• Is It Okay To Talk About Power?

    In my world of support to adults with intellectual disabilities, this gets even more complicated. People without disabilities are ultimately controlling and managing the affairs of those who have disabilities because those receiving services usually struggle to understand what’s in their own best interests, and what sorts of things/behaviours/conditions will advance it and what will harm it. The more someone in our services understands their own needs and how to meet them, whether immediate or existential, the more organizations are supposed to empower them (I was going to say, “return their power to them,” but many haven’t had much power to begin with). The less understanding there is, the more organizations hold power. It’s more complicated and nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of it.

    It’s why my hackles rise when I hear service providers talk about how persons with disabilities and their families drive their services. I have never seen it. Ever. A sprinkling (or even a majority) of representation among board or association members doesn’t translate into real power. Being survey respondents, focus group participants or advisors is not decision-making, and it pertains to only a fraction of the thousands of decisions that are made daily. If anything, such roles and tools can defend mediocrity more than drive services because “people seem satisfied” and “this is what they choose/want.”

    Power By Proxy 

    Decisions that have to do with persons with intellectual disabilities are frequently proxied to others: parents, siblings, front line workers, managers, legal representatives, etc. Even disability rights and empowerment movements, and disability pride, are fundamentally spearheaded by allies without intellectual disabilities. Because these sorts of undertakings require sophisticated political, cultural and linguistic strategies, as well as the ability to plan and resource them. From a civil rights perspective, it’s a surreal dynamic. And precious little discussion of it, which I find equally surreal. Probably because no one likes to talk about the extent of the power they actually wield.

    To make things worse, even were service delivery associations to give up power and control, they may still be on the hook for what happens. They are legally, contractually and ethically responsible for the wellbeing of those they support (and immediate needs get priority over higher-order ones). Letting others decide what is going to happen, while still being accountable for the result, is hard—especially when associations can be sued, censured, or lose funding, and employees can be disciplined and/or dismissed. Layer on top of this the fact that we are dealing with complicated systems that require consistency and predictability, that are required to submerge variability and individuality in order to universalize processes, and the culture of control that emerges permeates everything. Of course, this is a broad stroke analysis, and there are lots of exceptions and deviations, but I think this is generally right.

    So What To Do?

    First, I think we need a much more sophisticated and practical discourse around power. Both power and freedom are too often regarded solely as ends and not as means. Freedom to do what? Power for what ends? To answer that question we need a moral framework, and I am inclined towards one that posits human self-actualization as that end. Or, in Paulo Freire’s words, “the completion of being.” No one can achieve someone else’s actualization; we must each pursue our own. Without our own power, without the freedom to pursue such an end, we are prevented from achieving it. We are dehumanized. And those who hold onto that power are inhumane.

    But what happens when people face circumstances wherein their freedom and power works against their own completion? When they don’t really comprehend what constitutes self-realization or how to go about achieving it? Or when they are so wounded, or so misused, that they would choose their own ongoing annihilation or desecration? When one’s circumstances are so severe that overcoming them, and self-overcoming, seems impossible? When people are not really free at all, despite the formal ability to act? Is the imperative to ensure that they still have the power and freedom to determine their own path, or is the imperative to intervene—to take away someone’s power and/or to assert our own in order to safeguard a being that is at risk of disintegration? Because we hallow it, even when it does not, or cannot, hallow itself.

    This is a fraught question, I know, and any answer is brimming with danger.

    Legitimate Power

    That said, I think that sometimes power is legitimate and what is called for is neither social judgment nor tokenistic maneuvers, but a clear ethical framework for how power ought to be applied and when it ought to be ceded. If our work adopted a moral-existential framework which had human fulfillment as the end, and which recognized that people required their own power and freedom as a means toward that end, then we might find grounds for both exercising institutional power and to challenging it.

    Too often, the way power is wielded is oppressive, dehumanizing and humiliating. Even though it comes with offers of intervention and support, it’s not necessarily constructive. Systems can reduce people to their immediate needs and fail to see them as humans in search of purpose and fulfillment. In endless “helping” mode, organizations may fail to see what others have to offer, and where there is no reciprocity there is dependency and shame. Where interactions are transactional rather than relational, the self is debased (for everyone in those interactions). Depending on the amount of exposure to this sort of thing, people can internalize the way they are seen and treated. As Foucault showed us, when people internalize the gaze of others, when they see themselves as those with power see them, they learn to oppress themselves.

