Last week an 18 year-old, with a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, fatally shot nineteen students and two teachers, and wounded seventeen other people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
It was the 214th mass shooting in the United States … this year.
I know many readers are from outside the United States, and for you, it’s no doubt unfathomable that Americans live with this reality.
But the truth is, it’s unfathomable for the vast majority of Americans, as well. Almost 90% of Americans favor some kind of gun control. Yet lawmakers refuse to act.
A similar scenario is playing out with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision that enshrines abortion rights — despite the fact that 70% of Americans don’t want to see the ruling overturned.
These and other events point to an increasingly unsustainable model of democracy in which representatives picked by a minority of the citizens, govern the country.
Without greater understanding of how to use power intelligently, to govern wisely and well, a true and thriving democracy remains a dream deferred.
This is why power needs to be contested and resisted, something Stewart Clegg reminded us during his presentation a few weeks ago at the Power Intelligence conference.
One of the paradoxes of power is distance: leaders just aren’t close enough to the action to have a full, or accurate picture of what’s happening. And they need to, as Clegg, says, cultivate “jestership and criticism.”
Resistance (whether in the form of feedback or protests) plays a crucial role in keeping power ethical by inviting leaders — and the organization — out of their comfort zone. It also renews power by incorporating new information and updating the structures and systems that have grown stale, out of touch, and self-serving.
But how to resist effectively? Too often resistance movements themselves fall prey to the traps of power. How do we resist power in a way that gains traction and followers, and importantly, doesn’t become just another abusive form of power?
Effective resistance shares the following 5 qualities:
1. Remember it’s a long game
Resisting power can often seem futile. So it’s important to remember that change takes time. And you might not live to see the fruits of your efforts.
There is a profound discrepancy between the pace of social change and our life span.
I like to remind myself that I am the beneficiary of social protests that took centuries to become law. Progress is the result of incremental changes that may not be visible on the surface, but, eventually, take root.
2. Remember that even people in power can change
For many people, resisting authority is simply permission to a no-holds barred, bare knuckle brawl. Anything goes when it comes to speaking truth to power.
But here’s the thing: this kind of action doesn’t renew power, but paradoxically, entrenches it. Vilifying those in power is just the flip side of worshipping them. In both cases, we fail to see human accomplishment or human error.
A better way to resist power is to humanize those in roles of power. To hold them accountable, and give them a chance to learn, change, and grow.
People can and do change (not everyone, it’s true.). And to change, they need help doing so. Especially in a position of power, as we’re often unaware of what we’re doing.
Not all change is revolutionary, some of it can be evolutionary.
3. Underestimate your power at your peril
When you identify as the weaker party, it’s easy to start every encounter from a one-down position, convinced you won’t be able to get your point across. So your first salvo is already an escalated one: an accusation, defense, or attack.
And then a vicious cycle ensues: you interpret the other’s defensive response as an act of aggression, and escalate the conflict.
In your mind, because you have less power, you fail to see how aggressive you may be perceived, and set off a runaway conflict.
It’s critical to stand in your own power, whatever kind of power you bring to the situation. Consider the possibility that you may be scary to the other, even to those in high power roles.
4. Don’t become the other
History is a tale of revolutionaries who rose to power, only to become the next terrible tyrant in a line of terrible tyrants.
As the protestor, as the revolutionary, you are rebellious and irreverent; you challenge existing structures and old paradigms. And because the world largely ignores you or doesn’t take you seriously, you can get away with it. For a while.
In sports, the underestimated underdog is the most dangerous opponent — a challenger with nothing to lose. In business, it’s the new competitor trying to carve out market space.
But eventually you gain traction and become powerful. You may still think others see you as small and insignificant, missing the fact that they have begun to see you as established, powerful, or even dominant. You have “identity jetlag.”
When it comes to power, we identify far longer with our state of powerlessness, and only come to realize we are in power when people begin to resist us.
What follows is often rather ugly. Instead of realizing that the other’s aggression is a sign of our power, we fight back, dig in, and become the bully, justified in our minds as righteous defense.
Be alert to the signs and signals that you are gaining stature. You may have more credibility and legitimacy than you feel.
5. Finally, It’s not enough to be against. What is it you stand for?
Resistance can be renewal, but it can also degenerate into righteousness and criticism, which leads to a call-out culture.
Criticizing and attacking, alone, will simply alienate potential followers. Effective resistance is just as much stating what you stand for as it is defying what you’re against.
Effective resistance is aspirational. It directs people to a better future. It defines your values and lays out the principles you’re following.
There’s power in being critical. But it’s also taking the easy route to define yourself in opposition to the establishment. Be aspirational, even if no one is listening yet.
Power can and should be challenged, but for real and lasting change to take root, how we resist can be just as important as what we resist.
Thank you for reading.