How do you feel about power?


I suspect there's a ton of people who grew up seeing a ton of examples where anyone having power was bad for someone else. But they have not integrated "power is bad" with "power is good". The result is: [wokeness].

Actually, the whole left wing, probably—this is about communism as much as it is about the modern left. But I'm largely going to talk about the modern left.

Let's take critical race theory as an example. Here are several of its underlying assumptions (I skipped some):

  1. "Racism is normal, ordinary and ingrained into society, making it difficult to recognize."
  2. "Traditional claims of neutrality, objectivity, and color-blindness must be contested in order to reveal the self-interests of dominant groups."
  3. "Social justice platforms and practices are the only way to eliminate racism and other forms of oppression and injustice."
  4. "The experiential knowledge of communities of colors or their 'unique voice' is valid, legitimate, and critical toward understanding the persistence of racial inequality."

The result is a black hole of activism that distrusts and punishes everyone who does not participate in it, and—in extreme cases—claims it's pretty much impossible to be good if you are white (i.e. benefiting from the structures of power), no matter how anti-racist you are.

However, it is based on valid observations!

People have correctly observed that you can have formal equality without solving the problem: some people will still have more power, and other people will have worse lives as the result.

They have also correctly observed that this doesn't have to be intentional. Just having power is enough to be hurting people without even noticing it.

Another observation: there is no substitute to listening to minorities' experiences. On your own, you can't "get" how bad it feels to be systematically lacking power, and how it messes up every bit of your life. It is hard to explain, too, because this process is illegible (see This is why I hate reasons).

Finally, you can explicitly try to be good, "I'm an ally", etc, and still—by virtue of having the power—end up causing damage.

If you keep seeing that power is bad, you might fail to integrate that "sometimes power is good". By "integrate" I mean: accept that "power is bad" and "power is good" can both be true at the same time, and go through life with the ability to notice examples of both without one of those ideas blinding the other. Synthesis.

And so, if you fail at synthesis, you might arrive at a different solution: power is inherently immoral. Power, as a concept, should be gone. Those who can say "let's take the power away", do so. Most people can't, so instead they go for "let's keep remembering that power is bad, forever and ever, never lose sight of it".

From this point of view, charging against critical race theory with "but don't you see that whites are suffering too" is useless. As long as there is power, there will be significant and pervasive suffering, so it's very important not to lose sight of this idea.

(The guilt for causing suffering has to be dealt with, somehow. One of the ways to deal with it is to dehumanize those who hold power.)

And so, the left–right struggle is not between those who have power and those who don't, but between those who think the world would be fucked up without someone having power, and those who think the world will be fucked up as long as somebody has power. Oh look, it's red vs white all over again.


For the purposes of this essay, we're done. You know what the good form looks like—integrating "power is bad" and "power is good". Now your task is to start noticing when power is good.

Once you've done this, you can use power for your own goals, which can include the same goals you've had before (making the world better, reducing suffering, empowering others). Power and kindness are fully compatible.

However, I will also present the solution to racism and oppression, just to show that they can be solved without stripping everyone's power off.

People are empathetic, selfish, fearful, and traditional, all at once. These are the four lines of attack by which oppression can be destroyed.

  • EMPATHETIC: All else being equal, people (excluding psychopaths) like being good to others. This is why the circle of moral concern is expanding.
  • SELFISH: People care about themselves, a lot, and want to have a good life. They can't be selfless for a long time without finding a way to cope with it. The fewer available options for coping, the worse their ability to remain selfless. Giving up a good life feels bad. (This is one reason why Cthulhu swims left: we have more resources now. Less need to be selfish.)
  • FEARFUL: Nobody likes the image of a boot stamping on a human face forever. If somebody sees power as a bad thing, they will not want it to exist in the world, even if it doesn't affect them personally. If somebody sees power as a good thing, they could be afraid of the society moving into the direction where everyone is equal but nobody has power, e.g. because it would thwart the human progress, or for any other reason. Etc.
  • TRADITIONAL: Even if everything is fine, people keep doing the same things they've done, so slavery, racism, etc can persist even if there's no reason for them from the other three quarters.

Cue many, many, many discussions where all of this gets mixed up into something impossible to untangle.

So, how do you solve oppression?

  • EMPATHETIC: Nothing to do here (other than give people MDMA or put effort into discovering safer empathogens?).
  • SELFISH: Work towards having a richer society.
  • FEARFUL: Be a good example to others.
  • TRADITIONAL: When you see a tradition that is ready to go away, work to change it.

For what it's worth, here is how I feel about left-wing efforts:

  • EMPATHETIC: No change.
  • SELFISH: Improvement, thanks to wealth redistribution, multiple safety nets (?).
  • FEARFUL: Fucking this one up.
  • TRADITIONAL: Slight improvement, by chipping away at all traditions at once.

The left wing thinks it aces SELFISH and EMPATHETIC, by shouting at people to be less selfish and more empathetic. This doesn't work. See Social justice wars require self-mutilation.


Side note one: gray tribes and belonging

See I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup.

I suspect that those shouting on Facebook are people with strong bullshit detectors and desire/ability to belong. I have a strong bullshit detector but it's hard for me to belong, so I ended up in the gray tribe. There's probably a gray tribe on the right, too.

A gray tribesman on the left: Scott Alexander. A gray tribesman on the right: Jordan Peterson.

Are gray tribes united by shared loneliness? Or by their shared passion for bullshit-detecting in general, not having any higher cause than "have less bullshit around just for the sake of it"?

(Or is it just typical-minding? I don't know.)

Side note two: the right is more and less free at once

I feel that the left has more appreciation for how following human instincts results in bad things. The right has more appreciation for how not following human instincts results in bad things.

(Ish. Not quite.)

This makes the right simultaneously more free than the left—less shame for acting on their own instincts—and less free, because one of those instincts is obedience to tradition, society, etc.

(MAYBE? I don't know.)

Side note three: America

This line of thinking might be the solution to the conundrum of "Why does America's right hate everyone, but America's left only hate the right?".

The answer is: America is powerful. The right wants the power to be used. The left doesn't. This dynamic would be different in a country that isn't powerful in the same way America is, and I think it was reversed in the USSR, where the Soviet left hated everyone, but the Soviet right hated the Soviet left.

(Really not sure about this.)