This is an excerpt from my book, Brave Talk (September 2020). In this excerpt, I talk about how domination (power imbalance) often works in situations of conflict. If we want to transform conflict — not just repeat cycles of violence but overcoming it — we need to understand how power operates under the surface of conflict. If we don’t grasp this, we can accidentally perpetuate power imbalances without realizing it.

We begin with a hypothetical story.

Bob hits your car

It’s forty-five minutes after work, and you’re late meeting a friend. As you head toward your car, you catch sight of something awful. With all the courage and politeness you can muster, you walk up to the scene and say, “Excuse me, sir, you just hit my car.”

“No, I didn’t,” he replies.

“But I literally saw you drive your car into my car and then park across the way. I watched you do it. I don’t want any trouble. Please just do the right thing and give me your insurance info.”

“It wasn’t me.”

You start to get frustrated. “But I can see scratch marks on your car with the same color paint as my car, and my car has a dent in it. All evidence points to you hitting my car. Now please, make it right, or I will be forced to press charges.”

“You must have me confused with someone else.”

Because this person refuses to acknowledge what he did, and because you don’t want to have to pay for the damage out of pocket, you feel you have no other option but to call the police. Surely they will fix this.

When the police arrive, they smile at the guy who hit you and say, “Hey, it’s Bob! How’s it going, Bob?” Before you can get a word in, Bob tells the officers that you were being aggressive toward him. You try to explain what happened, but one of the officers interrupts, “Listen, Bob is a good guy. Go back to your car, and drive away.” The officer turns sideways, casually showing you the gun on his hip, and gives you a look that seems to say, If you’re smart, you’ll obey.

At this point, you are feeling disoriented and incredibly angry. You just spoke to the people who are supposed to protect you from the Bobs of the world, but they failed you. Though you may be in the right, you feel that leaving is your only option.

A week later, you are driving around town, and you see that guy Bob walking down the street. You decide to pull over and confront him.

“Why did you tell those officers I was being aggressive? That was completely unfair! I can’t believe you would do that!”

And he replies, “You should be thankful. I could have told them you hit me.”

***

This entire situation played out the way it did because Bob was wielding his power in a destructive way. The conflict that resulted seems to have been “resolved,” but, of course, that depends on who you ask.

Keep this story in your mind because we will come back to it in a moment.

What Is Power, Anyway?

For many years, I believed that power always equates with pride. I struggled with confidence, thinking I was supposed to be meek and apologetic, not powerful. I thought that holding strong opinions and speaking loudly with conviction were a dangerous game. Despite my parent’s encouragement that I was a born“leader,” I struggled to see this as a good thing. To me, power was a liability.

As an adult, I have learned a helpful definition of the word power that has completely changed the way I think. My working definition comes from the world of community organizing.

Power, in a social-political sense, is the ability to effect any kind of change.

If we see it this way, everyone uses power all the time, every day. The change we effect can be as big as setting up a new government or as small as forming a new opinion, choosing to love someone, giving to someone in need, or brushing our teeth. We are using power if we get up and go to work in the morning. We are using power if we argue an opinion. We are using power when we buy local apples versus imported apples or organic versus non-organic apples (which, of course, also implies a certain type of underlying power called economic opportunity). If we are effecting any kind change in ourselves or in the world around us at any time, we are using power.

Power, in a social-political sense, is the ability to effect any kind of change.

So power is not inherently bad. All people have an innate sense of power, but some of us, based on history, social location, education, family background, economic situation, personality, and a host of other reasons, might experience a greater opportunity to wield power than others.

It is horrible yet true that some people are more disenfranchised than others in our society—meaning some people have less ability to effect change, especially big change. But to a vast degree, everyone in this whole world has power.

Power is kind of like money. Money is not inherently bad. It is a neutral tool that takes on the significance we ascribe to it. It acts in the ways we make it act. It takes on the meaning we give it. When everyone has enough, money is a wonderful tool of evaluation and exchange. It’s the way we feed our families and build our society and create new things. But when a handful of people have much more than they need while others starve, money can take on a corrupt symbolic quality. People can grow to love money so much they mistake it for human worth. Historically, some people with great wealth have disregarded and dehumanized those without money, instead of working to make sure everyone has enough to live. In a state of imbalance, the use of both money and power can cause great suffering.

