In the queer community, it’s hard to grapple with the concept of power. How do we get it? Is it something we even want? And once we have it, how do we use it responsibly?
On “Invisibilia,” the landmark podcast covering unseen societal forces, power served as the catalyst for a series of discussions making up the show’s most recent season. But one episode, titled “The P Word,” dives deep into personal power. What is it, how do we deal with it, and can harnessing power in a healthy way be as simple as establishing good boundaries?
INTO spoke to “Invisibilia” co-host Yowei Shaw about how we can harness our own soft power in community-oriented ways.
INTO: I really loved the episode. How did you start to get interested in this idea of the fear of power?
YOWEI SHAW: I had been wanting to do something about power on Invisibilia for the longest time. I have definitely pitched power as an invisible force for us to take on almost every year since I’ve been on the show, which is now coming up on 7 years. It’s a little bit ridiculous that we have never done it before. Power is often a character in all of our stories, so why haven’t we done it?
I’d been talking to a bunch of different authors and researchers who’d been looking at power from a variety of disciplines: political science, organizing labor, psychology management, all over. And to be honest, a lot of what I was hearing was what I expected. I was like, “Oh, I kind of understand this already.” But then I started to notice this through line from all the different folks I talked to that was more like “Yeah, power gets a bad rap.”
People tend to have this negative connotation around power. But power is value-neutral. It can be dirty, depending on how you acquire it and what you use it for, but power itself is neither good or bad in and of itself. That was an argument that I was hearing across the board. It was interesting because it lined up with what I have noticed in my own life. I happen to be friends with a bunch of organizers so I don’t really hear it from them as much, because I think of organizers as like, mechanics of power, and power realists. But I have noticed it in the workplace, specifically in like white liberal spaces. There’s this implicit idea that having power is bad, and makes you a bad person. So there’s this kind of like revulsion to power that I noticed can make some of those people who have that aversion are the least able to see their own power and impact.
And obviously, we’re having a lot of conversations about power, the discussions specifically around race and class have exploded since occupy and then obviously, in the last few years, so I feel like our culture is trying to look in a more clear-eyed way at power. Like, what is my relationship with it? Where do I sit in all these systems of power? How are my narratives about power helpful or useful to me using it responsibly?
Yeah it’s interesting, because I feel like white people specifically, a lot of us still act extremely defensive in conversations around power, like we’re being accused of being bad people when really, pointing out privilege isn’t the same as saying “you’re a bad person.” It’s just pointing out that this is something we have and we need to acknowledge and understand our own power within the system.
I like how you’re touching upon this binary way we tend to think about power: like you have it, or you don’t.
Right, no in-between. How did you end up connecting with Alex Song-Xia for this episode?
So basically I was like, “I’m interested in the idea of power, has anyone studied it? I was delighted to find a few power researchers who have been looking at it head-on, but it’s still very preliminary research. Catherine Hall, who wrote literally a paper called “The P Word” which we’re borrowing for the title of the episode. Shout out to Kathryn E. Hull and her exploration of this topic, because for a long time, apparently the assumption in power research was that everybody wanted power. But in the studies she found that actually, some people avoid power. Like why do they want to avoid power and like, what are the consequences of that?
“I feel like our culture is trying to look in a more clear-eyed way at power. Where do I sit in all these systems of power? How are my narratives about power helpful or useful to me using it responsibly?”
I became really interested in the different shades of this and I was on the hunt for people who have thought deeply about this in their own lives. I happened to know somebody in the comedy world who was like, “the perfect person for this is Alex.”
That’s awesome. Yeah, because power is a big topic in the world of comedy right now, what with people like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais claiming that they’re not punching down by doing sets where they mock trans people.
I often think of the ability to be funny and to charm people and to make people laugh as power. It’s not a power that I have, and for me that power looms especially large, but I do think of it as an interpersonal superpower, the ability to hold the attention of an entire room. That was what really fascinated me about Alex: they are powerful in a lot of ways. They’re really talented. They’re really funny, they love crowd work. They love pure improvisation. And to me that that is the most terrifying thing in the world. And yet, in their personal life, they can feel so small and disempowered. I like to think of it as paper cuts: all of these tiny ways in which we can feel disempowered in everyday interactions and personal relationships. If you were to talk about any paper cut in isolation, it would seem ludicrous and a little petty. But it’s the accumulation of those paper cuts that can really add to making you feel so small in your body and how you move through space and just like not able to, like, get what you want and need on a daily basis.
