When I trained as a psychotherapist, I really struggled in a good number of ways. One of the largest ones was financially, as at the end of my time in training I emerged from the psychological cocoon of counselling training some £20,000 in debt. This was with me working full time, and this was with occasional small loans from my mother to help me along my way. That I ended up carrying such a financial burden meant that I had no choice but to go straight into employment, and it was a few years until I felt able to go into private practice full time on my own. Looking back, the weight of capitalist power which sat upon my shoulders meant that I didn’t have the choice others had. In order to survive, I had to make hay with this shiny new Post Graduate qualification and repay my new paymasters.
When people remember the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (2004) what they often choose to recall is the story of a daughter who looks up to her father, the lawyer. What they often wilfully ignore, is the story of a black man accused of a white woman of a crime he didn’t commit. A black man who has to sit and be tried by 12 angry white men, who is found guilty, and is found later dead in prison. The white woman who made the accusation later recounts her story.
Similar stories abound around race and power, from the story of the writer who claimed a black man raped her so he lost his freedom for decades, to the more recent incident of Amy Cooper in Central Park who cried wolf over a black bird watcher (Unknown, 2021a, 2021b).
Although presented through the lens of race, and the injustices against Persons of Colour, what also needs to be noted is the intersectional experience of power. Harper Lee clearly recognised the cross over between patriarchy and white supremacy in her seminal novel, and this over presentation is there in the covert more contemporary examples.
Within the world of psychotherapy ideas of power are nowhere as well discussed as in Proctor’s (Proctor, 2017) writings, in my humble view. The importance of her narratives around the types of power speaks not just of the interpersonal discrepancies around power, but also of the cultural misuse of power. So, what Harper Lee and my own stories have in common is the systemic nature of power. In both instances, either capitalism or white supremacy hold all of the power, meaning the other, be they racialised or of a lower class, has to conform to a way of being. They are co-opted into performing their systemically defined role, otherwise, as per the Cooper example, the supremacist is called out to cajole, coerce, or annihilate the non-conforming other.
Note: Have I told this story before? My father was a difficult man. You could always tell when he was home as you could feel him coming up the steps to the house even before he placed his key into the lock to the front door. His malevolence, a repressed anger based around having to endure the endless racism and hatred of his workplace I later discovered, needing somewhere to go. So he would take it out on us. He would sit in the living room with his dinner, and we as a family would endure his barely bearable silent malevolence as quietly as possible so as not to wake his internalised ire. It never worked though. There was always someone who would take the fall for his repressed rage. It was more often than not myself.
The story above, speaks a lot about systems of supremacy and how they work. The first thing to consider is that systems of supremacy, and their power dynamics work through triangulation. What this means is that you have to have an object to be hated, a person or an organisation who will do the hating, and then a third party whose job it is to be the moral voice of what is right or wrong.
Yet, when we as individuals, or as a collective, divest ourself or ourselves of our responsibility to sit with out own morality, we not only dehumanize us, but we dehumanize the other as a first step to taking out our displaced ire against the other.
So when the feminist takes out her displaced anger on sexual minorities because of some unresolved patriarchal reason, or when the civil rights activists exclude a gay man of colour because of his sexuality, or when the working classes are seduced into hating a mirage of migrants pre the Brexit vote, what all these happenings actually are is a massive symptom of our individual or collective powerlessness within said systems of patriarchy, white supremacy or capitalism. A power which is misused to punch down. Displacement and therefore punching down, are common psychological factors which therefore maintain the system of supremacy. They keep the patriarch(s) in charge, they enable the failure to challenge white supremacy, they assist as we perform our class role within a capitalistic structure.
They make us all complicit in the systems we so detest an oppose.
Note: every full moon I do a small ritual for myself down by the sea. I write a few words, take a small flask of something, and take some music with me. Then I sit and listen to a song or two, before reading out my words, and pouring out the liquid of choice onto the stones. The last act for me, is the most important one, in that I throw the prayer into the sea. My hope with my ritual is that in calling forth the ancestors, I take back, we take back some of the power taken away from us over the generations. This recovery of self, this attempt to remember who I am, and the weight of ancestral power upon whose shoulders I sit, is always important to me. I especially love the dreams they give me in return in the nights following.
In a patriarchal structure, those without power punch downwards in order to feel they have some will and authority within said structure. Yet, the issue with this twofold; firstly, the power expended and disused in punching outwards onto those less deserving of such treatments, means that the systemic and internalised structures of supremacy are left unchallenged. Secondly, this misuse of power can then be co-opted by the systemic of supremacy itself and used as a form of misdirection in order for the system to reinforce its own sense of stability and superiority. Whilst this might sound strange, we have all here in the United Kingdom seen this occurring in the Right Wing focusing in on the ’Stop the Boats’ political narrative, whilst at the same time major companies make a fortune from our need for fuel, bread, clothes, and whilst nurses, junior lawyers, rail workers, teachers and many others strike to fight for better pay and conditions.
Lastly, and this is the biggest aspect of the narrative when we consider punching down, is that this will always reveal the covert prejudices of the individual or the collective, especially if the individual or collective other has been abused in some fashion. This is important as it points to the further intersectional work the activist has to do to avoid being complicit in the abuse of another other, or that the collective has to do in order to prevent those internalised aspects of supremacy from re-enacting their hatred upon other collective victims.
Ultimately, the supremacist and the activist reside within us all and we deny their interrelated dance at our own peril.
Dream 1st May: Scene where I am getting ready for a fight against racism. I am sitting in a chair in my bathroom lifting weights and doing curls. When I do them with my right arm I am fine and can do a full set of 7 reps. Yet, when I try and do similar with my left arm I feel weak and can only do one out of the seven at first. I then find I have to put in more effort, and in the end I find that I can complete all the reps with my left arm. I have build up my strength I realise.
Lee, H. (2004). To Kill a Mockingbird. Vintage BooksQ.
Proctor, G. (2017). The dynamics of power in counselling and psychotherapy: ethics, politics and practice (2nd ed.). PCCS Books Ltd.
Unknown. (2021a). Alice Sebold apologizes to man cleared of 1981 rape featured in her memoir. Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/30/alice-sebold-apologizes-1981-rape-anthony-broadwater
Unknown. (2021b). Central Park: Amy Cooper has criminal case against her dismissed. BBC News Online. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56089809