Engaging Power [4]: Diffusion

How do we fight, how do we conquer? In oppositional models of power, we deploy overwhelming force, to disrupt the structure. The sledgehammer solution. But when the structures of violence are held within coherent social units, the sledgehammer reinforces them. Our attempts to subvert through force alone may perpetuate the issue, manifesting, and empowering, the underlying validation of the action. Put simply, the issue of gang violence, or any disputed social outcome (be that political, organisational, or personal) is held in a complex web of social forces, modes of organisation, doubt, and belief. This is what i have been exploring for the last week, and this is what i conclude today, as we look at the diffusion of power.

Engaging Power: Diffusion

In the first of these four pieces, i considered ‘conflict’, the ways that we find solace in opposition, and the deeply contextual nature of our engagement in such. In the second, i considered ‘gangs’ as modes of social organisation, exploring membership, the validation that they provide, the almost inevitability of membership, and the relationship with territory, ritual, and artefact. Yesterday i discussed ‘loci’ of engagement, introducing the notion that we exist in a complex web of defined points, which cumulatively form our ‘known’ space, our zone of comfort, and from which we must be teased, not torn, if we are to effect change.

Today, in the final piece, i want to consider the diffusion of power: not how we confront in opposition, but how we diffuse through an understanding of the context, locus, nature, and validation, of the reality that the power is based within. Essentially, to change any aspect of this can allow us to diffuse the power: and to create a more compelling space for engagement, may resolve the underlying problem.

Much of the understanding i have shared so far, throughout these pieces, is an understanding of conflict itself (in this case, the issue of gang violence) more broadly than simply the expression of violence itself. The violence is the totem, the visible manifestation, but it is not the ‘thing’. The ‘thing’ is the underlying context: how does someone get to the point when they thrust the knife, and, more importantly, how do we create the conditions where to do so is unthinkable.

The first step in this may be the hardest, because it is to recognise that any system of conflict is, in certain ways, a stable system, and that we may, ourselves, be part of the power system in play. In this case, gangs sit in opposition to other gangs, in conflict and through the support of different parts of their community, and under a formal system of consequence represented by the police, and judiciary. Every part of this system forms part of the spiders web, the loci of engagement, the structure of power, that produces the result.

That’s not to say that ‘blame’ is not clear: push the knife, and you are to blame. But causation may be complex, and unpalatable. Systemic impoverishment, structural inequality, illiberal legal systems, punitive sentencing, political selfishness or partisanship, may all form part of the cause.

It’s not that there is an inevitability of ‘this’ outcome, but neither is it true that any other feasible outcome is equally possible. The webs of power within which we exist, our individual everyday reality, limits our options. And so too limits our choice: violence may not be caused by wider society, but wider society certainly holds some responsibility for fairness and opportunity.

To create the potential for change, we must open up new spaces: spaces of ambiguity, unowned spaces, spaces of diffused power. And that is hard: not spaces that we own (which would be oppositional), but either shared, or unclaimed space (the Edgelands that i discussed yesterday may be part of this).

Resolution, the type of peace that comes after the war, is not built on guilt and blame, but rather on reconciliation, and that is a very different thing. Everyone, to a degree, loses. But in aggregate, we gain. That’s why peace is hard won.

To diffuse the power behind systemic violence will require us to change the context, to rework the spiders web of power, to create new loci of engagement, to bring existing gang structures to irrelevance, and to create spaces for doubt, ambiguity, ownership, momentum, and reengagement. All of which is hard: for gang members, for police, for the community, for the society. Because nobody gets everything. The trick is to ensure everyone gets something. And to end up with a new social order, an order where conflict is not the only option.

In shaping this future, we can tie into the very mechanisms which hold existing power: as we have already discussed, the role of ritual, ordination, induction, membership, the nature of territory, the nature of opposition, the question of identity, the role of pride, and so on. All the things that embed violence can, reworked, signal the end of it.

Engaging Power: gang violence

Examples of what can be done may include a storytelling amnesty, where we learn to recognise the validity of individual stories. In the UK right now, we see a concerted effort by police (with politically motivated support) to crack down on drill music. Would i listen to this music? No. It’s dreadful. But so is my taste in dubious rock. My validation of this creative expression is not the point: the point is that it’s a claimed space. It is expression. Even if it’s messages are toxic, and the culture that spawns it violent. I do not have to condone it, but neither can i deny it. Possibly i should learn from it.

This is why it’s hard: the violence, the culture, the illegality, the hate, it’s all expressed in, and tied up in, the music, and the music is hence tied up in the violence: it’s a systemic issue. We cannot tackle this through well intentioned intervention: providing talent development programmes for drill musicians, central funding, and a nice recording studio, free to use, would not address the issue, because drill music is not a commentary upon impoverishment. It’s a creative expression held precisely in opposition to it. Trying to colonise it, to tame it, is exactly the thing that powers it. We are locked into a system: deny it and you empower it, try to colonise it and you empower it. And everything that goes with it.

This is not an expression of a group of people who want the grace we can give: it’s a group who oppose it. And in the context of conflict, they are as ‘right’ as we are, because ‘right’ is always contextual.

Instead we must consider triangulated relationships: in opposition, we are against each other, but in third spaces, we can more easily co-exist. And by doing so, if we create magnetic opportunity, we may disempower around the edges. Perhaps our choice is not to ‘reform’ the people who shape the core: perhaps our opportunity is to engage with those at the fringe.

Often we do not do so, because to do so, we worry, in some way legitimises their position, and all we want to do is crush their position.

This is the funny thing about opposition: we are more comfortable in a position of intractable hostility, than we are in a space of ambiguity that threatens our beliefs. It’s often deemed better to impose clear moral judgement, than to engage in ambiguous debate about where morality lies. Better to be self vindicated and sure, than uncertain in ambiguity. Better to be confidently wrong, than uncertain and undecided.

The law gives us a hard frame that cannot be crossed, but the law does not give us ‘lawfulness’. It just punishes those that we catch. Peace is a cultural phenomena, not a legal one. Fairness is an individually judged, and social, function, not a mathematical or legal one. The law may dictate what i have or have not got, but it’s my perception of my wealth, my worth, that dictates my personal view of ‘fair’.

To win, we do not need to destroy: we simply need to understand what winning means. One the one hand, a cessation of violence. On the other, moral victory, the triumph of our worldview. One is a real gain, the other, colonisation. I do not need to be ‘right’ to win. And yet we want to win.

If we mistake ‘wrong’ for ‘something i dislike’, we are destined to be trapped in a moral conflict that we cannot win. To engage power, we must not try to deny or dispute it, but rather diffuse it. Within a complex conflicted system (one that is conflicted across multiple dimensions: legality, morality, territory, values), we need to choose which battle we wish to fight, which we wish to win, and which is a false dichotomy. You cannot win them all.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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8 Responses to Engaging Power [4]: Diffusion

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