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Power and the Nature of Power

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Garren Jacobsen, Mar 26, 2021.

  1. We have a lot of stories about the corruptive nature of power. But I wonder, is power truly corruptive or is it revelatory? In other words, if one gains power does it change who you are or reveal what you are to yourself and the world.

    And also, what kind of story could we write with this?
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  2. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

    When an adjective is applied to anything, the qualifier is always relative point of view to the one applying it. In the same manner there's nothing absolutely good or bad, also there's no corruptive power whatsoever by itself. Nature/the universe doesn't judge, we humans do it. Said that, if you're talking about ruling power, I'd say that more than anything it can grind the holder down over time, and that can lead to what we agree to call corruption. It depends on how much power is being put on the shoulders of the one having it: the more power is controlled directly, more decisions have to be made by the one in charge and, eventually, this one can start taking the easy way out on certain decisions instead of reflecting on them properly. In other words, absolute power demands absolute responsability, and absolute resilience to deal with it properly. In this sense, how one uses power certainly reveals their character and their resiliance to the power itself.

    And what kind of stories can be done with this idea? Plenty, ranging from the problems a battleship captain has to deal with in a tight situation, to the decisions made by a galactic empress who really wants to make the best decisions for all her subjects.
  3. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I think it varies from person to person. Some people are more corruptible than others. Almost anything can be a corrupting agent, really. Most of the traditional sins like lust or greed or wrath are just basic human behavior taken to an extreme. And most virtues (temperance, prudence, justice, chastity) are more about keeping people balanced and restrained.

    It also depends on what kind of power you’re talking about. Like physical power, social power/influence, political power and so on and so forth. It’s a broad term.

    Personally, I’ve always liked villains who have very little power in the grand scheme of things but then they abuse the crap out of it. If I did a story about power, I’d probably keep it small scale. Maybe it takes place in a manor or business and it deals with shifting power dynamics among a small ensemble cast. Then the main villain can just be a kind of middle management schemer, like an Iago type.
    Maybe get some soap opera crap with love triangles and trysts and plots of betrayal and all that good stuff.
  4. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

    Depends on how much power you had to begin with. If you didn't have much, a gain in power is empowerment. It's not just power that corrupts, powerlessness also corrupts.

    If you already have enough power for yourself, gaining more can be corrupting, but it depends on how you relate to it and what you do with it. Let's say, for example, that you are a fully empowered individual and you get elected to, appointed to, or inherit the leadership of your country (depending on how one becomes the leader of your country). Now you have much more power... but does it corrupt you, or do you see it as a responsibility you must bear?

    Many kinds of stories. I'm playing with that theme a lot in my work, which deals with people learning and using magic. Magic is a particular power that only a few in the world I'm working with have, and most see it as a huge responsibility. But there are a few who don't consider responsibility in the same way, and some trouble ensues from that...
  5. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    It depends on who's gaining the power. There's a reason the cycle of abuse is a thing. Parent (position of power) abuses their child (who is powerless). That child grows up, becomes a parent, is now the one in power, and then abuses their own child. Part of it is because the victim wants control, part of it is the child doesn't learn what a normal, healthy parent/child relationship is supposed to be, part of it is the society/culture of the people involved (physically abusing your kids used to be considered normal, and now mostly it's not). [Abuse is a very complex, difficult topic and this is an incredibly high-level overview of it, it's not meant to be a representation of everyone]

    Conflict arises because various parties have differing wants/needs. Even if someone does the "best" choice for "everyone" (in however that is defined), someone is always going to be hurt or lose something. The computer decides to let the Earth die because there is a much higher chance to continue the human race by making a colony somewhere else. The people behead the royal family and reallocate resources so no one is in poverty anymore. We switch to medicare for all and tens of thousands of people lose their jobs in the insurance billing industry. Someone, somewhere is going to point to the person(s) in power and say "they've turned evil because of that power, no normal person would do this." But is that true? There is no way to make a decision where every single person gets what they want and they're happy. Or maybe there is by creating infinite pocket dimensions or putting everyone into their own simulation or something. That could be an interesting story, but even doing that will have an astronomic cost (dismantling entire worlds for the raw material for the computers or energy capture devices, which might render various life forms extinct), how do people go about making that decision?

