The Power Contract: Redefining Reaction

“I have no power over you that you don’t give me, and you have no power over me that I don’t give you. …” – Vi Hart

Power is a contract. There is the implied contract between citizens of Society and those we hire to police Society that we will cede power to them because, without that agreement, the police have no authority to actually "protect and serve." When the terms of the contract become murky or too one-sided, a lot of unnecessary friction occurs.

I learned as a middle school teacher that the only time I was a completely bullshit excuse for the profession was when I completely lost my temper. As soon as a kid pushed enough of my buttons that I lost control of my reactions, I lost the day—not just that moment or that class, but the whole fucking day.  And the only time I ever completely lost my shit was when a kid didn't honor the implied power contract between teacher and student.

A 13-year old kid in the hallway, using a fat permanent marker to tag the walls. I catch him in the act. I approach and tell him to give me the marker and come with me.

"You gonna send me to the office?" he sneers.

"Nope. Let's go get a bucket and water and a scrub brush so you can remove the tag."

"Fuck you, man. Take me to office! I'm not cleaning walls!"

This exchange continues until I lose my shit. The contract of Power details that I am in charge of the situation. That there will be consequences to his refusal to honor the contract. And, once in a while, that refusal would send me into a spiral of rage—because teaching is fucking hard, because I knew what he knew that there really wasn't any consequence for his defiance, and because it made me feel sick inside that I was the Enforcer of Conformity (a role that I never felt particularly proud of and evolved over time).

Escalate that scenario to a protester and a policeman with a gun, a taser, pepper spray and riot gear and it isn't that difficult to see horrifying results just a nudge away.

Things REALLY get out of control when one actor believes the contract is no longer valid and the other actor feels that enforcement of that power dynamic is essential.

But I saw something on the Red Line years ago that made me rethink the scenario.

An older white (seemingly) homeless man was trolling the cars for change or a seat or... something. It was kind of hard to tell what exactly he wanted. He stumbled through the car, muttering things and moving on when people inevitably responded by looking away or burying themselves as far into their smartphones as physically possible, like a turtle in an Android shell or an ostrich with Apple branded sand.

He came upon an older black man. He was dressed for business—tie, vest, nice shoes. The homeless cat approached, muttered something, and then launched into a mumbling, rambling non-speech about "niggers on the train." I watched closely to see if this was going to escalate. I watched the businessman's face and hands. I felt myself ready to intervene (maybe the teacher instincts never go away). The businessman simply didn't react at all. He looked casually in the eyes (as far as I could tell) of the homeless man until he shuffled away to go harass someone else, went through the doors of the car into the next.

"Excuse me." I said cautiously. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. Why do you care?"

"Oh. I guess I don't really except that I thought that as going to turn out completely differently."

He laughed a dark, crackling chuckle. "Because he called me a nigger?"

"Well, yeah."

"If I allowed myself to care about what people I don't know called me on the train, I'd never get anything else done but defend my honor. If I over react to name calling, I'm the person who suffers."

I chewed on that until the train stopped at Chicago Avenue and he got up and left.

The implied contract between us today seems to be that if I cross the line of what you have mapped out as disrespect that the angry, outraged reaction is a requirement. The businessman refused to honor that particular contract. I find a quiet strength in that approach. And a better contract between people to honor.

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