Musings on Power
Words are power.
I heard somewhere growing up that Eskimos have around 50 words for snow. Eskimos see a lot of snow, they eat snow, and they build their houses from snow. So, it made sense that snow would be as large a part of their language as it is a part of their culture and it was going to a pivotal cornerstone on which I laid the framework for this essay on power. As it turns out, that’s a hoax folks. Eskimos don’t have 50 words for snow. Steve Derose, director of linguistics at OpenAmplify, studied some of the work published on this subject and he found that Eskimos have roughly 7 different words for snow. He pushes this list to a maximum of 24 words by taking some liberties with the definition of what “snow” is and by using some good, old fashioned imagination. He continues on to list 40 words for snow that occur in the English language. His list includes words that are associated with ice, hail, and other words that are only loosely related to the word snow. He made this quick list off the top of his head and he does so in order to demonstrate how the original study (the one that is the source of the myth) could have skewed the number so heavily.
While the Eskimo snow words hoax is busted, I don’t think we should immediately discount the point that the originator of the hoax was trying to prove. He was trying to prove that things that are more important to a culture will have more words associated with them than things that are less important. This may not be a truth that is universal to all languages or cultures, but it is certainly one that is evident in the English language and our culture, I thought. In an English literature class I took during college, my teacher spent some time showing us how to dissect and interpret poems from the early and Middle English eras (he was actually able to read and speak Middle English. It was awesome). During this time, we happened upon and interesting discovery. There were more words (with more variations) for things that were important to their culture than there were for less important things. In light of this knowledge, I decided to do some research into the word power because I wanted to see if I could determine how important the concept of power was in our culture today. In order to reinforce my results, I chose to compare it to a random word that I considered relatively unimportant: tree. For this study, I turned to Dictionary.com because it is the most legitimate and most up-to-date dictionary available for free. The website lists 119 different word phrases that contain the word “power.” Almost 38% of these (45 words) deal with power in terms of possessing power over another person. Which is important not only because it happens to be the focus of this essay, but also because abstract power came in second place to electrical power (which had almost 49% of the words) in my study. The word tree had 96 different word phrases, which was significantly higher than I expected. After a close analysis of the words, I can definitively say that that the concept of power is slightly more important than trees in our culture and abstract power is 9% less important than electrical power. Which, unfortunately, isn’t really definitive of anything at all.
While my results were certainly not as exciting or convincing as I originally anticipated, some good did come from this study. It made me start to think about how I have experienced power, where power comes from, my history with commanding power, and what are some symbols of power.
My own experience of power.
“Okay, I want you all to count off. 1’s and 2’s. Alyssa, you start us off.” Mr. McGee says pointing.
“1.” She says.
“2.” Says the kid to her right.
The students go around the room counting off. Some hold up the number on their fingers so that they won’t forget. You’d think by 7th grade they would be able to remember a simple number for 30 seconds, but this is not the case. The count rounds the room and as it nears me, Brian to my left says, “1” then Leslie, to my right, says, “2.” I let the count pass over me like an inaccurately aimed bullet. We have been in Mr. McGee’s class long enough to know that I don’t get a number. I have dodged no bullet, however. I am not that lucky.
The two groups line the sides of the classroom, all facing up towards the blackboard. I have a theater-seat view from my desk in the middle of the room. The teams field their first competitors. Leslie is facing off against Brian. Mr. McGee reads the first word and the two scramble to write it on the board as fast as they can. In Mr. McGee’s spelling competitions, the person that finishes writing the word first, with correct spelling, is the winner. I felt left out the first time Mr. McGee informed me that I did not get a number. Just like that first time, I was forced to stay seated today while the other kids competed, but I am well over that feeling now. I will get my turn when the kids from each group finish their game. However, I am not playing this game against another student. I face off against Mr. McGee. This is entirely by choice. Well, his choice. He and I do not play for points. We play to win. We play for bragging rights. We play for power.
Mr. McGee is about 6’1” and weighs in at about 240 pounds. He has broad muscular shoulders and a squared jaw. He is commandingly built like a linebacker. He is really hairy, except on his head. He is always clean shaven, face and skull. But he’s one of those guys that has a 5 o’clock shadow by 11 a.m. so with Health and the Body being my last class of the day, he looks even more imposing than he does regularly. He doesn’t have a gruff voice. He is a joker, or at least, he believes himself to be. He speaks with confidence and authority only when he is serious about something. One of his favorite ways to “joke” with me is by leaving my out of the group projects and competitions like the spelling game. I think he is funny only about 5% of the time. And while I smile and joke back with him, his beady blue eyes sometimes make me regret coming to class.