Despite the huge power imbalances in the world, all of us can, at the very least, exert power over our immediate selves. Yes, many factors are at work in our minds, bodies, and circumstances, but everyone can decide which words to choose and what actions to take. Every single person, in every single moment, has a degree of choice over how to use that power.

To stay healthy as human beings and to live in a peaceful and just world, we need to share power. Power is healthy, good, and right when it ebbs and flows, when everyone can participate, and when everyone can challenge each other.

Why?

Because when power is equalized, imagination, creativity, and innovation are unleashed. World problems get solved. Wars end. Justice reigns. Needs are met. Life becomes beautiful for all, not just for some.

Power sharing is the foundation of Community.

Domination is The Enemy of Community

Tragically, when humans gain a lot of power, we tend to want to keep it.

As our attachment to power grows large and in charge, it often shape-shifts into power’s nasty cousin, domination. Domination is the kind of power that seeks to impose someone’s will over another, through force or coercion. Domination may claim a narrative that it’s acting “for the greater good,” but it does not transform relationships for the better. It does not celebrate life or creativity. Its sole purpose is to impose its will and overpower others for its own purposes. It punishes people who don’t bend to its wishes.

Left unchecked, domination’s need for control is a bottomless pit of injustice and violence.

Some might argue that domination has a place in our society. Take sports, for example. Yes, the point of friendly competition is to play one’s best and to win—and, some would say, to dominate. But domination is not just winning; it seeks to win at any cost and therefore is unsportsmanlike.

Here are examples of what domination looks like:

  • Domination in the world of business looks like chasing profits to the point of disregarding ethics and the needs of local communities.
  • Domination in the world of parenting looks like overpowering a child and seeking to break their will.
  • Domination in gendered relationships looks like one partner telling the other they can’t make decisions because their gender is weak.
  • Domination in religion looks like manipulative proselytizing, colonial missionizing, and ideological control.
  • Domination in justice systems looks like locking human beings in cages for years over minor, nonviolent offenses and punishing them for life after they“pay their debt to society,” while ignoring systemic issues like poverty, education, and lack of opportunity that facilitated the crime in the first place.
  • Domination in politics looks like empire building, crushing anyone who stands in the way of a national agenda, and refusing to apologize for any damage that results.
  • Domination in societies looks like one group claiming supremacy over others, whether overtly or subtly, and justify- ing exclusion or oppression on the basis of superiority.
  • Some of our societies are so entrenched in domination, so familiar with its rule, that we can’t even recognize it when it’s staring us in the face.

It’s important to note that being a strong person or having strong opinions doesn’t mean someone is using domination. Advocating passionately in favor of an issue or standing up for one’s self is not using domination. Domination is threatened by other people’s power and seeks to stay in power at all costs. It doesn’t like to share resources or space. It might even hurt others to protect itself. Domination is dangerously self-focused, so it blocks our capacity to empathize. It erodes relationships, especially relationships that challenge it. It takes advantage of fear and desperation to get what it wants.

Community and domination cannot coexist.

***

My parents like to tell a story from my childhood. I was too young to remember this, around three years old. One day they took me out to dinner and overheard two men in the next booth having a conversation. Actually, it was more like one man was talking at the other man—talking about himself for a long period of time. He was so loud and obnoxious that he seemed to be annoying everyone sitting at surrounding tables.

Apparently, TinyMe watched this “conversation” unfold over the edge of the booth, and finally I had enough. I stood up in my seat, waved my hands just like the loud man, and shouted, “Myself, myself, myself!”

As you can imagine, my parents were mortified, but other people in the restaurant clapped and cheered me on.

This is a funny story, and I would be proud of it, except that throughout my entire life, any time I have started to get a big head about something, someone in my family has chuckled at me and yelled,“Myself, myself, myself!”

You could say that all these years, Tiny Me was guarding the entrance of my heart like a watchdog against the likes of domination.

Thank you, Tiny Me.