    I would argue that the problem here is less that these systems have power (they will always have some sort of power), and more about how they are using it and what results from it: are they benefiting or endangering the being of those they support? This is how we would know whether the possession or exercise of power is legitimate or illegitimate. Does it advance being or diminish it? Does it lead to purpose and agency or to stagnation and surrender? Does it expand possibilities or shrink them?

    Whether or not this sort of position resonates with others, I hope it at least gets us talking more openly and critically about power. It’s the elephant in the room, the poison in the chalice, the hot potato that no one wants to talk about. And I think it’s problematic when there is so much at stake that we can’t openly talk about, and when right-thinking or wrong-thinking seem to be our only options.

  • Against The Primacy of Morals

    Nietszche recommended a genealogy of morals that was rooted in the psychosocial. There used to be just the strong and the weak, he argued—those who reached, experienced, and took great strides in the world, versus those who retreated, shrank back, and were fearful. The former were life-affirming; the latter negated life by refusing to fully engage in it. Eventually, resentment was born in the weak because when the strong took steps in the world, they intruded on world of the weak. The eagles ate the young lambs. And so, the weak, the sheep, eventually invented the word “evil” and assigned it to those displaying characteristics of strength and nobility, and then reflexively called themselves good. Blessed were the meek, the mild. Cursed were the proud, the merry or the wild (the ones that could not be corralled by duty or social constraints). And so morality was born out of bitterness, out of a profound pettiness.  And it operates to harness greatness of spirit, to turn will against itself through conscience, to domesticate the nobility of being. It is the circus bear. It is the lion that performs tricks. That is what morality has done to us, this ideology of the weak.

    I love the cleverness of this idea, but I don’t agree with it. Here is another approach:

    I am told that some ancient cultures believed that at night the gods threw a blanket over the earth and the stars were pinpricks behind which heaven could be glimpsed. Today, we believe the stars are isolated balls of burning gas. As such, they are not portals of heaven. They do not represent the continuity of the eternal, the transcendent.

    Consider the moments of experience to be like stars within these different paradigms. There are two ways we can think of them, either as singular events (an aesthetic lens) or expressions of the transcendent (a moral lens).

    Suppose I experience a moment of love, or joy, or hope. The moral view cannot contemplate these as singular, isolated events, but only as linked to axioms that transcend our experience. They are expressions of the universal. They are temporal manifestations of eternal principles. They exist in our experience only because there is an enduring foundation that supports them.

    The accent falls on the heavens, then, not upon the pinpricks of light. We can accept the passing nature of meaning in such moments because we believe they continue to abide beyond our experience of them.

    We believe, too, that we can invoke them through dogma and duty. We invent obligation, commitment, promise, and duty because the transcendent is the guarantor, not the moments.  In this way we aspire to manufacture a continuity of moments, to shrink the emptiness between them. Our gaze encompasses the something behind the moment, the something better, something truer, something deeper.

    Now we are gods, with power over the universal, over heaven. By performing our duty, by complying with the rules, by invoking and imposing dogma, we either (1) sustain the form of love (or whatever value) in the darkness between our experiences, or (2) we summon it from its glory and are washed anew in its light.

    The good and sublime underwrite our experiences, assuring us there is a world of meaning even when it doesn’t erupt in subsequent moments. Even in the darkness between such moments. And so we can create social institutions and mandate them to last, just as love lasts. We make promises and ask for promises because moral duty requires continuity, just as the heaven after which they are fashioned has continuity.

    Meaning. Purpose. Love—isolated stars cannot sustain these things, but heaven can.



    Moral imperatives are the imprints left of meaning, the derivatives of meaning, not the heralds of it. They are the smoke, not the fire. What burns bright and hot is not the eternal but the sheer beauty of the fleeting. The fragile. The temporary. They do not reflect some universal “thing” etched in the invisible foundations of experience.

    Instead, the journey into infinitude is not a horizontal one, but a vertical one. It is about plumbing the impossible depths of moments. It is indwelling this “now” and submerging oneself in its winter or its summer. Each moment implies a universe, a past and a future, our no longer being possible. Each moment is suffused with beauty before cascading into oblivion, into forgetfulness. This is the narrative of our lives, and it is impossibly deep and inexpressibly beautiful.