For one reason or another, things were like this right from the beginning between us. I don’t like to say that he singled me out or picked on me, but damn it, he singled me out and picked on me. Despite the fact that he was in the position of authority on two different levels (he was also my football coach), I had no choice but to fire back to his oppressiveness. I am not the type of person that lies down when faced with this type of adversity. I could not have just endured quietly, as my grandmother recommended. The “joking” that we did was never too serious or vulgar, but there was always an air of uncomfortable tension when we went at each other. We seemed to always have a source of conflict between us. I, a Notre Dame fan and he, a Michigan fan; we were polar opposites in almost all ways.
One thing I have always been good at is testing the water of people reactions. I usually know how much I can get away with without being reprimanded. However, I made the mistake one time of treading a little too much water with Mr. McGee more than once. In one specific instance, I remember I violated his one and only golden rule.
We were all sitting around in class. It was a sunny and pleasant spring afternoon and I remember the room being extraordinarily bright that day. My classmates and I were all talking about the track meet later that day. Mr. McGee was in a pretty good mood, which probably contributed to my decision to test him. If he was in a good mood, I was more likely to get away with what I was about to do. I cannot remember the exact phrasing, but I said something like “Hey Mr. McGoo, or, I mean, Mr. McGee, can Jesse and I go to the computer lab?”
You see, Mr. McGee’s one golden rule that he laid down at the beginning the semester was not to call him Mr. McGoo. He was very clear about this and it was not an unfeasible request, but given our history and our constant struggle for power, I couldn’t let such a wonderful opportunity to verbally jab him just slip away, unexploited. Upon hearing me, the blood rushed to his head and his face burst into a red color that I had previously only seen on fire hydrants. He sternly led me into the hall, shut the door, and gave me pushups while everyone else waited quietly in the classroom. On about the 5th pushup, I remember thinking he had won this round. But something happened that swung the event in my favor: my nose started bleeding. This probably doesn’t seem like a momentum changer, but it is important to look at it in context. The class knew that he and I didn’t get along very well. I violate his one rule, he takes me out into the hall, and then we come back in with my nose all bloody. Our middle school was a place for some hellacious rumors and this would not have showed Mr. McGee in a very favorable light. He was instantaneously very apologetic for giving me pushups. He decided it was better to let me win this one than to lose his job over the fiasco that could ensue. Every bit of banter back and forth between us, every event like this one, were all representative of our larger battle for power and control of the classroom.
Looking back on my experience with Mr. McGee, I often wonder what was the true nature of our relationship? It never came to blows or anything. It was never overtly hostile. Usually we were both smiling during our exchanges, even if one of us was not smiling at the end. I always tend to wonder if perhaps he saw me as a cocky middle school punk that needed to be knocked down a few notches. This may have certainly been the case, but why then, would he not just resort to a higher authority? Why not drag my ass down to the principal’s office when I called him Mr. McGoo?
I have pondered much on this and I have realized that his reasons for not taking me to the principal for insubordination are the same as my reasons for not going to the principal about mistreatment. By taking the issue to a higher authority, either one of us would have relinquished all control of the situation. Like when a child takes a dispute with a sibling to their parents. This could mean a victory in one situation for the child, but now that child has lost all power in his relationship with his sibling. It would mean a winning of a battle, but a losing of the war.
Thinking back to my original question, is power in this situation earned or learned? With the given information, I have to say it’s probably a little bit of both. Mr. McGee obviously earned his power by becoming the authority figure. My power was not earned though; it was very much learned through my experience with Mr. McGee. I did not even know I possessed power in this situation until I needed it.
Where does power come from?
To Otis Grant, Associate Professor of Law & Society at Indiana University South Bend, power is the ability to influence outcomes. Mr. McGee and I certainly had the ability to influence outcomes, but the power dynamic, in our case, stemmed from the fact that we both had different types of power. The type of power Mr. McGee commanded was Position Power. He had formal authority in the situation and control over the classroom. Less abstractly, his power also came from his authoritative tone and dominating physical presence. My power in our struggle stemmed from my popularity in class. Grant would say that I had Personal Power in this situation. I had many friends in that class. Well, I had many friends in every class. Being from a small town, I knew everyone in class and everyone knew me. My friends and I were always the popular kids. This is where my power came from. Personal Power shares many of the characteristics that we associate with a leader such as charisma. Personal Power and leadership traits are synonymous with one another. If the classroom was a courtroom, you could picture Mr. McGee as the judge and me as charming lawyer that attempts to win over the class mates that make up the jury.
In retrospect, it is easy to say both of us abused the power that we commanded and I think this is probably true. But without this experience, I wouldn’t be able to write about it now and I would not have all of the knowledge that I learned through my relationship with Mr. McGee.
