The Self-Defeating Acquisition Of Power

One of the most important needs that human beings have is safety.  If one, for example, gives any credence to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it ranks as a fundamental need, right above survival needs.  That is to say, as soon as people are able to acquire food security and have shelter over their heads and have a basic confidence that they have the logistical capacity to ensure their survival, the very next thing on their mind to solve are safety concerns.  One might think that safety was an easy thing to ensure, but it can be a lot trickier than that.  If I am driving to work, even in a hobbled state, I tend to feel relatively safe because I assume that in the places I go I will not be attacked even with reduced capacity for flight.  That said, while I am driving to work, it is very possible that the single women jogging feel less than secure in the face of that notorious male gaze, even though I am no threat to them.  Subjectivity is a major element when it comes to our impression of our own safety.  We may be perfectly safe but feel unsafe, may feel unsafe in situations that are risky, may feel perfectly secure where we are indeed safe, and may feel secure in positions of great danger.  In short, the reality of our safety and our subjective interpretation of our security need not be related to each other.

Yet when we take action with regards to our safety needs, these needs are psychological rather than necessarily needs in reality.  Hopefully the two are close to each other but they often are not.  It is worthwhile to remember also that we do not address our safety needs and concerns in a vacuum.  We do so, rather, in a world where our actions impact the security that other people feel.  One of the most obvious ways that people seek to ensure their safety is by seeking increased power for themselves.  One feels more safe with regards to self-defense when one is armed with tasers or concealed weapons, for example.  One feels more safe as a company with a robust legal counsel ready and willing to sue in defense of one’s business interests.  One feels more safe driving on the road in an SUV than one does in a motorcycle or a small coupe.  Yet the actions that we take to increase our own personal safety may in fact negatively impact the safety of others.  We may be safer when well-armed, but other people may feel less safe if they feel it possible that our weapons will be turned on them.  We may be safer with aggressive lawyers in our corner, but other people may feel less safe if they feel they may be subject to lawsuits.  And we may feel safer with big cars but others may feel less safe if they feel we will drive more aggressively as a result of feeling more safe.  Whether we are seeking offices to increase our personal power or seeking to bolster our security through product purchases, our search for safety can negatively impact the security that others feel.

This is not always easy for us to recognize.  After all, we may see ourselves in a defensive mindset and view our bolstering of our security as having no aggressive intent towards others.  We may see ourselves potentially as the sort of concealed carrier that would only strike out against someone like the Clackamas Town Center shooter who committed suicide after having run rampage in a Portland area mall after finding that he was not the only one who had brought a gun to the gunfight.  Yet others may see us as a threat, even if we do not see ourselves so.  Again, our judgment of our safety and security are not objective, but rather subjective in nature.  We may be haunted by the memory of being small and defenseless and subject to bullying and abuse by others, but if we are are grown up and appear basically strong and sound in body, and are known to be willing to defend ourselves forcefully, others may not view our efforts at increasing power as being strictly defensive, but may feel that we will use such power as we have to seek our own interests and pursue our own longings, which may be a threat to the well-being and interests of others.  Our search for security, be it individual or collective, is therefore not merely done is isolation, but is done in a competitive environment where others may view us as threatening rivals or potential aggressors, regardless of our own self-image.

And that creates problems, especially to the extent that our desires for security are high.  The contemporary generation of young people is frequently made fun of for being so easily triggered and so unable to handle those who think and feel and believe differently from they do that they cannot stand open and honest debate and instead seek to shut down those who disagree with them on fundamental issues.  It is less fun when companies that have their own biases seek to abuse their own power because they feel threatened by books and book reviewers who support wildly different moral and political worldviews, such as Google or Amazon or Facebook, as their own desire to feel safe in a world of ideological polarization makes others feel less safe because these companies abuse their power as gatekeepers of social media to distort the world of ideas by seeking to marginalize and silence their opponents.  Such behavior threatens federal regulation of their activities, which in turn makes them less safe then they would be in a free universe where everyone’s opinion was given equal space to find either positive hearing or debates with those who disagree.  Again, we are faced with a world where our safety and security is viewed as a zero-sum competition where any increased safety for ourselves or those who feel the same way as we do is viewed as decreased safety and security for those on the other side of some line or boundary.  And this in turn makes matters of safety far more politicized than they would be in a world that did not view others as such a threat.

What are we to do about this?  How is it that we show ourselves as less of a threat to others who feel afraid of us if we in turn lack trust in their own good intentions and so feel it necessary to have the capacity of self-defense even in the absence of aggressive intent?  How do we respect the perspective of others when we desire to correct it of inaccuracies when it comes to how we ourselves are viewed by them?  How is it that we make our own safety and security needs and their satisfaction less of a zero-sum game, so that other people do not feel less safe when we take action to feel more safe ourselves?  How do we live so that there is less feeling that people need to take action to feel more safe, so that we increase both the objective level of safety that exists around us as well as the subjective feeling of safety that others have without anyone being required to take aggressive action against others?  How is it that people have been made to feel unsafe in the first place, and how do we act to prevent other people being made to feel unsafe in the same fashion?  Although safety may be a fundamental need, it is far from an easy one to satisfy, not least in a way that serves to benefit those around us as well as ourselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to The Self-Defeating Acquisition Of Power

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Threat to safety has such a gut-level reaction that it is difficult to think about its effects on those who are impacted by the decisions we make to restore it. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs views safety as an insular issue–the protection of one’s self and one’s possessions. This does not translate well into the concept of well-adapted society. We all may be safe, but we would all be armed and suspicious of one another. If the nature of the population within that society is one of respect toward authority and the laws that govern them, then even a gun-toting citizenry would feel less threatened by the outside world. However the question of providing benefits toward others through securing safety for ourselves in this crazy world is, as you said, tricky, to say the least. Cool heads and a sense of the common good have to lead the way–and that’s not so easily done.

    • Yes, it is not easily done, and I tend to find myself most interested by difficult and intricate problems, and the problem of feeling safe is definitely one of those.

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