Hard, soft and softer power

Mar 5, 2011 by

Hard, soft and softer power

On one of the planets the Little Prince meets a king.  The king orders the Prince to yawn, but  as the Prince is not tired, he cannot make himself yawn. So the king orders him not to yawn.

The king orders the stars to twinkle at night and to hide during the day, he orders the sun to set at the time of sunset and to rise at the time of sunrise. When the Prince asks him to speed up the sunset, the king replies that this would be “unreasonable”. The king reigns, but he does not rule. A king of imaginary power and of little consequence.

People here speak about power a lot, just as they speak about freedom, liberty, equality. These abstractions have a life of their own – they walk around campus like shades  fed by essays, papers and discussions. “Power is at the one end of the spectrum, fear on the other. Power drives all of our actions, fear stops us in all of our endavours. That’s Rousseau. It’s a constant struggle,” said one of my professors recently.  Fear and power? Interesting… Big words, you need to find a reality behind them or else they mean little. I’ve  never thought I was driven by power – by knowledge, by emotions, by people, yes, but by power? The professor must have noticed my eyebrow shoot up in skepticism as he added “There are different forms of power. It’s not all about the throne, or money. It’s about people. About ideas, opinions…” Short sentences, commas, telegraphic style, and puff, you interepret it on your own, it’s supposed to set you thinking. It did.

About people – sounds less powerful, less imperial, and yet. I’ve always found the concept of soft power misleading and ambiguous. You make people do what you want them to do – you inspire them, to put it nicely, or you manipulate them, to put it plainly. Or, by your sheer presence, you affect the way they think, what they value, you change their perception, to put it at the most fundamental. This is the power of personality, of presence that makes a difference. When some professors speak here you do not move – not because you can’t , but beacsue you don’t want to miss out on any word, or disturb them. Power of wisdom and experience.

I went to a flower power party recently – girls in minis and bright solar tights, belly dancers, belly showers, beer belly fillers, white lilies behind ears, red pastel nails clamped on Bahama drinks. You sit at a bar, get another drink paid for. Is the one who pays in power or the one who charms him to pay? One is hard, economic, the other soft, cosmetic. Is that the kind of power my professor meant? Probably not…It’s about people. Even if the chair at the bar feels like a throne.

Power of arguments? Ideas and opinions rank higher here than reseach and impartiality. I was  surprised to find out, during lunch with my thesis adviser, that objectivity is not about ‘on the one hand-one the other hand’. At least not in the Yale History Department. Here, it’s about opinions, it’s about your ‘hand’, the way you approach the subject. There are always more ‘hands’ than two – you need to choose the one you feel is the most relevant and pursue it. History is about opinions, not ‘hands’, at least history done in American style. Yes, history is done here, it is made here.  It is creative – rather than  recapitualating what was, you think about  what could  have been, would have been. “Was that inevitable?” is a common question in the history class here.

I think this style is also related to power. There is nothing powerful in analyzing an argument from one and from another point of view. It is dry, balanced and… incredibly boring. The Little Prince would yawn. Here – you need a story, an argument, something that will sweep the reader with you – persuade him, convince him, or offend him and create a controversy, sparking his opposition. Principle number one: Whatever you do, whatever you write, do not leave your reader unaffected. Indifference equals powerlessness.

I’m drained by the subject of power, no more! Paradoxically Americans love speaking about things they fear they’re loosing…power might be one of them.

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