Friday, June 17, 2022

Are Those in Power Themselves Disempowered? Thoughts On Accidental System Entrapment

Today's article comes, once again, as a response to a post and quote found on social media. Today we're looking at words written by Philip K. Dick...


This post, to me, touches on a topic I've been wanting to speak about for a while, which is what to make of "those in power". Dick here uses the term "manufactured", and to my mind that conjures up an idea that conjures up images of pure villainy. Evil individuals doing these actions out of sheer malice. And I'm not sure that's quite the full picture of reality at hand.

To be clear - I absolutely agree with Dick that we live in a society where manufactured reality is occurring. Often with extremely detrimental effect. A lingering question though is ... "why"?

Dick doesn't say himself in the quote above, and I don't his position on it (if he had one at all). But I know where my mind goes to, and it's often to the Hollywood depiction of singular actors doing so by choice and delighting in the misery being inflicted. I question that view of the situation.

This may sound like I'm trying to let the more privileged and empowered among us off the hook. And that is not my intent. What I will suggest is this - the larger overall systems, as an entity, work to disempower even those in high-ranking positions. As one example, I watched an interview where a high school student show a school reform advocacy video to his principle. The principle is in full agreement with the changes the video is calling for. And then says this...

"People may think that, as a principle, I have the ability to change this. I don't. I wish I did"

This person is in a position of authority. That is one sort of power. But is he empowered in matters of reform or change? No, he is not. 

This pattern is rampant in our system as currently operating. People who you'd think might be able to change things are, in fact, themselves often fairly disempowered from altering the system too greatly. Even if they want to, they feel they cannot. I'm still exploring reasons and theories for this and can share some initial ideas. The goal here is to replace what I think is a mostly erroneous model of what's responsible for preventing reform (shadowy council of truly evil individuals in control of everything) with a more nuanced and I think more accurate understanding of the situation at hand.

One item to talk about is the self-reinforcing nature of systemic power. Power comes at cost and requires resources. An excellent video for a quick overview of this twenty minute video entitled Rules for Rulers. A key argument in the video is that, to rule, there are keys to holding your power. You, for example, might need an army. That army will have needs. If you don't provide them, they don't support your rule.

So, if our ruler in that situation wants to enact reform, if it's not to the liking of the military leadership, they might no longer follow the ruler. The ruler is bound within items that support their power.

A takeaway here is that systems of power can be self-reinforcing. If one attempts to reform it, it will punish you. Speaking out comes at cost.

I have interacted with so, so many professionals in various fields who fear that if they speak out, it means losing their job. Losing their funding source. And on the other side, the funding sources often fear that if they support the wrong project, they themselves will lose their position as funders. And it's valid fear. In a world of competition, there's the "if you don't someone else could, and they'll stand to benefit if they do".

Some may call this the "race to the bottom" issue, and I'm not ready to declare that as the perfect model fit for the question we're exploring here (why is reform so hard?). But it's an interesting point to at least bring into the discussion.

The larger takeaway is the idea that stepping out from the system as is often comes at cost. At least within the current manufactured social reality.

That leads to another point I want to make about the term "manufactured". To me, though it's only potential reading of the word, I hear direct agency when I read that one. I hear it as "someone intentionally invented (i.e. manufactured) this social system". And I have an alternative hypothesis for at least some of these systems.

I wonder if some of these manufactured systems, which we, to use "manufactured" in a different meaning, continue to actively manufacture (i.e. build / produce), were accidental creations. The story of society is riddled with discoveries we happened upon without intending to discover. Accidents that nonetheless greatly impacted the world.

I wonder if at least of the social system we find ourselves trapped in are accidents. Systems that captured us. Made us act in problematic and damaging ways. Systems that also are self-protective, resistant to change, and disempowering to even the most powerful rulers within them.

Again, I'm not saying this explains everything. Like many things in social science, this concept here might happen sometime. Or co-interact with other concepts in complex ways. We certainty have at least a couple examples of truly villainous attempts at capturing power maliciously and intentionally for a primary reason of direct person gain. 

But I also think this "accident" theory paints an extremely different picture of how to think about the individuals within the system. Understanding how disempowered and at-risk even the most powerful sometimes are.

Now, within that, I also will remain firmly against complacency in support of the status quo. If we agree that the spurious manufactured realities Dick mentions are problematic and harmful, I hope we agree that something could and should be done. I refuse to accept a system just because it is powerful and resistant to change.

I do think it puts advocacy in a new light. One where we can sometimes target the ensnaring system as an entity itself. Where we somehow solve the Catch-22 riddle of freeing individuals at every level from their disempowerment while also empathizing with the fact that yes, they seem and in many ways are disempowered.

I don't have the answer to that Catch-22 yet. But what I can say is that I refuse, with every fiber of my being, to spend one minute allowing that Catch-22 to prevent needed change. I acknowledge it. I empathize with it. But to not act means complacency with what is. So many people agree that the system is broken. So let's figure out ways to solve the Catch-22 of disempowerment. I'd much rather discuss that than discuss ways to tolerate the situation as is. It is an intolerable thing and I for one will never be healthy so long as the status quo continue is allowed to remain.