The hidden powers blocking social change

To make social change we must understand the powers that are preventing change from happening – the powers that are frequently hidden and protect an unjust, inequitable status quo.

So, what does power look like and how is it wielded? Sometimes it is about people who affect others directly by using rewards, coercion, charisma, expert knowledge or access to resources. At other times power can be held in structures, rules, regulations, or institutions. Sometimes power is visible, as in a position in a hierarchy (e.g., CEO) or a policy or law. But sometimes the power is not obvious and is hidden.

Examples of hidden power include:

  • certain issues, voices and evidence being kept out of the decision-making process
  • when there is conscious or unconscious bias
  • when there is the internalisation of ideologies, norms and values which keep issues and contests from emerging including the belief systems about what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’

All these can lead to the maintenance of an unjust status quo.

If you only tackle the visible power, you may not get the social change you expect.

For example, advocacy and protests led to anti-discrimination laws (the visible power) but this did not lead to the end of sexism, racism or ableism etc as demonstrated by:

  • the ongoing gender pay gap (on average, women earn $261.50 less per week than men)
  • the 20% of Australians having experienced race hate talk
  • the findings that people with disability are much less likely to be participating in the labour force than people with no disability (53.4% compared to 83.2%)
  • and the fact that there are more CEOs called Peter in the ASX 200 companies than there are Asian Australian CEOs.

In other words, we may need to explicitly tackle the hidden power behind an inequitable status quo to get the change we want and need for a socially just world. In fact, not engaging with power in all its forms can mean perpetuating and reinforcing a particular set of hierarchy and practices that may well be at the very heart of the problems we are trying to solve.

So, what are some of the common tactics of hidden power?

  1. Creating or exaggerating differences to artificially divide people and set them against each other
  2. Pretending that there are no differences in circumstances or needs when providing opportunities or resources to people, thus maintaining inequity
  3. Ignoring the barriers that frequently exist for some people and not others
  1. Artificially dividing people into us and “others/them”

Creating false divides between people is about choosing a characteristic such as the amount of pigment in the skin, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religion, method of seeking asylum (e.g., boat people) etc. then developing a negative stereotype about that group of people. This is used to discriminate against people or convince people that racial, social or sexual privilege is somehow grounded in the natural order.  This is frequently how slavery, land theft during colonisation, racism, sexism and the removal of rights have been justified and explained.

The subtext of this argument is that different means separate. It is saying “they are not like me” or “they are not one of us” so we can treat them negatively without this affecting us. We need to think they are separate so that we believe we won’t be adversely affected by this negative treatment of “others”. If we don’t see them as separate but believe that we are connected, then we are less likely to allow discrimination as we will realise that we will also be adversely impacted.

This use of hidden power promotes the interest of one group over the other to the benefit of the powerful, even when it can be to the detriment of society.

To counter this approach, we need to point out that differences rarely divide us – we always have a lot more in common than there are differences, and we are not separate; so demeaning, discriminating against and hurting others actually hurts us as well. It is a bit like our hands – the fingers are each different, but they are not separate from the hand, and we are stronger together, so let’s not privilege one finger over another.

It could be argued that the success of the Marriage Equality movement was based on convincing people that dividing people based on sexual orientation or gender identity with regard to their right to marry had no reasonable basis, and society would be stronger/better when marriage is available, without discrimination, to all couples.

Similarly, there is an inherent danger in believing we, as human beings, are separate from the natural environment. Thinking that humans are not part of the natural environment has meant that we have been complicit in allowing or even encouraging the overexploitation of our natural resources and the pollution of our world. The belief that we are separate to the environment we live in is coming home to roost in the form of climate change. The First Nations in Australia have a very different connection to Country. “The land and the people are one, ‘cause the land is also related,” explains Dhanggal Gurruwiwi, a Galpu Elder from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory. “In our kinship system, as a custodian I’m the child of that land,” she says.

  1. Providing equal treatment to all people regardless of differences in situation

This is a common way to hide power by saying that we are treating people “fairly” when we provide the same inputs, resources or supports while ignoring the differing circumstances or needs that will affect the outcome.

Cartoon showing the difference between equality and equity but adding categories of reality, justice and inclusion.
David Murphy

Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and needs and allocates the resources and opportunities required to reach an equal outcome. Equity is about outcomes and not inputs.

