– by Yunnita D. Mattoha
When it comes to politics, there is no shortage of opinions. Some might agree that politics is all about money, or power, or both. Sometimes there’s the feeling that it’s difficult to do much about it because that’s just how politics are. But does it really work like that?
As put best by the 1991 movie JFK: “That’s the real question isn’t it: why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public… keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlour game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question: why? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”
Eric Liu, an American civics educator, has one answer. “If people don’t learn power, people don’t wake up, and if they don’t wake up, they get left out,” he says empathetically in his 2013 TED speech.
Civics, he says, is “the art of citizenship”, and in his talk he shares an interesting and important idea called power literacy – what it is, who has it, how it operates, how it flows, what part of it is visible, what part of it is not, why some people have it, why that’s compounded.
In the past few years, this has become more important than ever in the face of rising crackdown on political dissent worldwide – which can be seen in some of the most powerful countries.
In China, a blind activist known as the “barefoot lawyer”, Chen Guangcheng, was under house arrest for four years until 2010. His crime was criticising the authorities over the enforcement of China’s one-child policy. He defended women who he said were being forced into late-term abortions and being sterilised by overzealous health officials in the city of Linyi, Shandong Province.
Another case, now in Russia, is the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, Kremlin critic and Russian opposition leader. He was shot dead this March just a day before a planned protest against the government.
Nemtsov criticised the government’s inefficiency, rampant corruption and its Ukraine policy. He had also been working on a report containing proof of Russian military involvement in the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Some believe that Nemtsov’s killing has created an atmosphere of intolerance of any dissent and call the killing the Kremlin’s responsibility.
In both cases, people can just simply assume that the authorities have all the power over their citizens – to control how they want society to behave according to their plans.
Liu believes differently. “There are the naive who believe that good things just happen and the cynical who believe that bad things just happen, the fortunate and unfortunate unlike who think that their lot is simply what they deserve rather than the eminently alterable result of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation, of power,” he says in the talk.
Liu believes that in the art of practicing power and bring positive changes in society, citizens also need an avenue where they can “plausibly practise deciding”. And for him, the best place for citizens to start practising power is in their city.
That idea seems inspiring yet impossible: ordinary citizens, facing the authorities; the money and powerful people, politicians. But a different perspective sees Liu’s idea as a challenge and an opportunity to enhance the ordinary person’s power literacy.
How about the way the media represents some issues? Basically, accepting that “these people are bad and those people are good” is the always the easiest thing, but beware of falling into the “good guy VS bad guy” narrative without carefully considering the messages or ideas behind it.
It is time to be as power-literate as possible. Why did the government pass this bill? To whose benefit is that? What is that about minority groups? Are they really the creators of chaos in our society? Or is the main problem just being shifted or covered up?
And there are still so many other questions that can be analysed, which will take quite some time to be answered. But it is clear that building power literacy could help tackle the core problems of issues by making sense of how power operates around us, starting with local authorities.
Photo credit: Fotocitizen