    Moral imperatives, on the other hand, are the engineered scaffolds upon which we hang our longing. Too often they require contortions of spirit, demanding that we comport ourselves to that which cannot be experienced. We must supplant immanence with transcendence, the transient with the eternal, and see ourselves in the mirrors of perfection.

    Of this particular beauty or that, there is only contempt, for no particular beauty remains. And if all things fade, how can it birth meaning?

    Precisely, I think, because it fades.

  • On Epistemic Humility

    There are so many frameworks and meta-frameworks that analyze what we know and why we know it (epistemology)—they are usually extraordinary assemblies of language and intellect. 

    But at the heart of epistemology lies an assumption that there is a relationship between what we know and what rational beings do, such that the former should guide the latter. We don’t want knowledge for its own sake; we want it because it will guide us in our actions. It will help us to make decisions, whether practical ones, like whether to carry an umbrella, or social ones, such as whether a friend will prove reliable, or public ones, such as policy decisions to remediate poverty, or ethical or spiritual ones, such as “how shall I live?” Knowledge is the hymnbook for rational beings, even if the songs are relativistic or nihilistic. 

    This is important because it means that there is an implicit imperative to conform our actions to whatever we believe to be true. Knowledge is not just a tool, it is the golden calf that summons us to coherent action. We invest authority into the artifacts of our knowledge, the workings of our intellect. They guide our decisions; they tell us how we should act. If we do not comply with what we know or believe to be true, do we not become fools or hypocrites? Do we not experience dissonance, anxiety, and the need for repair? In this way axiology insinuate itself into epistemology and give birth to ideology. 

    What is ideology but bloated epistemology, after all? Bloated claims about what is known and bloated demands of compliance? I am talking here of the structure of ideology, not its incarnation in power and human history. Ideology is a kind of cancerous epistemology—a swelling of claims that crowd out others, and a swelling of expectations around compliance. It becomes worse when we make values or norms the objects of knowledge. In this way, the “right-thinking” of epistemology is merely the cub we feed while ideology is the feral beast that grows to devour us. 

    But perhaps there is something we can do to curb the growth of ideology. Advancing knowledge seems to be about convincing people to see the world as one does. Rather than saying: do you see the world as I see it?, we say: do you see the world rightly, as I do? Trading in knowledge is not like trading in art. With art, we indulge anxiety and uncertainty. With knowledge, we annihilate both through reason. Epistemologies tend to be pedantic treatises. There are mountains of declarative propositions, logical inferences, explanations of why this method is to be preferred to that, why this must be the case and not that. Its disposition is to elucidate, to instruct, to invite the reader to arrive at the same rational conclusion. One may pretend that we are learning together, but it is only a pedagogical device. 

    Epistemology also tends to foster a belief that certainty, or at least likelihood, lies within the province of rational thought. We can think our way to truth, to knowledge. Which means, those who can think clearer and better should be given a platform for teaching the rest of us. Which means some of us are entitled to feel more confident than others, more certain. More deserving of influence.

    What would happen if we began at a different starting point? What if we adopted an attitude of epistemic humility, an attitude that acknowledged that there are good and compelling reasons to think a great many different things, even if we don’t personally find the reasons or conclusions compelling. Maybe we don’t have the necessary experiences or skills or imagination or body to understand them. This isn’t an argument for relativism or quietism. It doesn’t stop the conversation. It just means, at the conclusion of a satisfactory or unsatisfactory conversation, both interlocutors shrug their shoulders and say “who knows what is really the case, but this is what I am going to personally believe for now. I may be wrong. I probably am. But then, we are probably both wrong.” 

    In the same way that curiosity is the antidote to judgment, humility inoculates us from ideology. If one remains open to being wrong, to being fallible, if one remains curious about the many ways of thinking and knowing and being in the world, one can practice epistemology without being conscripted into ideology. A little humility acknowledges that we are all puttering about in the dark. We are fumblers. We are all trying to find a basis to personal action because the stakes are so high. We are trying to figure out how our world works because we have an unquenchable curiosity. Because our lives matter. 

    Epistemic humility invites us to explore any question and to forward any claim we like, so long as it is an offering, a personal gesture, and not a demand. A humble epistemology is about the joy of inquiry, not inquisition. It is about the solidarity of longing that lies beneath the asking.