The language of domination is always “myself, myself, myself,” spoken in a way that doesn’t make space for anyone else. It lacks empathy or concern for the needs of others. It shuts other people down. It does not celebrate life and Community. Like a giant metal wrecking ball, it destroys life and Community.

Some people might say, “So what if I destroy Community? I am the only person in my world who matters.” But by destroying Community, people using domination ultimately destroy themselves. They cut themselves off from meaningful connection and relationships. They flatten their emotional range and crush the things that make them human. Therefore, people using domination compromise their ability to be socially healthy.

People embrace domination for a lot of different reasons. Many times, they have been hurt or had their power taken away, and they vow never to let that happen again. Consider holding off judgment for how someone got there. What’s important is what people do with the knowledge of domination once they have it. What’s important is that while domination is cutting them off from Community, we choose to hope that in most cases they can be restored.

Before this can happen, we need to learn how to recognize domination. Let’s take a deeper look at how it operates.

Domination Wears Masks

People love a good underdog story, like David and Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare. Usually, we focus on the characters of David and the Tortoise—the wimpy, heroic underdogs who bested great big jerks, jerks too blinded by ego to see their own weaknesses.

Typically, the “bully” archetype—Goliath, the Hare—is our caricature of power. Goliath and the Hare were aware of and vocal about their domination—real tough guys. Goliath chose to go to battle against a kid, basically so he could show off. The Hare also was boasting of his abilities, acting like a jackass. They were myself-ing all over the place. When domination acts like domination, it’s pretty easy to spot.

But sometimes it’s not easy to spot. Sometimes domination does not look like domination.

Domination is pretty dang slippery, especially in conflicted situations. We might not think domination is in the room, but it can hide. It can hide even when the person using power doesn’t lord it over other people in a traditional jackass sense. In fact, the person using domination may even look like a nice and decent person despite having tendencies to dominate.

Domination hides when the person using power doesn’t seem to understand or care about the consequences of their words. It hides when the person using domination somehow benefits, monetarily or otherwise, from not recognizing the consequences of their actions. And significantly, domination hides when it is supported and encouraged by larger social and political systems.

All of these factors add up to one thing: when someone is engaging in domination, that person is highly motivated to not see their domination or how it benefits them.

Domination likes to wear masks. Because it doesn’t like to share, it doesn’t like to be confronted; if confronted, it might be forced to share. There are many masks of domination, but five are especially relevant to our conversation around conflict: anonymity, benevolence, fragility, civility, and gaslighting.

We can see the masks of domination in the earlier story of Bob who hit your car.

  • Anonymity occurs when Bob simply denies hitting your car. He denies he is the problem and tries to shift the blame onto someone else. Anonymity, or being anonymous, means someone is hiding their identity. Bob is acting like an anonymous or neutral party by not wanting to be named or identified, even though he was obviously involved. If Bob’s domination can refuse to engage the problem, he thinks he won’t be held accountable, and the problem will just go away. He pretends he’s invisible and avoids taking responsibility.
  • Benevolence is the appearance that Bob maintains of being “one of the good guys.” He panders to other people in power, as he did by being buddy-buddy with the cops. Bob seems to care only what powerful people think of him, not what the person he is hurting thinks of him. And you know what? Maybe he sincerely does believe he is a good guy. But he used his reputation as a weapon to protect himself and to hurt you. That’s a power imbalance.
  • Fragility is domination’s mask when Bob claims to the cops that you were the one hurting him, not the other way around. He points to the symptom of your anger to suggest you were the issue. He asks to be rescued from the imaginary threat he created in you. He pretends to be fragile. He is not.
  • Civility is a mask when Bob claims that you were speaking in an “aggressive” tone to him and therefore acts as if your claims are not credible. By acting like the more civilized party, Bob is suggesting that your response was too barbaric, too indecent, so you must be reined in. He plays to the cops’ idea of what is respectable and decent to make himself look like a better citizen than you.
  • Gaslighting occurs when you later confront Bob and he tells you that you should thank him for not being more of a jerk and getting you into more serious trouble. He makes you feel confused, as if it was somehow your responsibility for the way the situation played out. By showing you he had even more power over you than you originally thought, he is intimidating you into going along with his strange, faulty logic.