    Your question is an interesting one and there's many ways to approach it, and just as many ways to write a story exploring it (and everyone's conclusions are going to be different, and even what the reader draws from it will be different, too)
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    That's a good question and something I think is definitely worthy of a story. I'm not sure there's a clear answer either way, but you can definitely make a case for either side or even something in the middle.

    That's the thing about story questions. They can be explored in any format or scale you want. You can take the approach of exploring this question by telling the story of kings and queens and their rise to power, or you can have it explored through the ins and outs of a local chess club. For example, I've never watched the show, but Parks and Rec was an exploration of American politics as a whole via the inner workings of a small parks department in a small town.

    Just as there's many different ways to ask a question, there are just as many different ways to answer it.
  7. A Pineapple

    A Pineapple Scribe

    "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power"

    Power isnt evil, in the same way that money is not the root of all evil, it is the love of it -greed- that turns someone down the wrong path. And sometimes great evils can be done with the best of intentions. What would you do to gain the power to help your loved ones.
  8. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    There's perceived power and real power.

    Perceived power is when people think you have the power to make their lives difficult if they don't do what you want. For example, most people think that a politician has such a large amount of power that they do whatever the politician demands, even in situations where the law of the land forbids them from making certain demands. I once told a Minister of the Crown in no uncertain terms to take a hike when he demanded that I reverse a decision I made as a mere social security case manager. Unlike most of my colleagues I knew that a Minister of the Crown had no authority to interfere with the day to day decision making or running of a government department.

    Then there's real power. By that I mean the power to kill or harm someone. With the tap of a key I could remove the only form of income a person had. For some of them, that was a virtual death sentence. For most of them, it meant ending up in the street relying upon charities to feed and clothe them and their families. I didn't wield this power because I was greedy or on any sort of power trip. I wielded it because social security legislation stated that I had to use that power in some cases and, as a public servant, my job was to enforce social security laws.

    When a bureaucrat has the power of God over others they will tend to react in one of three ways:

    1. Go out of their way to avoid using that power unless all other options within the law have been exhausted.
    2. Use that power whenever it was required for that power to be used but not to go out of their way to avoid using it or to use it. Most bureaucrats tend to do this.
    3. They go out of their way to wield that power - and to use it as a threat to force people to do what they want. This is where corruption often rears its ugly head.

    Real power is both intoxicating and seductive. It's very easy to go from thinking "With great power comes great responsibility" to “We recognise only subordination – authority downwards and responsibility upwards.” (The latter is a quote from a speech given by Hitler in 1931.)
  9. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    I think I'd argue that power corrupts because it reveals what is already there in a person. There are many reasons why the military spend a great deal of time selecting people for training as officers and senior NCOs, and one of the big reasons is that we want people who can handle power and responsibility in a good way. That power isn't just about leading your unit, its also about how you treat others in a conflict zone and on the battlefield. Including your enemies.
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  10. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I'd suggest that the nub of this argument (once again) comes back to the issue of scarcity and how to deal with it. That is the underlying locus of all politics, economics and law. Those with power (money is just another form of power) are able to determine who gets a share of finite resources and in what measure.

    How a person deals with power has everything to do with the values with which that person was raised. Someone who grew up in privilege is most likely to perceive that privilege as their natural right, but if they are willing to share upon gaining power, they will be regarded as enlightened. Someone who grew up in poverty is unlikely to obtain power except via bloody revolution or working their way up the orthodox hierarchy. History tells us that such people are even less likely to be enlightened in power, so where does that leave the rest of us?

    Pretty much screwed unless you live in a modern democracy, and even those are looking shaky these days.
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I guess the other point I'd make is that, in the modern world, only a certain type of person (obviously, there are always exceptions) craves political power. More often than not, that is exactly the wrong sort of person to be given power but what are you gonna do. You have to stand for office yourself if you don't want the ratbags to win, and that means playing politics - the natural home ground of the ratbag.

