To Stop Uvaldes and Buffalos, Start by Changing the Narrative of Power
Issue 200— May 30, 2022
I need to write about power this week.
I’ve spent the last decade teaching women the difference between thinking of oppressive power OVER and generative, creative, and innovative power TO so that we can get over our culturally learned ambivalence about power that is a key barrier to women’s advancement.
Women and other underrepresented groups will never achieve parity in leadership positions, pay, and power until we understand that power itself has no inherent qualities. It is like a hammer. You can build or break things apart with it. So it’s a matter of how we define power and how we use power that makes the difference.
The murderous gunmen who have committed mass murders in the U.S. might or might not be diagnosable as mentally ill. I’m not qualified to weigh in on that. But clearly they are rational, purposefully choosing their targets based on their hatreds, their needs for recognition, and their socialization in a culture that defines power as control — the power OVER other people and resources.
When paired with knowledge of how to secure the weapons by which they will carry out their rational — but most of us would call evil — use of power over, the results are devastating. Devastating to the children, women, and men whose lives are cut short. Devastating to the families and friends who knew and loved those individual victims. And also devastating to our social fabric, the connective threads of trust upon which humans’ survival depends so they can go about their daily lives without constant fear.
“The young men who slaughtered children in Uvalde, and African Americans in Buffalo, were raised in a society ill-equipped to prevent them from being infected with a virulent strain of TGV, tough guy virus. Any vaccine being developed to treat it must include healthy male antibodies if we’re ever to reach herd immunity and prevent mass shootings.”
Not surprisingly, before the Uvalde massacre, the perpetrator frequently threatened girls and young women online.
Uvalde gunman Salvador Ramos frequented online spaces and many of the teens who came into contact with him virtually said he sometimes threatened to rape or kill them or other young women. But even though some said they reported these threats, their reports were ignored or called too vague to do anything about, or they simply thought “that his kind of angry misogyny was just ‘how online is.’”
Compare these behaviors with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s power TO approach.
Speaking to Harvard graduates Class of ’22, she shared this very different approach to leadership than we see in the historical narratives. Note that she clearly uses her power, but in a very different way than we are accustomed to seeing.
After a mass shooting in her country, she pushed through legislation to ban guns just days after the event. Only the second world leader to give birth while in office, she also decriminalized abortion. Because the culture of an organization or a nation starts at the top, it is notable that Ardern calls for “kindness.” Watching her communicate empathetically, whether on Zoom from her bedroom or from the Harvard podium, it is easy to see that she practices the kindness of spirit and words that she preaches. What the bruised and battered world needs now is more of that kind of leadership.
The Solution to the Uvalde, Buffalos, Newtown, Tree of Life Synagogue, and so many of these terroristic hate crimes starts with shifting how we think about power, from oppressive power over to generative, creative power TO and valuing the latter more than the former.
In this moment when the nation is reeling from the latest assaults on children in Uvalde and Black people in Buffalo, support for restrictions on guns is high and people are looking for actions they can take. It’s a time when if we choose (remember the hammer can build or break apart), we can turn despair and fear into the power TO make substantive change.
Actions you can take to turn oppressive power over to power TO:
First, lead with kindness. Follow your instincts to offer support to the people who are grieving. As Dr. Nancy O’Reilly Psy.D. told me, “The most important thing after such a horrific event is for people to come together and share their grief and hold onto one another.”
You may wish to join one of the many marches taking place to show solidarity with the families and your desire for change in gun policy. But honestly, while marching is a good way to show strength in the public square, contacting your elected officials is much more effective. The American Psychological Association has put together this excellent guideline for how to reach your Congresspersons and Senators and how to craft an effective message when you do so.
Go for the facts in your messaging over the trite thoughts and prayers. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2005 California and Texas had about same rate of gun deaths. California tightened its gun laws and Texas loosened theirs. Gun deaths in California have declined. In Texas, they have risen.
Next, use the power of your language choices. Because framing and defining are powerful tools that shape culture and how we think about issues. I suggest we stop saying “school shootings.” Schools don’t shoot and schools aren’t the problem; the shooters are. Call them what they are, acts of terror, acts of violence, murders of innocents.
Similarly, quit using modifiers like “sensible” and “common sense” gun laws. That weakens the point and concedes inaccurately that those who want laws requiring gun safety and, yes, controls on who can purchase guns or what kind of firearms should be banned other than for military use somehow lack common sense. Be clear and firm in your convictions.
And finally, keep the faith that we can, by transforming the power narrative driving our culture from power OVER mentality to power TO, make the world a better place for all of us.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.