What is the best way to keep and use one’s influence? I have spent a great deal of time recently reading about the troubles and travails of Disney, a company that was once a leader in family entertainment, and which had amassed a high degree of power and cultural influence that it appears set to squander in alarming ways, ranging from the threat of shareholder revolts to being squashed like a bug by the Florida state government to losing its customer share to rivals like Universal to even potentially committing crimes like securities fraud. If one has more power than one should, one of the most obvious ways of handling that situation is to avoid acting like one is powerful in the first place. Refraining from using and abusing one’s power is the most obvious way that one’s power can be maintained without one being seen as or being a threat to others. It may not be easy to be gentle and restrained with others, but gaining massive amounts of power is of best value when facing off against other powerful entities, not in taking advantage of those without power, and one’s power is least feared and hated when it is only directed at powerful threats and not at modest and ordinary powerless beings.
There are cases where people or institutions have power and must choose whether to use it well or badly, but there are also plenty of cases where people are not in fact as powerful as they think and exercise a power that they really do not possess. A great many people derive a great deal of feeling that they have power by their supposed abilities to persuade or nag others into exercising power for their benefit or according to their wishes. We see this power when people say that they are going to complain to the manager as a way of trying to leverage behavior on the part of truculent customer service staff. We can see people trying to exercise this sort of indirect power when they imply that some sort of violent protest is likely unless a particular political action is taken or avoided where the speaker presents himself or herself as a spokesperson for another group of less articulate people. Similarly, we see this attempt to use indirect power when people do not think that they can communicate successfully face to face but think that by gossiping to others that they can do harm to or control the behavior of someone else indirectly. That these efforts at the indirect and often ineffective use of power are highly resented by those who are targeted as well as those whose use of power is sought is not often taken into proper consideration.
If having to deal with the misguided attempts at others to control us through indirect means is one of the major causes of our frustration with others, one of the causes of the suffering we face at the hand of abusive and powerful people is the power that we have that we do not always realize we have. What power do people have who think themselves to be small and powerless? A great deal of power comes from observation and communication. The ability to provide a witness of what others are doing and have done is a massive power that is held by a great many people, great and small, rich and poor, something that springs from our common identity as human beings possessed of these capacities. The power to critique, to encourage, and to express are all powers that are possessed by many more people than who take advantage of them. However much people may not be aware of their own power that comes from their ability to communicate their feelings and memories, their experiences and observations, this power is definitely well understood and feared by those who are threatened by this power. One of the reasons why we see the freedom of expression attacked by tyrants is because they know that people who are free and who feel free to express themselves are not people who are going to be overawed by those who are mortal and fallible creatures like themselves but who long to be seen as divine and unaccountable authorities.
Let us return to our original question: what is the best way to keep and to use one’s influence? For power to be properly used and kept, one must be aware of one’s power as well as the sources and limitations of that power. Awareness is by no means an easy task–it can be painful to realize that power is often given to us by institutions which can take away that power in the blink of an eye if they are unsatisfied with our use of that power or with our character in general. It can be painful or unpleasant for us to realize that others are not willing to use their power to gratify our own wishes, and that others may resent our attempts to dominate or control them either directly or indirectly. Similarly, it may make us uncomfortable for us to see ourselves as powerful beings. A great many of us as human beings associate our goodness with being people of limited power, because we do not particularly desire the responsibility that comes with great power. Yet if our power is often limited, we all possess it to a greater or lesser extent, and it is worthwhile to realize that so that we may be able to develop that power as best as we are able in a world where all too many people seek power that they do not deserve and should not possess in order to do harm to us and others. If such power is to be resisted, it must be resisted by other sources of power that are not possessed by the wicked.