We Need to Teach People How to Share Power

By Irami Osei-Frimpong (March 19, 2018)

I think that a whole lot of political problems come from an inability to share power with genuine people you may not necessarily like. This barrier is baked into our political culture, though I will say that there are marked differences between subordinate and dominant groups, for a variety of reasons.

Well-ordered democracies concern how we share power with strangers across competing interests. Political power is one of these strange spirits that grows if you share it– but not in an obvious way, and there is an ethic to it, and if we don’t take that ethic seriously, it’s really easy (and popular) to abuse power, but if we embrace the vulnerability entailed in sharing power with due humility and a good sense of humor, you can get this right and win freedom for everyone involved. (Though some people are going to sorely miss their privileges.)

We don’t institutionalize teaching the importance of sharing power– which means that we don’t institutionalize the principles of wielding it justly– but we have a very rich discourse concerning property rights, so it’s not surprising that are bad at wielding power justly. People think of their share of political power as merely their property to use to seek their private interest, then everything gets confused.

To be clear, I think the blocks to, and conditions for, sharing power account for all sorts of structural racism. (This is one reason why integration fell flat. We let white people think they could integrate without sharing power with people they don’t like.) In general, this inability to take the work of shared power across difference seriously also accounts for screwed up relationships: intimate, working, and academic.

For example, I read a LOT of people who think that black people are idiots. I read a lot of people who think that black men are apes. Folks ask me, “How can your read them!” To which I answer, “Those people are very smart on OTHER, more basic issues, and I think I can separate out their bigotry and misandry.” Taking time to read them is a form of sharing power with people I don’t particularly like. I didn’t realize how much it habituated me to sharing power.

I get a lot of flack for being such an integrationist. But yeah, I think the only way we will be free is when we take the principles of shared power seriously, institutionalize teaching people how to share power the same way we institutionalize teaching people Geometry, and we realize that freedom is more important than the comfort shared power compromises or the vulnerability shared power entails.

What’s fascinating is that there very little that leads me to believe that victims of abuse of power are necessarily much better at sharing it, unless there is more to the story in the form of a political or structural or intellectual intervention. (To be honest, this is what worries me about safe space discourse in politics, but that’s fodder for another post.) This growth does happen, so that not all victims are necessarily potential abusers, but enough of them are that I always ask my students, “So, who taught you how to wield power?”

If the answer is “nobody,” then we consider why that may be a problem. If the answer is “My parents”, then we consider whether they think their parents wield power justly.


Transformation without Apocalypse – Episode #3: Carolyn Finney

On February 14th and 15th, the Spring Creek Project sponsored a symposium entitled “Transformation Without Apocalypse:  How to Live Well on an Altered Planet”   The third keynote presentation was given by Carolyn Finney.

Carloyn Finney is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where her work explores how difference, identity, representation, and power play a significant role in determining how people negotiate their daily lives in relation to the environment. Finney serves on a number of national boards and committees including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Orion Magazine, and the Center for Whole Communities.  http://ourenvironment.berkeley.edu/people_profiles/carolyn-finney/

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