I have been in some institutional settings lately so felt the need to talk about power and in particular being disempowered. As a person with schizoaffective disorder (if you don’t know what that is, think schizophrenia with an additional mood disorder element), I spend quite a lot of my time in hospital and residential mental health services. I am even in a residential service now. In the fairly distant past I sent considerable time in prison as well. The common factor for these settings is that they are premised on a power relationship. Often, in hospital and mental health live-in services this power differential doesn’t manifest in a hostile way but it is definitely still there. If you don’t think there’s a power relationship in the psychiatric ward, tell the doctor that you don’t want to take the medication and see how far that gets you! Some power relationships I have experienced have been very destructive and unhelpful. Being in prison basically means you have no power at all. I tried to challenge the system in that setting but that meant was that my time in jail was extremely difficult and the power dynamic considerably more evident.
The experience of being disempowered is tied in with the concept of intersectionality, The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines intersectionality as “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”. It essentially means that discrimination doesn’t exist in a bubble – different kinds of prejudice can be amplified in different ways when combined. The word was coined by civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw and it is a very helpful way of viewing disadvantage. Intersectionality is closely related to disempowerment, with people belonging to equity groups very often being disempowered. Intersectionality relates to race, gender, socio-economic status, disability, sexuality, age, and many other elements. If you belong to one or more groups chances are you have experienced disempowerment.
Being disempowered can result in a number of issues. People who are extremely disempowered can respond to this in maladaptive ways. I remember attending an art class run by Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company who work with women prisoners and young people at risk. I stayed in touch with the group long after I stopped being a prisoner and this instance occurred when I was a public servant. There was a woman in the group who was extremely hostile to me and threatened violence. I remember reflecting that the reason for that response probably related to the person being extremely disempowered and wanting to regain some power.
Power differentials often result in institutional or structural discrimination and even violence to disempowered people. Think homelessness and how homeless people are treated, the high rates of incarceration of people from disadvantaged groups, especially Indigenous peoples, high rates of unemployment amongst certain groups, homosexuality being illegal in certain countries – and even in some Australian states until relatively recently, discrimination against trans and gender divergent folks and ‘disability business services’ (formerly called sheltered workshops) where Disabled people are paid a pittance for their work. Being disempowered is hard to overcome and the odds are often stacked against people. In fact I tend to think that being disempowered often results in further disempowerment. If you look at my experience, I was highly disempowered in 1996 as a patient in hospital. I was disempowered and mistreated by the chief psychiatrist in hospital and ended up going to jail. I was there for a further three years and was the most desperate, self-destructive, powerless person you could ever imagine. The fact that I escaped that world was definitely more by luck than judgement. Most people in the position I was would be still there or be dead. I now have a lot of personal power but I’m still not 100% sure how I managed to make such a radical change.
Personal power is related to a person’s power position in society but it is a different sort of thing. People who are in a position of privilege in intersectionality terms (think cis men, heterosexuals, white people, wealthy people etc) often have a greater degree of personal power and self-confidence than those who are disempowered. Personal power can change over someone’s lifetime. Personal power relates to self-confidence and our ability to advocate for ourselves and stand up to people who are trying to disempower us. The I was younger I had very little structural power and very little personal power. Now my structural power is still a bit iffy due to my mental illness and related factors but my personal power is extremely strong. I can stand up to bullies – in fact I make a point of standing up to bullies. Why? Well bullying is all about power and if you try to appease a bully I find they just keep on bullying as they see you as having less power than them. Whereas if you can stand up to them in their mind you are higher up the power pyramid than them so they are a lot more likely to stop giving you a hard time. I was bullied all through school so I really wish I had known that nifty little fact then. Sadly I didn’t and I went through a lot of trauma.
Power underpins our society. Often power is a vehicle for oppression and perpetuates discrimination. Many of us are disempowered and struggle to overcome the power dynamics we face. Understanding power helps us to understand the world and can help us to address some of the issues but it is a significant element of life and being on the wrong end of a power dynamic can make life very difficult.