Dealing with Domination (without Using Domination)

Some people call domination “privilege.” The idea of privilege, especially in terms of race, is attributed to an article written by Peggy McIntosh in 1990. 20 The central idea is that some people carry around an invisible backpack with privileges not afforded to everyone, like someone’s ability to get good service at restaurants or be treated fairly by police because of the color of their skin. The invisible-backpack metaphor is a powerful image that has helped a lot of people begin to recognize inequality in the world.

While this is great progress, my problem with the word privilege is that the word itself is just too nice, too pretty. It sounds like someone giving a speech to a crowd of colleagues after winning an award; the speaker might say, “It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you here tonight.”

Whenever we use this word to describe social or economic systems—as in “I have racial privilege” or “I have gender privilege” or “I have economic privilege”—we’re actually describing larger systems of domination where one group is somehow granted more special treatment than another. Calling privilege out is an important step for some of us in recognizing that the playing field is not equal; however, naming its reality was never meant to be the end of the story. Naming privilege isn’t nearly enough to overturn domination. It exposes domination, which is important, but sometimes in a less helpful way than we think.

In a troubling sense, domination is so slippery that even when called out, it can grow stronger. Even if we don’t want some people to have more privilege than others, saying the words“I have privilege” without taking more significant action can further entrench power imbalances. Sometimes when we say, “I have privilege” (or“I’m so blessed”), we don’t mean, “Let’s go change the world and make it so everyone has privilege.” In other words, we don’t mean, “Let’s go make the word privilege obsolete.” We mean,“I’m such a cosmic darling; thank goodness, I wasn’t born like those people over there.”

Sometimes when we say, “I have privilege,” we secretly mean, “I’m such a cosmic darling; thank goodness, I wasn’t born like those people over there.”

Even when we are trying to expose domination, domination still tries to find ways to hang on to its imbalance of power. It uses every possible means to make itself look good while clinging to its own internal sickness.

So how do we call power imbalance into account and also work for meaningful change? How do we confront domination and make it share without using force, or violence?

How do we overcome domination without using domination?

The only effective way to deal with domination must include three important steps. First, we need to disarm domination by identifying it. Then we need to create and model better ways of sharing power. And third, we need to change our larger systems so that power sharing is encouraged and protected over the long term.

1. We Need to Identify Domination

Domination has to be identified in order to be disarmed. But it hates being identified. It will often rail against being identified; it will twist everything around on its head to make itself look good. Sometimes being identified even makes it stronger. Here are some practical ways we can deal with this challenge.

Speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power—a phrase used in human rights advocacy—is a perfect example of calling out domination. To illustrate what this looks like, let’s explore the story of a derelict sea captain and a medal for bravery.

Captain Pia Klemp has spent several years in the Mediterranean Sea, rescuing thousands of immigrants and refugees who were stranded and could not make it safely to shore. Her actions have been considered criminal in some European countries, and she has been threatened with a twenty-year sentence in Italy for assisting people who seek illegal passage.

In 2019, the City of Paris decided to award her the prestigious Grand Vermeil Medal for bravery. Instead of claiming her award, Captain Pia formally rejected it with a scathing open letter written directly to the mayor of Paris:

Your police [steal] blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers…You want to give me a medal for actions that you fight in your own ramparts. . . . It is time we call out hypocrite honorings and fill the void with social justice.

The botched award made international news. Captain Pia weighed her personal power in the fight against domination and realized that rejecting this award was the loudest thing she could do to advocate for change.

Sometimes speaking truth to power means rejecting benevolence and refusing to play by its niceties. We don’t have to do this in a vulgar or mean way; as in Captain Pia’s example, we can forcefully and articulately advocate for our cause while maintaining our own credibility and dignity. This is a great example of flipping the narrative of power and using domination-driven opportunities to speak on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced.

