September 5, 2011

reflections on soft power

Adam Thurman has a TEDxMichigan Ave Talk, "Power and the Arts," that's all too brief yet full of amazing insights about the use of power in the arts:

For those of you who don't have 10 minutes to spare, or just want to skip to the good parts, I offer a highlight of the piece that stands out to me:
There are two types of power: hard power and soft power. What we've been using in the arts for the past 50 years is hard power. Hard power is about force. Hard power is about coercion. And we have been master of hard power. We know how to build big buildings. We know how to turn artists into forces of personality. And we know how to argue. [...] Coerce, force, persuade.

And what we're learning now [...] is the limits of hard power. [...] Now we have to transition to a second type of power. And that is soft power. Soft power is defined as the ability to bend people toward your worldview through attraction, not force. [...] What's your worldview? What do you believe in? Don't tell me what you do. I don't care what you do. I've observed that someone else who does what you do, and they're probably better than you. [...] What's the point of all this? [...] How do we get better at telling the world what we believe? And then, let's take it one step further: How do we show what we believe?
This is an fascinating line of thinking in light of my recent work with Tulpa, or Anne&Me, as well as a couple of my most recent posts about writing artist statements.

This may surprise people who only know me online, but it takes a lot of physical and psychological resources for me to interact with people. In public, and around people I don't know well, I tend to be extremely reserved. Part of this is my natural introversion, so I feel deeply uncomfortable when thrust into an unfamiliar environment with a bunch of strangers and being expected to perform socially. So when I am present and engaged in such a situation, it really means something. It's not something I'm doing just because it's something to do. It also means that when I talk about myself, I don't like feeling as though I have to puff myself up to seem capable, important, or worthy.

As you may guess, this means I suck at selling myself. But when I am invited to share something I'm passionate about that means a lot to me, it's a lot easier (not easy!) for me. I don't know if it's because it relieves most of the anxiety by taking the onus off me as a person, if it's because my enthusiasm becomes apparent and therefore contagious, if it's because I'm tapping into something greater than myself that speaks through me, or some combination of these or other things. The result is that it's much easier to talk about myself and what I do when I can focus on passion, vision, and purpose.

This would, if Adam's TEDx Talk is anything to go by, put me firmly on the side of soft power when it comes to the way I orient myself as I use the energy and resources I have. More than that, though, I tend to be deeply uncomfortable with hard power. If I were to hazard a guess, it may have something to do with the fact that, in my experience, whenever I have felt or was mistreated, it has been because of a misuse of hard power - especially in the form of actual or perceived authority. It's not that I hate it; after all, we all use both forms of power. However, I do tend to be very distrustful of it because of my experience with people using hard power to violate my boundaries.

As a result, using and receiving soft power as opposed to hard power feels very different for me. Soft power feels like an invitation. "This may be something you're interested in because blah blah blah. Would you like to join?" Hard power feels like an ultimatum. "Do what I want or lose something precious. Do what I want or you fail at life."

That's not to say that's what really happens, or that's what people are really trying to do. But I often receive it that way. As my social consciousness grows, I've become increasingly sensitive to how hard power functions within systems of oppression. While there is the obviously problematic nature of hard power when it is used by a privileged person against a non-privileged person in discussions about oppression, there is also the question about the use of hard power in the service of dismantling systems of oppression.

Put simply, hard power doesn't work. It doesn't work because it comes from external sources trying to breach into your internal processes. Although it's a great temporary fix, and it can have immediate and effective results when trying to convince powerful people to make a decision about a specific act, it fails to undermine the internal processes that uphold these systems. As social justice activists are increasingly starting to notice, books, articles, statistics, workshops, advertising, and other methods of instruction and argument cannot prompt a person to change themselves if they don't want to or see a need to change.

What does lead to lasting change? Friendship. Marriage. Family. Religion. The things we value most about our lives. The things that can be reached only through soft power.

