If there is one feature that I would suggest so defines the biological imperatives of the Western world, that defines the culture, philosophy, technology, etc., it is the notion of power and control. This is not a unique observation, as postmodernists note the power that is latent in much of life, such as Foucault observations that truth claims are often times claims for power. But the observation goes deeper into the very experience of human life of democracy: almost everything is about a negotiation of power and control, whether it be the authority bestowed upon persons or what rules will determine how power and control will be used. Who has what prerogatives is always unsettled and unsure, by necessity, so that one person or group of people never retain unaccountably, unquestioned control so that they may tyrannize, oppress, or abuse their power. Democracy functions precisely because it inculcates a sense of desire for power and control. Likewise, technology inculcates this desire as it is about manipulating the environment and resources so than they can be processes and transformed into materials that are for human consumption on a large scale. Far from accepting what is available at whatever quality it is available, the modern capitalist, technological culture is built on the ability to manipulate resources, or even labor, to accomplish some goal. Modern psychology gives us the ability to manage people more effectively for our own interests, knowing how the mind and heart works, often times resulting in practices of psychological control that can become subtle and often times unseen. As a result, power and control have seeped into our hearts and our blood.
What is novel about this in Western isn’t the existence of power and control. All cultures have power-relations and the attempt to control embedded in their life. Rather, it is the great extent to which many people will go to control outcomes. Rather that power and control being a more circumstantial act that is a possible means to an end, it has become increasingly a necessary means that almost morphs into an end value itself. Precisely because it is such a habitual act if you want to make anything of yourself in the Western world, we do it habitually and instinctually to the point that we don’t think about it in ourselves. However, it is something many of us pay attention to: we notice the people who have power, to whom we are often tempted to either appeal to or oppose in order. It is something we see in society, and many of us celebrate when those who have control are on our side, although we often times do not label it as power and control, or we demonize those who we feel have the control so as to “marshall the troops” to defeat them. This is American politics in a nutshell.
As a result, we often times have distorted views about power and control. We can be tempted to go into an all-or-nothing thinking, where it is either all-good or all-bad depending on who is in control and what their purpose for it is. This is represented in part by the fact that the adjective “controlling” is a negative term; to be a “controlling” person is an automatic moral weakness on the part of that person. So, when we see people trying to take control in a way we don’t like, rather than asking the question, does the person have good reasons for enacting control, we have a tendency to engage in the fundamental attribution error of attributing the act of control to something in their personality rather than their response to the environment and situation. And as with most moral language, it is a term that ironically enough is used to control people. Cults often times seek to force submission of their targets, and they may label resistance as control, regardless of the reasons for such resistance, so as to inculcate a sense of surrender, because in their eyes their control is justified and any resistance to their interests are wrong. After all, if you can make a person think they are “Controlling” you can make them open and submissive to your own intentions. As a result, often times the attribution of a person being “controlling” is often times a projection; I speak from personal experiece as a victim of abuse in a situation where my behavior was labeled as “controlling” without regard to the circumstances I had actually faced, the same people who labeled this behavior engaged in control of me as the most basic boundaries, such as my space and social life, were being violated.
So, there is something of a critical impasse here. On the one hand, power is so embedded into the fabric of our daily social and economic lives that it is something that “controls” most all of us, and yet our moral discourse about power and control is often times used to reinforce the very control we are seeking. Politics is the perfect example of the vicious cycle of the pursuit of power and the moral discourse of power that is supposed to regulate it but actually reinforces it. What happens is that the very people with power who we would hope to regulate power actually reinforce their own.
So what is the solution to this? How can we deal with this cycle?
Firstly, it is to stop committing the fundamental attribution error of attribute attempts to control by people meaning they have a controlling trait. It would entail us considering the situations and circumstances of said control. Rather than saying “you are a controlling person” it would entail highlighting why a person’s control is wrong or unnecessary. So, if you are labeled a controlling person or are tempted to think someone else is a controlling person, rather than going into an all-or-nothing type thing that is so often the characteristic of the fundamental attribution error, challenge yourself or the other to ask questions of specificity such as “In what way?”, “Is it right or wrong to control in this situation?,” and “Are the means of taking control proportional to the situation?” While we can even rationalize and come up with false answers to this question, demanding specificity of yourself and others, will heighten thinking and provide resistance to the attempt to control by labeling others as controlling.