An example of how this hidden power can be used is to only provide resources in English which means that people whose first language is not English are less likely to be able to use the resources and gain the benefits. Providing the same number of computers to all schools and having their usage restricted to the same hours does not take into consideration the children in lower income neighbourhoods who don’t have a computer at home. These children will still be disadvantaged, and the outcomes will not be equal even though the resources provided are equal. For equity you would need to have more computers available for more hours in the schools in the lower income neighbourhoods.

In the philanthropic sector, providing a written complex grant application for all applicants can appear “fair”.  However, it ignores the differences between well-resourced organisations with dedicated grant writers whose first language is English and resource poor organisations whose grant writer’s first language is not English and who is expected to write grant applications on top of other tasks. The grant application from the well-resourced organisation can appear stronger than the application from the resource poor organisation even though this is not necessarily a true reflection of the work being proposed. An equitable approach might be better achieved if there are a range of ways grant applications could be made, such as a mix of interviews, site visits and written applications.

In other situations, affirmative action is required to overcome the hidden power being used to maintain the inequitable status quo. There is a good argument that quotas can be required to make a difference when legislation is inadequate. For example, women make up 27% of the Morrison government, compared with 48% of the Labor caucus, despite women being 51% of the population. It has been argued that the difference between Labor and the coalition is that Labor introduced affirmative action progressive quotas in 1994 and the coalition has no quota.

  1. Ignoring the Barriers to equity

To achieve equal outcomes, the barriers faced by different groups need to be identified and removed.

An example of removing a barrier is the gender balance in symphony orchestras. Women, especially string players, were not eligible to audition for some major symphony orchestras because some conductors believed that women couldn’t make the quality of sound of men. To overcome this “unfairness”, open auditions were held where women could audition in front of the conductor and senior players, typically men. This led to only a few women being thought good enough players to gain a place in the orchestras. Many women thought that they still faced the barrier of conscious or unconscious bias by men against women string players. To test this, auditions were held behind a screen so that the selection panel did not know any details including gender of the person auditioning. Surprisingly for the men, and unsurprisingly to many female string players, this led to a dramatic increase in the number of women being successful in their auditions. Without seeing the person auditioning, the men on the selection panel could no longer tell the difference between men and women, thus removing the barrier of conscious or unconscious bias.

Another barrier being ignored in Australia is the barriers faced by people in wheelchairs in accessing the built environment. Unlike many OECD countries, Australia has not passed “built environment” universal access legislation.  In the US it is mandated that all new buildings have wheelchair friendly door widths, and there are electric door openers on all doors requiring more than a certain amount of force to open.  The US legislation doesn’t allow for “reasonable” cost to be used as an excuse not to provide ramps or lifts to access public buildings with steps, as is still the case in Australia. These barriers, which privilege the rights of developers to make more money at the expense of people in wheelchairs, stops people in wheelchairs accessing many locations preventing them from participating fully in society to everyone’s detriment.

Conclusion – Identify and tackle the hidden power

Making change happen means both understanding the power that prevents change from happening as well as understanding the power we have within ourselves and with others to create change.

We must also acknowledge, that while rarely talked about, there is a power dynamic in every household, office, organisation or government, that links and influences everyone.

If we try to achieve social change without engaging with both visible and hidden power, then in effect we are accepting, as a given, the power structures behind the inequity we are trying to change. This can mean that you may be putting your faith in powerful people and institutions, and all the blind spots that stem from their privilege, to solve the problem they may have played a part in creating. To quote American political activist Upton Sinclair (with a tweak), “It is difficult to get a [powerful] man to understand something, when his [privilege] depends upon his not understanding it”.

Ideally, your theory of change should make explicit both the hidden and visible powers at play in the existing situation (even if you don’t define them in this way) as well as the strengths you have to achieve change. We must ground ourselves in an understanding of power – who has it, how can we overcome it (if it is preventing change), and how can it be shared so that the people disadvantaged by their relative lack of power can gradually but surely, shape, drive and move their own social change agenda forward.

It must be acknowledged that hidden powers can be difficult to overcome, but only by identifying them and putting in place strategies to counter them, can we change the power dynamic so that power is distributed more fairly which is the basis for a socially just and equitable society.

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