A Less Foolish Power Literacy
This entry is part of a five-part series on “terrible communities”: 1. All Communities are Terrible Communities. 2. Terrible Outcomes of Terrible Communities. 3. A Less Foolish Power Literacy. 4. Terrible People in Terrible Communities. 5. An Antidote to Terrible Communities. Appendix. I Am Not Writing to the World: A Guide to Creating "Theory Sketches.”
In this week's entries, I have explored "terrible communities," a phrase taken from Tiqqun's "Theses on the Terrible Community." In Tuesday’s entry, I introduced the premise "all communities are terrible communities." In Thursday's entry, I countered this premise, arguing that communities can be good but must risk becoming more terrible, with three terrible outcomes: the tyranny of structurelessness, cult states, and intimacy without friendship.1
I concluded the last entry by arguing that before "communal literacy" can emerge, with good communities forming, we will need widespread "power literacy" to demystify power, addressing the power games being played before they become terrible. Power literacy will help respond to the "sociopath question":
How do we deal with people with innate power literacy, who are bent toward self-serving motives and are extremely skilled at manipulating social fields?
Sociopath is an amorphous word with no consensus definition. It is often associated with “antisocial personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), characterized by limited empathy, disregard of social norms, and seeing relationships instrumentally. While sociopathy is often used synonymously with psychopathy, psychologist Robert D. Hare considers the former caused by early upbringing and social environment and the latter by genetic factors2.
I will define the term broadly to describe a person whose primary relational approach is to use others for personal gain3. The modus operandi of an archetypal malevolent sociopath is “hook, then squeeze.” Hooking, a form of limbic warfare, puts fear in another’s body through various techniques4. It creates emotional dysregulation in a person, disorienting them by eliciting one of the four trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Once a person’s disoriented, the hook is in, and they are more easily manipulated. If the person is unhookable5, the sociopath will leverage their social power to “squeeze” them, putting external pressure on their resources or relationships. If the sociopath has no social power to do this, they will leave. An internal exercise of power first, then an external exercise of power second.
The crux of the sociopath question is that, through nature or nurture, some people have superior power literacy and are extremely skilled at manipulating people. At the same time, many good-hearted people lack power literacy and are extremely susceptible to manipulation by those who do. If no answer to the sociopath question arises, communities will stay terrible, and any attempt to change things will only make things more terrible.
A proposal to the sociopath question: teach power literacy widely so everyone can see the power games in play. Seeing power as an invisible social language that everyone already speaks will encourage the development of a “metalanguage” so more people can speak it well. The more people who can speak the language of power, the more good-hearted people will stop playing at a power disadvantage.
There are books to learn power literacy, from Machiavelli to Robert Greene. Yet, many are presented provocatively with how to achieve more power, appealing to those who currently feel powerless and indirectly promoting a “power for power’s sake” ethos. Instead, power literacy should be taught with wisdom in mind6. Power is an amoral value that can be exercised wisely or abused foolishly. It needs to be a handmaiden of wisdom. Power without wisdom is terrible.
A power literacy less foolishly taught will teach two things:
Spot the power games other people are playing and know how to defend against them.
Spot the power games you are currently playing unconsciously, and either stop playing them or play them less foolishly.
From my experience stewarding in-person and online “communities” over the last six years, you rarely encounter the archetypal malevolent sociopath, what psychiatrist M. Scott Peck calls “people of the lie,” someone living in an extreme self-deceit, committed to the destruction of others' lives, aka they are evil7. Instead, you spot people with unconscious manipulative strategies that get expressed when trying to meet their unconscious needs, aka people with some sociopathic tendencies that get expressed under certain social circumstances.
It is essential to have amble power literacy to spot these games, compassionately and firmly inviting people to healthier ways of relating. If this cannot be done, communities will stay terrible.
All my postings on Less Foolish are written during the communal practice of Collective Journaling. On Saturdays, I share any public postings written there by regulars who wish to share them publicly. The practice does not only result in journal entries, but other artistic expressions also happen. This week we have a freestyle Instagram rap fromand a post-rock instrumental playlist from .
If you’d like to attend Collective Journalling, it is available to paid subscribers of Less Foolish. The practice description is below, and you can access the RSVP link behind the paywall.
What is Collective Journalling? This communal practice happens via Zoom and is 90 mins, with check-ins in the chat at the beginning and an opportunity to connect with fellow journalers in breakout rooms at the end. You do not have to stay the whole time. If you are in an antisocial mood, you do not have to interact with anyone, yet you can still enjoy the coffee shop-esque communal vibe. The session concludes with an optional sharing of a passage in the chat. Most of the time is spent in silence together, individually inquiring about what matters most. A lovely group of people has formed around this practice. The practice occurs on weekdays @ 8 AM ET.
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