Not long ago, a woman cashier at my local grocery store was scanning and bagging my items. Close by a man, her co-worker, was sweeping the floor in the area where customers exit. He whisked his broom across the neighboring exit lane and then directly into the area where the woman who was busy packing my bags was standing.
Suddenly, speaking to her, he proclaimed, “Move!”
For a moment, she had an expression of disbelief. Then she declared calmly but indignantly “Move?! What do you mean ‘Move!’? Can’t you be a little polite?”
The man said nothing and continued sweeping in the general area.
Then she spoke loudly to the woman cashier in the neighboring checkout lane. “Move! He says ‘Move!’ Do we move because he says so? Isn’t there a nice way to ask?”
Her co-worker responded in a deprecating tone “Yeah, we don’t move just because someone says so.”
It was clear that the women at the registers had a lesson to teach their male co-worker. I don’t know if he ended up learning it but I think this little clash gives us a lot to say about power and complexity.
The imperative mood of a verb is often a sure sign that one party is trying to exercise power over another. Move! Stop! Jump! Such imperatives might also be issued in collaborative circumstances (say, for instance, when a dance teacher instructs a student on his or her next steps). But when party A imposes its will on party B, when A succeeds in winning the blind obedience of B, power becomes a disorganizing force for B. This conclusion – linking the imposition of power with disorganization – originates, as I mentioned in my prior entry, in analogies drawn from information theory: namely that organization is an outcome of choice whereas disorganization is the outcome of a single option, that is to say no choice. The strength of the analogies (what bolsters the prospect they might not be mere analogies but homologies) is evident in the concrete circumstances presented here. If the man with the broom mutters “Move!” and the cashier, in spite of feeling oppressed by an arbitrary command, obeys, the effect is for her disabling, disempowering, disorganizing. She cedes her “within”, her freedom of choice and becomes a passive, inert part of a social system, subject to the whims of an external force. She becomes the anonymous part of a machine; she becomes alienated from her humanity.
We have developed words for criticizing power exercised over another in this manner, often as tools to fend off power-over attempts. We call it bossy, domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, high-handed, controlling, playing “high and mighty”. It is, of course, possible to see the outcome of power successfully imposed by one party over another not as a type of disorganization but as a type of order — but only if you define order in cause-effect mechanistic terms. Humane order rests upon people freely collaborating and cooperating with one another, an order often held in place by the common courtesies we exchange with one another as we rub elbows in our daily dealings, an order whose disruption quickly becomes apparent with a verb issued in the imperative mood. If our friend with the broom learned the lesson his co-workers were trying to teach him, then workers at the grocery store can expect a bit more humanity in their interactions.