Laughter and satire. Another vital tool in the fight against domination is laughter. Laughter helps us tell unpalatable truths and shed light on the absurd. From ancient times, court jesters have been the people who could say things in the presence of power that would get anyone else into trouble. Jesters got away with speaking truth to power because they could make people laugh, and it softened the blow. Today many comics play this role of using laughter to talk about “unspeakable” social, cultural, and political situations. Like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, sometimes childlike laughter is the very thing needed to unravel lies that we are all pressured to buy into. We shouldn’t underestimate laughter as a key social tool for addressing power imbalances.

When we use laughter to challenge domination, it’s important to make sure we are doing it in a way that maintains our credibility. We need to be as clever and as accurate as we can, avoiding pettiness and personal attacks that might make our people cheer us on but completely alienate those who disagree with us. An incredible ability of laughter is to unearth folly and wrongdoing and get our opponents to see the error of their ways. While some- times the truths being told through comedy are too unpalatable even to laugh at, ideally, we hope give our opponents a chance to laugh with us so we can find our way back to each other. Comedy, theater, and satire are mediums we need to protect if we are to keep domination in check.

Public demonstrations. There are many forms of public demonstration, which often get conflated, so let’s take some time to learn the differences.

Nonviolent resistance (also called nonviolent action or civil resistance) is a form of protest that seeks maximum public attention while following all laws and avoiding any harm. The idea behind it is to disrupt cycles of violence—to be so peaceful and above reproach that protestors embarrass any domination force that would try to oppose them. For many decades and for many causes, from India’s fight for independence, to the US civil rights movement, to ending South African apartheid, to protesting the Keystone Pipeline at Standing Rock, nonviolent resistance has been used to raise a huge red flag about the presence of domination. It takes many different forms, including sit-ins, marches, and any form of peaceful and law-abiding demonstration.

Nonviolent resistance is quite different from civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the refusal to comply with certain laws or rules of society to make a point that those laws or governments are corrupt. Some consider it the highest honor of the law to disobey bad laws. Henry David Thoreau claimed it is our duty to disobey when laws are wrong, so we don’t become guilty of supporting injustice. Nonviolent civil disobedience may include actions like illegally shutting down transit systems, staging school walkouts, and refusing to pay certain taxes.

Finally, uncivil disobedience is considered any form of protest that is violent or non-pacifist, though “violent” is a bit of a misnomer. Most uncivil disobedience seeks to prevent harm to living beings but is willing to violate what are considered “serious” boundaries or laws to make a point. Uncivil disobedience is the category into which destruction of property falls. The Boston Tea Party, where colonists illegally dumped British tea into the Boston Harbor to protest unfair taxes, is a famous example of uncivil disobedience.

The success of protest is often measured by how much attention it is able to garner. There is a huge and ongoing debate about how to protest effectively and ethically, especially in a sensationalized media culture where peaceful resistance has become common and is often under threat of being ignored. For any form of protest you might use, carefully plan for the gains versus the costs and who will pay them. It is a good idea to consider clever and creative alternatives to any form of violence or destruction in order to find one that might have a similar impact as far as gaining attention but prevent damage from being incurred.

There are countless creative ways to confront domination, and every situation might require something different. Sometimes it’s best to speak softly. Sometimes it’s best to make a scene. There’s no single answer.

Whatever means we choose, remember to be powerful and brave and articulate, but resist using dominating in return. It’s not only the message that matters; our methods are crucial. Trying to out-dominate domination only feeds domination; fighting violence with violence begets violence; cruelty begets cruelty.

The best way to confront domination in any capacity is to use strong, utterly empathetic, full-bodied arguments that state clearly what’s at stake without personally attacking or demeaning others. As soon as we use personal attacks, we are using domination. Values like graciousness, ethics, dignity, and true compassion are things domination is allergic to. These are values that stand the test of time, values that show our cause to be righteous. In the many ways we shed light on the fact that domination fails to share power and fails to recognize the dignity of all, we must embody dignifying actions and language. If we don’t, we side with domination, perpetuate its corruption, and destroy our credibility in working toward positive change.

2. We Need to Create and Model Power Sharing

Humans learn through modeling. When we come out of the womb, we don’t come out with little reading glasses and textbooks called How to Be a Human. We learn through watching other people do things like walk, talk, connect, and love.

If someone has known only domination, it doesn’t really work to tell them, “Hey, you! Stop using domination.” That person often doesn’t know any other way to be in the world.

