to be an absolute general claim, which might be against your own conviction. Of course you can use the word power for your purpose. Would it not be acceptable for you to say: “The ability to make people do things they would not otherwise have done can be accepted as (or be called) a form of power.”

  4. Hi Rabe,
    No intention of quarrelling as far as I’m concerned! Yes, I agree that I could have expressed myself more provisionally in that opening sentence, to make sure that my stipulation would not be read as an absolute definition.

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