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8:30pm April 25, 2014

So I was talking to a friend about power.

And she referred to certain people as being extremely powerful within certain small communities.

And my first reaction was “But they’re not powerful, they’re not in positions of leadership, etc.”

And what she told me was this amazing lesson in what power is, or at least what power can be.

Because she said “If you want to see who is powerful, don’t just look at who’s in the official leadership positions.  Look for who is controlling — directly or indirectly — what you’re allowed to say, and what is forbidden to say.  People can do that even from positions that don’t seem very powerful at all.”

And that changed everything for me.

Because…

There’s a lot of people who swear up and down that they don’t have any power at all.  Because they’re marginalized in the mainstream world, and really don’t have much power there.  Because even in communities committed to ending marginalization, they may be at least somewhat marginalized there, as well.

But if you see people, even just in those small communities, walking on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong words, to use only the right, perfectly designed, words for things?

Then whoever is controlling which words are “right” and which words are “wrong” has actual power.

They may not believe they have power.  They may not know they have power.  They may deny they have power.  

But if large numbers of people — even if only in these small communities — are bending over backwards to use the “proper” language, to avoid using the “improper” language, and things like that?  Then whoever is making the decisions about which language is which has power.  Period.  Whether that’s personal power or power in some kind of combined form between a group of people.

After knowing that… I’m getting even more sick of the denials than I used to be.  The ones where people say that their marginalized status means they have no power at all, even as they are wielding power.  The ones who say “Being oppressed doesn’t get me anything good at all”, even though communities working to end oppression often have an unwritten rule system where whoever is the most oppressed is considered (by many, at least) to be the most worth listening to.  The ones who insist they have no power at all, all the while exercising power.

Mind you, the power they have doesn’t mean everyone does what they want.  It doesn’t mean they can snap their fingers and end oppression.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to horrible oppression.  It doesn’t mean most people will even listen to what they have to say.

But it does mean that among some groups of people, people are not only listening to what they have to say, but elevating it above what others have to say, and making entire elaborate rules for conduct based on that.  And the fact that these are small groups and not representative of the entire world, does not mean they don’t have power within these groups.

Ask any autistic person who sincerely wants a cure, how they feel coming into the mainstream online autistic community and announcing that fact.  Do they feel like they can even be part of that community?  Do they feel like they have to hide their views to avoid being subject to ridicule at best and ostracism at worst?  This is because, in these communities, those who don’t want a cure have the most power, and not only that, but some of us who don’t want a cure have created a community norm where being anti-cure is expected of all autistic people.  Many people who do want a cure are made to feel unwelcome the moment they arrive, are asked if they’re really autistic, are told they’re stupid or brainwashed, etc.  Most quickly leave, or never come to these communities in the first place.  Some develop a very bitter attitude towards other autistic people because of their experiences.

In most of the world, autistic people have little to no power, and autistic people who don’t want a cure have even less.  This doesn’t change the fact that in certain corners of the world we do have a ton of power.  And cure isn’t the only issues where autistic people exert this kind of power.  There’s also a long list of approved words and unapproved words that’s so complicated that most autistic people will never manage to learn it.  There’s opinions that everyone is supposed to agree with, on a wide variety of issues.  And there are social sanctions for people who don’t follow the rules, written or unwritten.

Anyone with the power to impose such social sanctions, has power.  It doesn’t matter if that power is limited to certain communities.  It doesn’t even matter if the person is a member of groups that are currently or historically marginalized even within those communities.  If that person is in any way intimidating people such that they feel they can say some things and not others, then that person has power within that community.  And claiming not to have power, while all the while exercising that power, is a very common thing that only makes the power harder to uncover and deal with.

Not all power is bad, mind you.  But it is power.  And it doesn’t go away just because you stick your fingers in your ears and say “I don’t hear you.”

Notes:
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