Here’s my tribute to working through uncomfortable feelings about power…
For anyone who holds their pee on planes rather than asking people to get up. For those of us who have trouble asking for what we need and want.
This one’s for you https://t.co/vgpo8y3lqQ
— yowei shaw 邵 友 薇 (@yowei_shaw) September 9, 2022
I’m glad that discussions of power are moving beyond the binary and becoming a little more nuanced. Like the understanding used to be: women are victims, men are powerful, that’s it.
Part of what was challenging about this episode was zooming in and talking about a very particular kind of power and level of power. What I find interesting and challenging about Kasia Urbaniak’s work is that she’s arguing that there is wiggle room underneath all of these other systems of power: gender, class, race, position, etc. There’s space beneath where you have this teensy little bit of wiggle room to try to influence another person. Yeah. Which feels you know, slightly self-helpy. But she said in the episode, yes, it is self-helpy. But it’s pointing out that there’s agency there in addition to all the other stuff that needs to happen.
This is a big question we keep asking in the queer community I think: how do people’s minds get changed, and is there a way to do that without putting ourselves in harm’s way or without sort of like subjecting the already-vulnerable parts of the community to more trauma?
That is the million-dollar question. I feel like, at least from the research studies, we know that those one-on-one conversations often don’t work, and often they’re just more harmful and traumatizing to you. I saw some interesting research around how the power of posting online and correcting misinformation is actually much more bang for your buck, because of the amplification effect.
There’s a way in which Kasia frames power with desire that I find really interesting and relevant to queer people. She frames as ilke: interpersonal power is essentially like the ability to access your deepest desires and influence people with those desires. And so power and desire are deeply connected, you can’t have one without the other. This is not a new though, but obviously in a society that tells queer people our desires wrong and shameful, this issue of accessing your desires,—whether related to sex or not—is extremely relevant. I’ve noticed in my world, at least, that it’s often my queer friends who are able to ask for what they want and need in the most upfront and straightforward, clear-eyed way because they’ve had to struggle with this issue already in such a fundamental way in combating so many harmful narratives, systems and obstacles. So when I see people being comfortable asking for what they want to need, it just makes me so happy and I feel like that comfort is really hard-earned.
I feel like that like what you’re describing sort of what the dream of mutual aid is. Instead of having these systems that are just full of judgment and punishment, you get the care and attention of people in your community who actually care about you.
Absolutely. Kasia talks about how power dynamics between people can get screwy when people don’t fully inhabit a state of attention. She names two of them: dominant and submissive. She brought up the example of mansplaining as being a “bad dom.” Because if you’re the mansplainer, your attention is out because you are talking at the other person. You’re leading the interaction, but your attention isn’t fully engaged, because then you would notice that the other person was really bored out of their mind, rolling their eyes.
There’s also the notion of soft power, which is sort of manifesting what you want to happen in a non-aggressive, deeply personal way as I understand it.
It makes me think of something Alex said that we didn’t include in the episode. They were like, “we’ve been talking a lot about how I can’t ask to go to the bathroom when I need to and how I don’t advocate for what I need. But also it’d be cool to like, think about all the bigger desires that I haven’t been able to like tackle yet, related to other people or systems.” It just made me think about how one of my own hangups about this episode was feeling a little bit like, we’re talking about power in this very intimate, interpersonal way, when all around us are these hard systems of power we’re contending with all the time. But I feel like there’s a way in which all of like this interpersonal stuff is related to the other levels of power. Absolutely.
So I think it is probably useful to investigate one’s relationship with power. Just to see if there are ways in which you have it, and you’re not aware of it. Ways in which there’s way room for play, and where you could have more impact that maybe you’re not taking advantage of. People struggle with these areas in different ways. It’s very mysterious how it works.