The only way to learn something different from domination is to either invent it or see it modeled. That takes a lot of creativity and patience, but creating or modeling is the only way for us to internalize another way of being.

Internalizing the idea of power sharing transforms us from the inside. It gives us an opportunity to see and practice power the new way. We should be teaching power sharing in our families, schools, places of work, religious communities, and civic centers. We should be giving ourselves opportunities to practice and make mistakes as we learn to collaborate against domination.

This kind of creativity often comes with risk. But it is the kind of life force that we need to propel us forward out of destructive cycles.

3. We Need to Fix Broken Systems

Finally, once we call out domination and create and model new ways to share power, the ultimate goal is to addess our systems that harbor domination and don’t share power. The rules we create for ourselves, the rules we live by, can either help or hinder domination. Therefore, we need to take a good hard look at our systems of economics, education, criminal justice, business, city planning, politics, legislation and policy, medicine, media, earth care, human rights, and many others. It is possible to make these systems work better on behalf of us all, to make equality and power sharing the law of the land. It is possible to build a culture and a society that are more just, protecting many voices and many views.

What changes will we need to make to encourage using power in healthier ways? We owe it to ourselves and future generations to ask such questions.

Who’s Job Is It to Regulate Domination?

The less power someone has, the less they should have to be the one to have to fight for their rights. Less powerful people regulate domination only when they feel they have to. No one wants to have to say, “Hey, you hit my car! Please make it right!”

If Bob hits your car, it is Bob’s job to call the insurance company and take responsibility. It is Bob’s job to acknowledge the damage and do the right thing.

The more power you have, the higher your responsibility to regulate domination.

That’s really hard to do, because domination has a nasty habit of not looking at itself.

I still forget about the dangers of domination sometimes. Though I grew up in a humble, lower-middle-class home and certainly know what it’s like not to have enough, I can be kind of a loudmouth, unabashedly extroverted. I have caring parents who went to great lengths to put me through school, and my mother is so supportive she calls me her “shining star.” I am a white woman, an author and business owner, and I have an advanced degree. While I am not wealthy by any means, and I’ve had to work hard, it’s fair to say that in the context of my culture I have personality, family support system, ability, education, and political and socio-economic power, including white privilege, to name a few.

If power is the ability to effect change in the world, I feel society ascribes to me a quite fair amount—certainly more than the average person globally. For those of us who grapple with privilege, the question that naturally follows is, “So what now? Should I feel guilty about the power I have?”

Before I address this question, let’s zoom out on the larger picture.

When I began to learn about the history of my power, I began to realize that it has been generated at immense cost. My parents and grandparents sacrificed in creating a healthy family and saving every penny to give me a better life. My ancestors made sacrifices to emigrate from Europe in desperate circumstances, enabling me to have more opportunity. The sacrifices of innovators and business people and scientists who took risks to build an economy mean I can enjoy unprecedented prosperity and technological advance. The sacrifices of women activists got me the rights to vote, own property, and have agency. The sacrifices of underpaid laborers who work tireless hours and thankless jobs make it is possible for me to have safe sanitation and inexpensive vegetables. The sacrifices of those who create and protect our nation’s laws and freedoms benefit me. The sacrifices of teachers built school systems that I could grow within.

And with great heartache, I recognize the sacrifice of bodies: the forced labor and terror endured by slaves who built the physical and economic infrastructure of my country; the native peoples who were brutally cleared from their lands so my ancestors could settle it; the children and sweatshop laborers who are denied education and opportunity and work themselves to the bone so I can buy a three-dollar T-shirt; the refugees being displaced because deforestation and oil wars fill my house with furniture and my car with fuel. And on. And on. And on.

Did I personally ask or force any of these people to make any of these sacrifices? No. And yet I benefit from every single one. Any power I have emerges from the context of all of these other lives.

Any power I have been granted is way, way, way bigger than I. It’s not“mine.”

Choosing to move beyond guilt, I bow beneath the gravity of everything I have inherited. I take responsibility for the sins of the past. I make a promise to share my power so that future generations can know a world without domination—a world where equality and opportunity truly exist for all.