    In Australia, we have two major parties who dominate state and federal politics and if you want to be elected you (mostly) have to be preselected by one of them. Unfortunately, getting preselection means doing deals, and as soon as you start doing deals you're compromised. Before you know it the party has you by the proverbials and you don't have an inch to move on policy - which means so many starry eyed idealists go into politics and are swiftly turned into exactly the sort of person they got into politics to destroy.

    Yeah, it's a process alright.
  12. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    I think a lot of it comes down to checks and balances, time and a slippery slope.

    Check and balances: if you have power, but you know that that power can be removed from you if you abuse it, or if you only have it for a limited time and you will be judged on your actions afterwards, then you are less likely to abuse said power. To go with Miles LaceyMiles Lacey 's example. A bureaucrat wields a great deal of power. However, there are usually checks and balances built into the system. A person can appeal, there's a manager and ultimately someone is politically responsible. This keeps the power in check.

    Then time. This comes down to hedonistic adaptation, or the fact that we get used to a certain status quo and after a while it becomes the new normal. If you first gain unlimited power, it might feel amazing and you'll be careful using it and trying to keep people happy and so on. After a while, you're used to having all this power and it becomes normal to you. It's no longer special but simply the way things are. This is made even stronger if there's few checks and balances. If no one challenges your decision, then you will simply start assuming that you are always right and that it's the way things are meant to be. To come back to the bureaucrat, the first time you get a case where you have to decide about a persons only source of income you'll be highly sensitive to it and the consequences. However, if you're not careful, if you get 100 per week, then the person on the other end will simply become a number to be processed.

    And finally, the slippery slope. If there are few checks and balances, and time goes by then you're at a high risk of sliding down a slippery slope. Say you're the ruler of a country and you know a person has information which will save the lives of a whole city. How far will you go to get that information? You might decide torturing him is the only way and it's for a good cause, right? What if next time it's not a whole city, but only a neighborhood and after that only an army squad and after that only another person? Or to go a slightly more innocent route, you again become the leader of a country. One of your advisors who helped you get there helps you keep your power in check. But then, you overrule him one day on a minor decision and nothing bad happens. Maybe he isn't as infallible as you thought. The next time you disagree on something bigger you again go against his opinion, and so on. That way you can go from a well informed ruler with good advise to someone who makes all the decisions.

    So yes, I very much thinks that power has the possibility to corrupt everyone. It just all to do with how much power a person has for how long and how strong the checks and balances are.

    As for what stories are in there, I think lots. I would love to tell a corruption story one day. A bit like Star Wars 1-3 should have been like, showing how a series of bad decisions can lead a person down a wrong path for the right reasons.

    A lot of fantasy tales are actually about the aftermath of corrupting power. They're about the struggle against the dark ruler who was corrupted by power. So there's that.
  13. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    Well I found this interesting so I think the simple answer to the OP is it's both it corrupts and show true nature.

    A more complicated answer.
    What is power, I posit that power is the ability to control and influence the world and others around ones self for their benefit or purpose. This differs with absolute power in that absolute power is the ability to control and influence the world and others for their own purpose and without consequence, think godlike. Now I think these two terms exist in a false continuum. I'll explain. The more a persons power grows the further removed from consequence they become but they never reach the point of absolute power because people are not gods and no consequences are possible, hence a false continuum.

    Now how do people obtain power? I think Varys says it the best, "power resides where people believe it resides." This is where I disagree with the post by Miles Lacey. The politician has power, the other bureaucrat believed the politician has powers and believed they had to obey. Miles had the power of knowledge and believed in that technical knowledge more than the power of office. The bureaucrat has a lot of power because more people believe in that power, the politician could get support for votes to abolish that department, and fire the people who didn't obey, as an example (I know its more complicated) I think this I where we get into the idea that power corrupts because it goes from a tool, to a solution and eventually to an answer in itself.

    Well just my thoughts
  14. LCatala

    LCatala Minstrel

    Another possibility to consider: suvivorship bias/self-selection.

    There's a lot less power positions than there are people who want them. Which means that there's a lot of competition, and so, often those who will get it will be the most ruthless, the least scrupulous individuals, those who think the end justifies just about all means and have no reservation about cheating and betraying. And they have no reason to become virtuous once they achieve power — on the contrary, they have all the reasons to remain ruthless and corrupt to fight off anyone who would take power from them, and are likely just as ruthless.