My own experience commanding power.
I wake up early on Saturday morning. I hate waking up early, especially on weekends, but I have work to do. Anthony and I drive our four wheelers down to the neighbor’s house to get some eggs for breakfast. My mom was nice enough to buy some more bacon for us. When we get back, Jesse already has a fire blazing in the pit with bacon grease sizzling in the pan. He cooks up the eggs while the rest of us get to work. Our task today is to assemble the log cabin. Casey, the build-first, plan-later type, is already sawing two by fours for the supports. As the cofounder of Camp Woody Pine and visionary director, I have a way of planning and constructing new projects that sometimes conflicts with Casey’s let’s-do-it-now level of enthusiasm. Today is one of those conflict days. Fortunately for all of us though, Anthony is here to mediate any disagreements between Casey and me. Anth, my cousin and cofounder of CWP, is logical in his assessment of our projects and has an innate ability to know how feasible a given project will be. Had he been there the day Andrew and I attempted to dig a well for water by hand, perhaps we could have saved a few days’ worth of work and several broken and bloody blisters.
All 12 members are in the woods working today, a rare occasion, and we will get a significant amount accomplished with all of us here. Josh has the radio blasting some classic rock while Andrew and Boe bring the downed trees into Camp that will serve as the walls of our cabin. The air smells of pine sap and there is a brisk breeze swaying the trees. Life couldn’t get any better than this, I think to myself. Since CWP is located on my land, I am the leader of the group. I make sure we have the materials required to build our projects and adequate sleeping quarters. I am in charge of planning the events and coordinating the time and resources that get put into the various projects we are working on. Without me, Camp would not be what it is and without Camp, I would not be what I am.
The knowledge about power and how to command it that I gained through my experience with Mr. McGee helped to shape and hone my skills when it came to taking power away from another in order to gain power. However, my experience in running Camp Woody Pine helped me to add finesse to my leadership skills and improve them in ways that I could not have developed anywhere else.
In terms of power, Camp was a huge source of Personal Power for me and was my main outlet for practicing my skills commanding power from a leadership position. Since it was at my house and I was a cofounder of the group, I had to be a leader, if not the leader. Whenever people were working on Camp, I was there. This was no burden however. I loved going out there. The fact that I was there all the time gave me a unique perspective since, in most cases, I saw the failure and success of all the projects we did. This helped to shape my sense of feasibility . I had to be the one to give it the green light. Although it was with my closest friends, CWP was one of the first places that my Personal Power was transferred into Position Power. I found myself at the top of the decision-making tree. Suddenly, my creative vision was the guiding force behind the actions of 11 individuals. This is not a very large group to supervise, but it kind of is when you are 13 years old.
Don’t get me wrong, every member of CWP was a leader in their own way and certainly all of us we highly active leaders in school and sports. But Camp was my niche. It was the one place where I really got to experience power and leadership firsthand.
Symbols of power
Mr. McGee and CWP are the two largest symbols of power that I have experienced in my life. But they each represent a different type of power to me.
Mr. McGee represents the type of power that is common. He is an abuser of power. And, as much as it pains me to admit, I became a symbol for abusive power too through my relationship with me. As the great Abe Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” In our situation, we were both given power and we failed miserably in controlling that power.
When it came to Camp, it was a personal (and unconscious) goal not to abuse any power I was given. Obviously, I had experienced that before and I didn’t want to repeat the situation. Camp helped me become the leader I am today and gave me practice in wielding power correctly and not abusing it.
I think through all of those involved, Camp, in and of itself, eventually became a powerful symbol for those associated with it. The veritable home-away-from-home we created became far more for us than just a collection of structures built by a bunch of teenagers. It stood for something. Something powerful. For me, CWP was a huge source of pride because of what we were able to accomplish there in terms of building things from scrap lumber and sheer willpower. It was the place I learned to be a leader. It was the place I learned to be a man. Those lessons alone make all the hard work worth every bit of sweat and blood.
For Andrew Morse, a fellow CWP member, Camp symbolized, and still does symbolize, “the freedom of being a kid” and all that that encompasses. It represents what the unbridled imagination a bunch of teenagers and what they could do when given the opportunity. “We had no supervision. No parental guidance. We just had some pieces of scrap wood and a few hammers.”
When asked what Camp symbolized for him, member Josh Schroeder said Camp “was a place to get away from everything. It was where I learned to swing a hammer, run a chainsaw, a place where friends were everything. It was just the guys hangin’ out, having a damn good time. It meant long nights and a rough morning. Soreness from riding all day long. An untouchable friendship amongst us all no matter what. A team. A place where we had no secrets. And the most ultimately bad ass tree fort any kid could ask for.”