What does this promise look like in my day-to-day life? It means recognizing that since I am someone with a lot of power, it is scary-easy for me to walk into a room and use domination, gobbling up space that should belong to others. As I am someone socially granted a high degree of power, it is considered “normal” for me to speak loudly and freely while not having to listen to or learn from or see others. In any given situation, I can either amass power or share it; I can either smash Community or build Community. So I keep my eyes open. I practice the wisdom of knowing when to speak out and when to be silent.

If you think you have tendencies toward domination, it doesn’t mean you are inherently a bad person. You’ve probably been taught that domination is your friend. If you’ve had a buddy-buddy relationship with domination, it means that you have more responsibility to learn how your power operates, where it comes from, and how it affects others. You are responsible to know the history of your power and why you have it. You are responsible to tell the truth and not deny ways you benefit from power imbalances. You are responsible to own the consequences that follow when you exercise your power.

And instead of trying to destroy power or even “use your power for good,” you are responsible to do the thing that domination hates most: you are responsible to look for ways to share power, to create balance and equality, in big and small ways.

How do we share power? Here are a few ideas:

  • Believe the best about people when they share their experiences of powerlessness.
  • When you hold a microphone or are given the spotlight, invite others up and ask them to speak. Let people speak for themselves, unless they are physically unable to do so.
  • Stick up for people who aren’t being heard. Try to figure out why they aren’t being heard. Build a relationship of equality with them, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Confront people who are spreading ideas that some people in this world are less valuable or less human. Work to take responsibility and authority away from people using domination, because people hoarding power are destroying others and themselves.
  • When you give and help, give and help in ways that encourage the dignity and power of others. Give and help in trusting ways that put others in control of their own destiny.
  • Be willing to look at ways your big power means that others have less.
  • Consider how your norms, your sense of what’s “normal,” might not be the only norms worth taking seriously or giving creedence to.
  • When you find yourself in conflict or difficult conversations, try to be the last to speak. Make sure everyone has the same amount of conversational “space.” If someone seems to have less space than others, invite them to take up more space.
  • Create ways to be the humble and secret champion of the less powerful. Help people climb the ladder and improve their situations without controlling their fate or expecting recognition.
  • Understand how systems and institutions perpetuate domination. Use your voice, your habits of consumption and purchasing, your donations, your time, and your vote to fix those systems and make them more just.

Moving Forward

Power matters in conflict and impasse because the way it’s wielded can lead to either justice or injustice, either peace or chaos. Wherever domination is present, injustice follows in its wake. In such cases, it is right and natural to protest, to explore the conflict that may arise. Especially when conflicts arise from power imbalances, it’s imperative that we don’t rush to a quick or cheap resolution. We need to understand what is actually causing the injustice; we need to understand how power is operating under the surface of conflict.

If you don’t have a lot of power in this world, you are probably well versed in addressing power imbalances. If you take anything out of this chapter, take this: It shouldn’t be your job to fight for your rights. If you choose to fight for yourself and others, that’s great. But no one will fault you for getting tired and overwhelmed sometimes. For the work that you choose to engage in the fight against domination, thank you. The world needs your testimony and perspective.

If you do have a lot of power in this world, to the point of being vulnerable to using domination, I say this in all sincerity: though you may have won a kind of genetic and social lottery, consider that those “winnings” don’t belong to you, even if you feel you have earned them. Those winnings are largely social inventions, arising from much larger histories, and have an impact on us all. Power imbalances come from somewhere and are often reinforced by systems that cause pain and suffering. Someone always pays the price for domination to exist. If you have more power, that usually means someone else in the world has less. As you wrestle with this, remember that having a lot of power doesn’t mean you are bad or condemned. Don’t get sidetracked by shame. Remember that the more power you have, the more tremendous your responsibility to call out domination, model new and creative ways of sharing power, and use your power to fix broken systems that harbor injustice. Please don’t waste that chance. Grab the full faculties of your imagination, and get to work.

Melody Stanford Martin - 14 posts

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert helping people of all ages develop skills of courageous dialogue and conflict transformation. She is the author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020) and the Founder of Brave Talk Project.

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