noticing power

Some signs that a place might be an institution

Lack of accomodation for disability:

  • An organization workign with disabled or elderly or sick people ought to have a clue about access and adaptability
  • If they don’t, it’s a major red flag
  • Some examples:
  • If there are a lot of people who need wheelchairs, and none of them have personally-fitted chairs, that’s a red flag. If everyone is using an institutional wheelchair, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are a lot of residents who have limited use of their hands, and no one has any adaptive equipment for doing things like changing TV channels, it’s probably an institution

People conflate patient/client opinions with family opinions

  • For instance, if they claim that everyone there wants to be, but then they only talk about what family members say about it
  • If it’s a place people can be put into by their family members without any attempt made to see if they consent
  • If all the information on a website is for family members or social workers, and none of it is directed at people who might live in or get services from a place, it’s probably an institution

If people need staff assistance or permission to contact the outside world

  • If people who can use phones independently don’t have access to phones without asking first, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are no computers available, or all the computers are in public places, it’s probably an institution
  • If you need a password for the wifi and the residents don’t have the password, it’s probably an institution
  • If nobody has a personal cell phone, landline, or computer, it’s probably an institution

Concepts of functioning levels

  • If a place claims to be a last resort for people who can’t function in a normal setting, it’s probably an institution and it’s probably doing horrible things

Bragging about mundane things as evidence of being wonderful places:

  • It’s very common for institutions to loudly proclaim that they have a pool, TVs, a barber shop, a charity shop people can work in, or other such things
  • If they think this is deeply impressive, something is wrong
  • Things that wouldn’t be particularly notable in an apartment building or neighborhood shouldn’t be particularly notable just because elderly or disabled people are involved
  • If people think they are, it’s probably an institution, and it’s probably intentionally confusing clients about what it means to be free and in the community

If people involved are required to regularly praise it

  • Everyone is disgruntled with workplaces or other aspects of their life sometimes
  • Free people express this sometimes
  • If everyone involved in an organization says it’s wonderful, and you can’t find anything people it serves are willing to complain about, something is wrong
  • This is particularly the case if the wall or website is full of testimonials about how great it is
  • And also particularly the case if people are regularly required to sing songs praising the place

If there isn’t serious regard for the privacy of people the organization serves

  • For instance, if there is a description of every single resident and their activities available on a public website, something is wrong
  • If you are brought into someone’s room without their freely given consent just so you can see what the rooms look like, it’s probably an institution

Noticing power





How do you know if you have power over someone? There are times when it’s obvious, of course, like if you’re someone’s employer or teacher or caretaker. But if you don’t have any power over them in any official capacity, you can still have power over them in other ways that are less obvious. But sometimes I find it hard to tell if someone thinks of themselves as my equal or not, when I don’t have official power over them. Sorry, I know this is probably a stupid question.

realsocialskills said:

This isn’t a stupid question. It’s complicated. There’s no simple way to be sure. Power is something you have to always be noticing.

Some situations in which you have power (not exhaustive; but some things I know about):

  • Someone is financially dependent on you
  • (Including situations in which you’re letting a friend stay with you because they have no other place to go)
  • Someone has been socialized to never say no, and wants to please you
  • Someone you know damaging secrets about, especially if they don’t know any of yours
  • When you’re a senior member of a profession and they’re new
  • You’re interacting with someone who has been socialized not to be able to say no to you
  • You’re much older than the other person, but still young enough to have social power
  • The person you are interacting with lives in a nursing home
  • You are a mental health professional who is likely to be believed if you say someone is suicidal or otherwise in need of coerced treatment (especially if you are that person’s doctor or therapist, but even if you’re not)
  • You’re clergy or have a related kind of religious status
  • You’re bigger and stronger than the other person

girljanitor said

This needs intersectionality and I’m too tired to run it down right now

but yes

it’s very complex

realsocialskills said:

Yes, it absolutely does need intersectionality. All of those things I mentioned always matter as kinds of power, but they’re not always the most significant kinds of power in a given relationships. It gets really, really complicated when there are competing ways in which people have power on one axis and not another.

Every single example I used gets much, much more complicated when it is an interaction between a white person and a person of color. (For instance, this can get *really* complicated when a white disabled person hires a person of color as support staff, particularly if the person they hire is in the country on a work visa they will lose if they are fired).

There are also instances in which something can be simultaneously a source of power and a source of lack of power. For instance, big strong men with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to be institutionalized than smaller and weaker women with the same cognitive abilities. But the power that comes from strength doesn’t completely stop mattering, either.

cool-yubari said

I’d like to make a more exhaustive list but I don’t have the energy right now, so this will be incomplete.

-If you have a skill that the other person admires and lacks (or hasn’t developed), there’s a good chance they feel like you’re above them. This is especially true when said skill is something your culture at large values you for.

-If there’s a well-known stereotype promoting the idea that your demographic is especially savvy or knowledgeable about something. For instance, it’s common that salesmen and IT people will address me and give more weight to what I say when I accompany my parents to do something tech related.

-If people consider you more sensible, trustworthy, or normal than the other person. The quick and dirty test for this is “if our accounts contradicted each other, which would people more readily believe?”

-If the other person feels significantly indebted to you.

Obviously, there are many other subtle power dynamics. The more you look, the more you see.


Social skills for autonomous people: Noticing power


How do you know if you have power over someone? There are times when it’s obvious, of course, like if you’re someone’s employer or teacher or caretaker. But if you don’t have any power over them in any official capacity, you can still have…

vinylharem said:

I have found that not having a particularly noticeable regional accent and being relatively comfortable with using Fancy Words means that people unsettlingly often treat my opinions as having more weight. I’ve always been poor and have hilariously low self-esteem so I just don’t think of myself as having that sort of credibility, but it has very little to do with me as a person. I sound “posh” relative to a lot of people, and that affects how the things I say are read, whether it’s “knows what she’s talking about” or “snotty cow”.

realsocialskills said:

That’s true. Using words that way creates a certain kind of power.

And even when people are thinking “snotty cow” or somesuch insulting thing about you, they can sometimes *at the same time* think that your words have more weight and feel bad about themselves.

Resentment, contempt, and feeling inferior can go together.

Crucial differences

These things are different:

  • Wanting something to be true
  • Wanting to think something is true
  • Wanting someone else to feel like something is true
  • Wanting reassurance that something is true

An example:

  • Interacting with someone consensually
  • Feeling like your interactions are consensual
  • Having that person think of the interactions as consensual
  • Having that person reassure you that things are consensual.

And another:

  • Not wanting to put someone in danger
  • Wanting to feel like a safe person
  • Wanting someone to feel safe
  • Wanting someone to reassure you that they feel safe

And these:

  • Seeking to avoid abusing anyone
  • Seeking to avoid seeing yourself as an abusive person
  • Wanting others to see you as someone who doesn’t abuse others
  • Wanting others to reassure you that you’re not the kind of person who abuses people

And this too:

  • Respecting someone’s boundaries
  • Feeling like you’re a person who respects boundaries
  • Wanting someone to feel as though their boundaries are being respected
  • Wanting someone to reassure you that you’re not crossing any lines

If you don’t understand the difference, you’re dangerous to people you have power over.

Because feelings and perceptions can be manipulated without changing the underlying reality.

Making people feel safe isn’t enough; you also have to create real safety. Making people tell you that you’re not crossing a line isn’t enough; you have to actually care about their boundaries. Seeing yourself as a non-abusive person isn’t enough; you have to actively pay attention to treating people well.

If you want to do right by people, you have to care about the reality.