This article is an effort to connect for readers (1) the way power is embodied in authoritarian family cultures, (2) how those relations grow humans oriented to stealing and hoarding power, (3) how authoritarian family norms support state-level authoritarianism, and (4) how it is possible to reorient to democratic practices. The ethnographic and auto-ethnographic data on which the following stories and insights are based will be available in The Human Basis of Democracy, a nonfiction manuscript in progress.
We all learn how to relate with other humans in our families first. Family cultures, where new humans are grown, are also where we first learn how to do power. Families are where we embody in practices what becomes our experience of normal power relations. What is normal about power in our families becomes our standard of how “normal” power should look and feel as we grow and interact with other humans. How we do power is deeply embodied from an early age.
Power is a relation. Power is not a noun; it is a verb. It is not a property or a thing or a weapon. In its most basic human form, power is the ability to generate and maintain our forward momentum. Forward momentum is hardwired into all living entities on the planet. Power is innate, not attached like an accessory. All humans beings are inherently powerful: we all move forward and progress in time unless unnecessary barriers slow, stagger, or stop our momentum.
As it relates to how power is distributed, family cultures can be democratic or authoritarian. In family cultures growing up, members can learn how to share power (forward momentum) with others. Families in which power is relationally shared among its members are democratic. For instance, families where co-equal parents include their children in decision-making processes — inviting them to contribute their thoughts and feelings in family meetings — are democratic.
There’s a vast variety of different kinds of democratic practices, and family meetings is just a rather formal example. In general, democratic family cultural norms are open, the practices are transparent, and information is accurate. Democratic family cultures generally produce relationally democratic humans.
Each member of a democratic family culture shares her/his/their power with everyone else, enabling healthy forward momentum for all. Democratic family cultures create trust, support vulnerability, nurture difference, and provide ample room for dissent. Power is relatively balanced. That is not to say that non-democratic practices are non-existent in democratic family cultures; they are not the norm, however.
In authoritarian family cultures, those who claim authority model for other family members power stealing and hoarding rather than sharing. For instance, when women and children in families must defer to husbands, fathers, and/or brothers — under explicit or implied threat of punishment (in some form) — it steals the ability to express thoughts or feelings honestly; to disagree, to dissent, to participate. It steals the power to grow and change from the experience of expression. And it steals the chance to embody and rehearse democratic norms.
Power-stealing practices inflicted on children also lock down their agency, which is the choice to aim their power at a chosen goal. Like state-level authoritarian violence, punishment in authoritarian families is often physically violent: spanking, hitting, beating, hair-pulling, and slapping are all forms of punishment. Punishment can range from standing in corners for long periods of time to extended periods of isolation in rooms or closets.
Punishment can also be emotionally violent. Passive aggression is a mode of punishment; so is the silent treatment or intentional lack of eye contact or acknowledgment. Each steal a child’s power to emotionally comprehend the relation. By offering inaccurate relational information intentionally, the punishment undermines trust, makes the relation unsafe for the child, and the child adapts by closing down vulnerability. Emotionally violent punishments can take the form of gaslighting, bullying, micro-aggressions, and surveillance.
Children in authoritarian family cultures often conflate pain with love, especially when punishment is justified in those terms: “because I love you” or “because God loves you.” Even framed in terms of “love,” the child’s body responds with fear — whether the punishment is physical or not — and that fear of punishment for speaking up, for “talking back,” is carried in the body for a lifetime. For some, it means silence and suffering; for others, suffering and repressed rage.
Stealing power through the fear of punishment also occurs when resources are threatened for speaking up: food, shelter, or other necessities are the price paid for voicing dissent. Ostracizing family members for saying what no one will else will say keeps many in authoritarian family cultures silent. The fear of speaking up — of dissenting in full voice — is a hallmark of members of authoritarian family cultures. If nothing in their environment changes, members of those families go on to create similar families and to grow more humans like themselves who are relationally authoritarian.
Children from whom power is stolen by family authorities learn to do as they’re told, to not speak unless they’re spoken to, and to follow orders without thinking. In the face of authority, the fear of punishment baked into their bodies compels many to comply in some fashion to appease. (It is often a mindless compliance.)
Members of authoritarian families also adapt: passive aggression is one way to push back “safely” in a family culture where one person holds all the power, steals power from the rest, and where punishment in some form is threatened. Supplication is another way to adapt to authoritarian family norms. So are disruptive practices and internalization of power-stealing and hoarding norms.
(For instance, toxically masculine practices, modeled by a father, can be internalized and embodied by children who live in a power-scarce environment. The scarcity mindset is an important factor in understanding severely imbalanced power relations.)
The military, law enforcement, capitalism, and many organized religions are cultures where authoritarian family norms are valorized. Humans grown in authoritarian family cultures are shaped perfectly to fit into top-down, non-democratic systems like the military, law enforcement, capitalism, and many organized religions.
I escaped my violently authoritarian family culture and learned how to do power differently in democratic college classrooms. I’m a first-generation college graduate, and access to power-sharing ideas and practices, professors who modeled power-sharing, and the space to rehearse power differently reshaped me enough to recognize, but not conform, to the power-stealing and hoarding norms when they were once again primary in my experience as an immersed researcher in closed white conservative rural cultures post 11.8.16.
I met many in my research who have never had the opportunities I have had to access power-sharing ideas and practices. For instance, in Southern Oregon, my gently speaking up in everyday contexts often startled those around me, and my full-voiced dissent to white supremacy and white nationalism was met with the belief I was mentally ill. My democratic orientation was foreign and feared, here, in the United States.
I had no choice about where I was born and in what family I grew up, just like most of the people I met and studied in my research. I had no idea until college that power could be embodied differently — most of the people I met and studied in my research have never seen power done differently either. My parents were anti-intellectual; higher education and access to all those ideas wasn’t an option for me in my family culture* — for most people I met and studied in my research, access to the ideas available in higher education isn’t in their worlds either.
Making power-sharing (democratic) ideas popularly accessible and available — and creating spaces to embody and rehearse democratic practices — can go a long way toward shifting cultural practices in this country from power-stealing (authoritarian) to power-sharing (democratic).
*I left home at 17 and worked for a decade before pursuing my degrees on my own dime. My roots are working class. The investment in my own education paid dividends when the ideas I learned in college became life- and sanity-saving tools in white conservative rural worlds. They were, in nearly every possible way, the opposite of the world I knew in the Bay. I came to find that the culture in which I was immersed was very much like the family culture in which I was born and raised. I was blindsided by what I found so close to home and right in California. I didn’t set out to study authoritarian practices: they found me.
Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for The Relational Democracy Project. She spent 5 years functionally outside capitalist demands, and it changed her fundamentally as a human being.
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