Sunday, 12 July 2015

The thing about power gradients

All of us have been in that kind of conversation where we feel at a disadvantage, or when we feel that someone is speaking to us from a position of relative power. That's a power gradient they're exploiting, and although there's nothing inherently wrong according to conventional wisdom with exploiting a power gradient in everyday conversations it's unethical to do so. It's also very rude.

We find ourselves at the bottom of a power gradient when the subject turns to something that we would prefer to avoid but that the other person takes pleasure in discussing. And power gradients can change with changing circumstances. I once had a work colleague who was reticent and charming when we worked in different units in the organisation, but who became rude and indifferent to my feelings when she became my boss. As I said before, most people would say that this kind of behaviour just goes with the territory: because she had become my boss she was entitled to exploit the new power gradients that arose within the ambit of the relationship. But I find it boorish.

Also boorish for me - who has always lived with a foreign-sounding name - is when people ask me where my parents came from. It's because they are exploiting a power gradient - where they, from within the dominant cultural structure, are condescending to me, who presumably owes his existence to a secondary cultural locus. Some people might say it's just curiosity, but the imperceptible slant of the conversation in their favour makes it possible for them to enjoy the effect of power - that pleasurable slide down the gradient - at my expense. I have to work harder than them because I am at a cultural disadvantage according to conventions they are manipulating.

People who live most easily within a matrix of power gradients are people who enjoy the advantages of cultural normativism - people who subscribe to the normative culture in the country - as well as economic comfort, and who belong to the ethnic majority. Any conversation during which the relative point of origin of the speakers is known, and where one speaker has an advantage in any one or more of these loci of power, will be influenced by them. There is an ease, like pulling your feet off the pedals and coasting downhill, for the one who has that advantage (or those advantages). That person coasts down the power gradient without exerting any effort because the gradient is doing all the work necessary for them, for forward motion. Some people restrict themselves purely to conversations like this, notably people who never stray far from their native points of cultural reference, or powerful people in an organisation who are surrounded by sycophants and only talk with them.

For me, the most attractive thing to see is someone who exploits a passion in order to make the effort required to climb a power gradient seem effortless. It's called charm. There's something charming about seeing or hearing someone who is working hard to counter the effects of a power gradient, when they achieve it without resorting to tired conventions themselves, in effect without being boorish in a passive way, which is a kind of passive aggressive stance. I admire verbal maneuvers that can enable the speaker to achieve his or her goal without resorting to tropes, like mobility aids, that keep you upright but that are unbecoming.

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