Two discussions that I had this last week sparked me to consider the difference between the concept of power and the concept of empowerment; the first being dependent upon someone or something, the latter being independent of anything other than self. In one discussion I came to realize or perhaps believe that the person that I was talking to was fearful of losing power and seemed to perceive me as desiring to, and capable of, taking it. I realized that the problem with her premise was that I did not desire what she and I both perceived as power, and so this left her powerless. The second discussion, happening afterwards, concerned my desire for self-reliance and realizing that such a life is not possible through being powerful, but of being empowered. That is, willing to be and realizing the capacity in yourself of being self-sufficient.
This differentiation of empowerment from power led me to several conclusions. First, the two terms are not interchangeable, but are related. Secondly, that the two terms are often misused. Also that empowerment, rather than power, is what most of us want perhaps without knowing it. This is all well and good, but what does it matter? The explanation as to why these questions are important (as the importance most often does lay in the question rather than the answer) is happiness in the Greek “eudemonia” sense of the word. I’ll take each point in its turn, with an example to boot.
First, power and empowerment are not interchangeable but are related. To empower yourself can be as simple as learning how to cook or fix something, or being capable of biking 50 or 100 miles, or running 25 miles: self-respect and responsibility for self no matter what. Empowerment is a realization of both your limits and capacity. Power, on the other hand, is the realization of capacity alone; to realize that you can decide for others, over others, and sometimes without having to consider others and do so without limits simply because you can. Power is the acquisition of capacity without realizing your limits; the typical Hegelian master-slave dichotomy.
So empowerment is self-contained and self-willed power while power is relative to and other-willed perception. Empowerment and power are not interchangeable, but are often misused, and so an example. I have often discussed my disdain for the feminist movement, and have been met with female irritation and ire. I explain, however, that my disdain is not for the movement of equal rights for everyone including women (rights being a form of power), but with the belief that with being given rights anyone is empowered or for that matter equal: they are not. Feminism is not about empowerment (the realization of limitations and capacities), as those in the movement often claim, but about power (capacities alone). If the movement was about empowering people (not just women), then there would not be a movement at all, but rather a wholesale move towards educating, learning and becoming independent of any movements at all no matter gender (using this example) by all in society. Of course, there are numerous examples and objections: maybe such movements are simply a process to help empower those involved? Some people are not interested in equal rights for all; but my point is made here.
While people of all colors, genders, stations and cultures seem to demand the power to change society’s claims on them, I believe that they are barking up the wrong tree so to speak. Their demand from others is a form of power rather than empowerment. However, I do not believe that the demand is for power; unfortunately many of us look to others for acknowledgement, respect and embrace. The demand from those that seek social and cultural changes are demands of empowerment, but asking society to “give” empowerment to you is akin to the belief that simply signing up for a class in college makes you smarter: it does not, and empowerment cannot be given by anyone other than yourself.
While power-struggles continue around the world, I would argue that the struggle for empowerment is to continuously transpire in each of us rather than the whole. While lobbyist and special-interest groups vie for political and social positions, we each of us ought to learn self-respect and self-reliance as much as those things are possible at all. We live in a world where power is esteemed and empowerment is often disparaged by whomever the “others” are. But for those who strive for empowerment to revere and strive for power is to enslave yourself to the very thing that you are rallying against: a master.