Secondly, as one begins to engage into questions of specificity, it will highlight an understanding about degrees of control. To express my feelings about something to another is an act of control, but it is different from punishing the person who does not share my feelings. Calling for accountability to people and organizations for their actions, is different from tearing down people and organizations down for their failures.
Thirdly, it entails as an analogy, prophetic action to speak against this type of power, which operates not based upon successfully converting people to one’s message nor taking control of the people to force into submission. Often times, the results of prophetic ministry in the Old Testament results in the failure of conversion or control. But prophetic actions brings to light what has been cloaked in darkness and uses the power of word and voice to continue to make this known so far as the problem remains. However, in so doing, prophetic action is inherently self-limiting because prophetic action is not intended for the benefit and power of the prophet. In so doing, people may shout you down and may discourage you from even this type of action, but a prophet has accepted the self-limitations from God and not the limitations that others wish to place upon them,
Fourthly, it entails recognizing the nature of projection and that many times it is those who tell others they are controlling are themselves so. Often in saying other are controlling, there is the desire to obtain control for ourselves that we wish others to abdicate. This is especially true for people who already have power, such as administrators, therapists, pastors, etc., who are accustomed to having control and thus delegitimate anyone who resists, because in their own eyes they have good intentions. However, recognition of the projection in this circumstance is only of help if one first recognizes it in oneself. If I or you are the type that is quick to label other people’s power and control and yet never acknowledge it in ourselves, then it is likely we are controlling, whatever may or may not be true about others.
Fifthly, it entails honesty with ourselves and others when we try to take control. If we move towards intentionally recognizing every time we are trying to accomplish something that wouldn’t otherwise happen, then we can be aware of it in ourselves and engender accountability and trust from others. This includes both overt acts but also more subtle, covert acts where we attempt to mask the appearance of control while seeking to control. However, in so doing, be aware in owning it to others of those who are quick to use that honesty against you. Healthy accountability will make usage of this disclosure but is often patient and listens before speaking, but those who are quick to use your admissions against you are themselves people to be wary of, but do not just jump into trying to control them (if they are someone who must be dealt with, it is often times easier and more effective to give them the rope to hang themselves on).
Sixth, recognize that in conflicts, there is often times a mirroring effect. If we are not careful, we can mirror those we are conflict with, such that we meet their attempts at power with our attempts at power. Then, in our minds, we justify our power because “they” are clearly “wrong,” therefore “I” or “we” are clearly “right.” Then, because of our action, our opponents do the same, which then leads to a vicious cycle. Conflicts have a way of justifying to ourselves our need to take control. Upon recognition of this all too common cyclical pattern, we can begin to avoid the disproportionality of our attempts to control with reflective consideration of the situation and considering other options.
Seventh, for the followers of Christ, it entails a trust in God. This doesn’t mean surrendering all control as can frequently be taught by religious leaders (much of the times this is well-intentioned, but it can be a teaching used to control others), but rather it means repentance than calls into question the reasons and ways we do and do not control. While it is often times said faith in God is about surrender, the Bible does not say this. Rather, faith in God is about trust that God will do what God has said He will do, so in our repentance, we inherently self-limit our attempts at power and control in the places where God will act, in the places where we cannot, and in the places where we should not.
Finally, it entails the recognition that there aren’t “sure things in life.” Sometimes you don’t win. Sometimes your way won’t happen. Sometimes, your dreams will be shattered. Life is not a fairy tale. Sometimes, you will suffer and maybe without any alleviation of that pain. This can be the hardest thing of all in a society such as America that has inculcated the notion of the “American dream.” If you can learn to accept that life may not be fillled with all the happiness, excitement, and meaning you wish for it to have, you will not be so compelled to take part in the unhealthy cycle of power and control.
Resisting the culture of power and culture while not abandoning power and control is a difficult task. It entails a spiritual, ethical, and emotional praxis of attention, intention, specificity, honesty, and trust that becomes honed with time and practice. It entails first looking inward also, lest these principles simply become another set of moral rules we use to control others.