How do you exercise power?
This is an interesting one.
Why? Because it’s not the opening question. This question has been picked out of a list of numerous preceding questions, of which the first might be, ‘How do you feel about power?’, or maybe, ‘What do you think about power?’
‘How do you exercise power?’ however, assumes that you’ve recognised your own power — which is really, quite an ask.
Power is often considered a dangerous thing. A weapon of dictators and authoritarian regimes, power silences the helpless, and propels vindictive aims. It’s the tool of the money-hungry, and the manipulative. Pursuit of it can drive you to insanity, so instinctively, most of us keep a healthy distance. There’s no doubt we’ve seen that side of things recently. Power has been rearing its ugly head in more obvious ways of late, and without realising it, I feel we’re becoming more attuned. From the Taliban’s brutal takeover of Kabul, the icing-out of Brittany Higgins’ renegade sexual assault inquiry, the dozens organising, and still organising anti-lockdown rallies — even the appearance of DaBaby and Marilyn Manson at Kanye West’s listening party for Donda. We are seeing power used in more frustrated, raging and unwarranted ways, and it really is a kind of madness.
‘Mad with power’, our world is casting human rights aside, placing offenders on pedestals, soft-pillowing r*pists, and treating human lives like they’re just a speck in a bowl of burnt ash. It’s a ‘sweep it under the rug’ mentality, combined with a feeling that there’s ‘plenty more where that came from’, and it’s being driven by a blunt and growing sense of righteousness.
A few weeks ago, I watched a video by the New York Times, of young Afghan resistor, Crystal Bayat. Bayat was one of seven women to attend and help organise a protest for Independence Day, which falls on August 19 in Afghanistan. That was only a week or so after Joe Biden began removing US troops from their 20-year stations, and the Taliban began infiltrating every weakened cleft and crevice around the country.
The devastation and the hopelessness is totalling. People have been left to fend for themselves in a country they barely recognise. Once lively with people, the streets of Kabul are now arenas for bullets and bloodshed.
“Today, unfortunately, all my dreams died,” were some of Bayat’s first words. After waging fierce resistance against the Taliban, she and other protestors were told they had 20 days until a harsher crackdown would be laid upon them. Bayat said she would use those days to raise her voice for “a million women.”
Shrieking into a microphone amid 200 other protesters, Bayat’s determination was penetrating. Her fearlessness to riot, scream and yell, for the sake of women, and for the sake of her life, is like nothing I’ve really seen before.
She ends the video: “If they shoot me, still, ‘til the time they shoot, I will strive and I will seek my goals, and I will not let them deprive me [of] my fundamental rights.”
Bayat is, of course, an extraordinary example of someone exercising their own power for a cause they care about. She struck a chord with me. Seeing her taking charge so ferociously, made me think about when, if ever, and how I do similar things in my own life.
I realised that I really do not.
The thought of exercising my power is uncomfortable to me. It involves not only recognising what power I have, but also coming to terms with that and owning it. And that’s not innate to a people-pleaser. As an abuser of exclamation marks in emails, and someone who fears the day they need to ask for a raise, ‘owning and exercising your power’ basically translates to walking on hot coals.
But the notion continues to strike me, because as much as it makes me recoil, it also makes a valid point about privilege.
If you were to put Crystal Bayat and I side-by-side, there is no equal footing or fair circumstance. She is a woman, downtrodden in a war-torn country, trying to make something of what could be the last few days of her life. I am a regular, 21-year-old first-world white woman. I have no clear markers of my ethnicity, or heritage, no accent, no institution I’m tied to, and no man with a gun to my neck. I ooze privilege like a ball of burrata. Like any person, there’s guilt for having that power. But more deeply, there’s guilt for not doing anything with it. Especially when there are people like Bayat, who have such little power and such little freedom, but remain such a force.
As mentioned before, the comparison is certainly not fair. Bayat’s fight is driven by the horrors of her circumstance, with her facing a reality we can’t possibly relate to. The reality for us, is that without a gun to our necks, we aren’t likely to be driven to enact any similar change, especially not to the same scale.
On the other hand, I do think we have the power to give a damn. We can naturally sympathise, and create action around that sympathy. Because what we have that Bayat doesn’t, is a government that isn’t brutally corrupt. A government that we can pressure, without fearing for our lives, or the lives of our loved ones. We have a media free of censorship, and access to education and tools that can help us amplify the voices of those not afforded a platform. And we can do it with the simple click of a button. So, while I’m certainly not looking for a cause to fight for, I am looking to act. I’ve grown tired of simply sitting in my bubble and ‘feeling sorry’ for those less fortunate, or even feeling sorry for myself when my current position fails to propel me to places I want to be. I’ve grown tired of fearing to act on, or urge matters I care about, whether that be enfranchisement for women in the Middle East, or my own damn pay-rise. I’m sick of thinking of power as something ‘dangerous’, or difficult, or out of my depth.
What is dangerous is sitting-back, letting things unfold before you, and trusting that you’ll be perfectly fine either way. Privilege is the luckiest of powers, but too often it goes unrecognised, wasted, while we sit around waiting for something to inspire us to make use of it. While I’m not calling on people to forge an army, or a campaign, or an anti-establishment clothing line (although, I would love that), I am suggesting to do a little more with the power that you have. Whether that be by educating yourself, or others, empowering yourself to enter the intimidating conversations, or standing up to the bigwigs at work. It’s time we stopped basking in our complacency, and took a bigger part in what’s happening in the world today. Because there’s a lot more to life than meeting deadlines and more to the world than your Instagram grid.
Now, that’s not to say that these aren’t real life stressors, or that ‘standing up to the bigwigs at work’ should feel like a piece of cake. Trust me, if there’s anyone who’s struggled to see a deadline as not the be-all and end-all of the world, it’s me. I definitely know how easy it is to get caught up in your own fears and world. To the point that you barely feel like there’s time to watch a movie, let alone read a 20-page explainer about the Liberal party’s policy on climate change. Getting to grips with power should be about actioning your power in smaller ways, at least to start. The good news is we’re already wrapping our heads around this.
Over the past few years, the sharing of resources on social media has taken off, revealing a whole new side to how we can engage and embrace our power online. More and more people are eager to align themselves with the causes they care about, and are even opening themselves up to new conversations. The new, and purple “I got vaccinated” sticker on Instagram stories is a perfect example of this. While some might scrutinise the sticker as a “superficial” interaction with power, I think it holds a little more weight than that. In this day and age, where the internet can afford you as much anonymity as you desire, choosing to identify yourself with a cause online is really quite the political move. It is certainly not a big political move, but it is an identifiable one, and that’s encouraging.
I say we embrace a whole lot more of it.
From documenting protests, and sharing news articles and scholarly studies, the power of persistent sharing online is our modern way of keeping the torch alight. It’s ‘soft power’, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.
While we might look at agitators like Crystal Bayat or Greta Thunberg and feel totally overwhelmed, we shouldn’t let that dampen our sense of action and where it can take us. After all, Bayat and Thunberg have decided to lead — but change doesn’t come from leaders, it comes from people. By utilising the very devices in our hands, pockets and handbags, we can embrace power in a whole new way. Even more exciting I think, is that it takes place in our domain.