Have you ever been in a situation where a person in authority has been unaware of the power they hold over you? Power the move your life in one direction or another; power to restrict medication; power to limit access to financial resources to help you afford life? I can’t speak for others but I know when I have been in such positions, like the time my doctor decided that I needed to change medications and I did not. My opinions and researched reasonings fell on paternalistic deaf ears. His behaviours and position of power told me in no uncertain terms that he was the expert and his word was final.
I felt disempowered, treated rudely and not even granted the courtesy of being listened to. In his professional eyes I had no knowledge of my own needs or responses to medications, nor did I possess the intellect with which to provide anything worth his consideration. When I left I was angry and frustrated more than a little indignant at the treatment. I don’t seek help on a whim and I definitely don’t ask for help unless I’m in danger of sliding off the platform of sanity.
That incident made me wonder how those with substance abuse and mental health issues are treated. I realised that my GP’s interpretation of who I was – a woman with nothing better to do than clutter up his waiting room – forms part of the insidious narrative of our society. If he had told me to go home and have another baby because I had too much time on my hands I don’t think I would have been surprised. His attitude and arrogance brought me up short as I had thought we’d moved passed those paternalistic behaviours – apparently not.
Power is the ability to achieve a desired outcome and at the same time it is a slippery concept because it is both general and fluid. What does that mean? Simply that it is contestable. Through legislation bureaucracies have the power to enforce certain rules and regulations. If you need something from these civil services there is a set of rules by which you play. If you break the rules, either because you think you’ll give it a go or because you aren’t sure what the rules are, you get the “do not pass go card”. Power is exercised through domination or force.
On the other hand power is also fluid as in social relations, interactions and sectors of the welfare sector where workers are sensitive to the power imbalance and have awareness of how people may be feeling within, what can often be, a coercive system. When power flows from me to you to and back again to be returned when you are able to continue on your own that is fluid power working as it should. It empowers you to self-responsibility, autonomy and self-determination, words we all love in these post-modern neoliberal times of globalisation. Yet it is just these times that force us to dependence should we be unlucky enough to be caught on the wrong side of these intolerant philosophies that propel capitalism.
Welfare workers often experience a tension between the coercive powers of the system, the organisations for which they work which has its own mechanism of powers (policies and procedures) and the idea of providing support to those who are unable to advocate for themselves.
Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless
means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.