    You can look at the history of leadership succession in the Soviet Union to get an illustration of this trope in its rawest form.

    Modern democratic countries have institutional and cultural insentives that strongly moderate this dynamic, but certainly do not make it go away entirely.
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It's interesting to me that most of the discussion has to do with the nature of power. Discussed far less is the nature of corruption.

    What does it mean to be corrupted? I don't mean in a philosophical sense (if I were interested in philosophy I'd be on a philosophy forum), but in a storytelling sense.

    The really interesting story possibilities lie in that direction. What does it mean to be corrupted? We could show a person perceived to be corrupt from one character's point of view, while another views it as tragedy or folly. Or even success.

    I would say the possibilities are endless, but in the telling of stories, all possibilities are always endless.
  16. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Ah... the nature of corruption!

    Corruption takes many forms but the most common are old school tie (favouring those who went to the same school as you), cronyism (favouring friends) and nepotism (favouring relatives) when deciding who gets a government contract or a job as a CEO of a government department.

    It can be as blatant as a mobster slipping several thousand dollars into the hands of a police officer to ignore a drug deal.

    When I worked for the New Zealand government we were informed that accepting money or any gift worth more than $15 from a client, even if it was just to say "Thank you", was grounds for dismissal because it was treated as taking a bribe. The only reason it wasn't $0 was to avoid offending Pacific Islanders and other groups where gift giving for helping someone is a cultural practice.

    Corruption can also take the form of doing nothing. A police officer not arresting a family member for a crime that would land anyone else in a police cell faster than they can recite the Miranda oath is just as corrupt as the police officer taking a bribe from a law-breaking family member.

    Corruption thrives best in environments where those who have the authority to play God with people's lives either aren't held to account or where the institutions intended to prevent things like corruption and abuses of power have been compromised, usually through the appointment of political flunkies of the incumbent government or the passing of various laws that undermine the ability of such institutions to hold anyone to account.
  17. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    Giving in to temptation is the standard trope.
  18. LCatala

    LCatala Minstrel

    Corruption can be simply defined as people ignoring rules they are supposed to uphold/enforce - it's the lack of rule of law, when the acts of civil servants do not reflect the letter of the law; criminality within the institutions themselves.
  19. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    It depends what you mean by corruption. Most people tend to thinkof corruption as taking or gaining something (usually money) in return for favouring someone in a decision or action. But in the sense of "power corrupts" I'd argue that what is meant is what happens when someone's sense of right and wrong shifts over time as a result of the exercise of power. Many war crimes have a basis in such corruption, in that the sense of what is right and wrong shifts the wrong way as a result of exposure to conflict and to situations where friends and comrades are killed or injured. The same thing can be seen in civilian life, especially in tightly knit groups with a clear sense of identity and purpose - the end starts to justify the means. It takes either very good leadership or a brave group member who is prepared to stand up for what is right to prevent this happening. Research results from this area of social psychology are slightly frightening, in that most people who end up in this situation don't realise what is happening, and many continue to think that what they are doing is right, even when an oustider can see that it is wrong. More than that, it can happen to anyone.

    There are very few writers out there who deal with this sort of thing, though there are hints of it in some of Dashiell Hammett's stories. I haven't seen many authors deal with it in fantasy or SF works though. But maybe I've not read the right books?
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  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    And that's where things get interesting. A statement like "...someone's sense of right and wrong shifts over time..." contains within it the implication that there is an absolute right and wrong from which someone can drift. That gets argued over at once. Indeed, there are arguments that holding to a set notion of right and wrong is itself a wrong. Or a necessary right.

    One of the many places where fantasy could do good work is to use fantastical settings and peoples to explore these notions of corruption and ... what would you have for an antonym? Virtue? Honesty? Whatever you wish.

    Anyway it would be easy to give, say, dwarves a different value system. The end always justifies the means. And the means must always justify the end. The two are a dialectic, says dwarvish philosophy. Now figure out social and legal relations from that.

    It's the sort of thing that is very difficult to pull off in "realist" fiction because that's not how our world works. But in fantasy the palette is richer.

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