For instance, the person who sticks to a diet and exercise regimen won't be the one who's bought into all the weight loss advertisements or all the articles that prove how healthy eating and exercise is good for you and will lead to a longer, fuller life. It's the elderly man who wants to be there for his granddaughter's graduation. The person who quits smoking is not the one who has read all the studies about how cigarettes will kill them. It's the 30-something woman who nearly dies from a stroke with so much left they want to do.

It's the same thing with social justice. Real change comes from our connection to what has intrinsic value to us. It's a White woman who gets into a serious relationship with a woman of color and sees a tiny bit of what she goes through then decides that the world should not be that way. It's the pastor who sees the pain homophobia causes the brightest and most exemplary members in his congregation. It's a mother realizing that her son has actually always been her daughter, and what it means to support her in a reality rife with trans misogyny.

Since theatre, like all arts, creates and reflects the world we live in, it is inherently an agent of soft power. So why aren't we seeing more individuals, organizations, and institutions using the tremendous soft power that is already a part of what makes theatre so vital? I honestly don't know, but I think it's worth clearing up some potential misconceptions that may be limiting our ability to notice and nurture the soft power all around us. This is all based on my experience with tapping into soft power. Other people's understanding of it may be different.

Soft does not mean weak.
Let me give you an anatomic example. Compared to muscle and bone, the vagina is soft and pliant. But babies come out of there. Speaking of theatre in terms of passion, values, and purpose allows the work itself to accommodate many forms, building experiences and relationships on the way. But when it gains momentum, it becomes an irresistible force. Like pussy for people who like pussy.

Soft is resilient.
When you talk to people who have experienced catastrophe, pay attention to the things they say when they talk about how they got through it. The common thread I've noticed is hope. Hope is the ultimate soft power. Hope lends courage, tenacity, and resourcefulness to people and places where they would not be expected to dwell. Hope does more than help people survive. It gives us the ability to heal and to live.

Soft does not mean easy.
I don't know about you, but I wasn't fortunate enough to be born knowing what I'm here to do or who I'm meant to be. I still don't have any certainty about those things, but I have a better grasp on it than I did. It took trial and error. It took serious soul-searching. It took making a commitment despite the cost. Finding and pursuing your Why (as Simon Sinek calls it) is not easy. It takes the ability to be honest with yourself and the willingness to cut off things that detract from your Why.

Soft power is not determined; it is revealed.
The hardest thing about using soft power is the fact that you can't force it. Like a seed taking root or a flower starting to blossom, you cannot create soft power just because you say you want to. Sometimes the hardest thing about soft power is the fact that you sometimes have to just stop, wait, and watch. It's very much like the way people describe being pregnant. You have all these mysterious processes leading to something wonderful. But in the meantime you're subjected to cravings and mood swings and pain in weird parts of your body. Once it's over, and you recognize your child, you finally see what it all meant.

This post has gone on long enough, so I want to hear from you. What is your relationship to hard and/or soft power? How does this affect the way you go about doing things? How does this reflect who you are as a person? What other thoughts and insights do you have to share?


  1. Great seeing the conversation evolve!

  2. This is such a good post.

    I think the Artistic Director of a theater I volunteer for may be looking for this soft power in the work he does. He doesn't like to do "political" plays or "issue" plays because they are so often ham-fisted. He always wants to focus on the personal stories that move people. And I think the smart people who write "issue" plays understand this, too, and work hard to keep it personal for this very reason.

    Do you think this is rare in theater? Are the other playwrights who are writing about serious issues missing the mark by being too overtly political and coercive and trying to exercise hard power?

  3. Do you think this is rare in theater? Are the other playwrights who are writing about serious issues missing the mark by being too overtly political and coercive and trying to exercise hard power?

    I can't speak for the rarity of soft power in theatre, since I don't make a habit of seeing pedantic "Issue Plays."

    However, I do lean towards believing that theatre that tries to use hard power to convince people of the rightness of a certain political standpoint are pretty much going about it all wrong, especially since there are other media that are much better at that sort of thing (like advertising, research studies, etc.).

  4. The Tao Te Ching is all about soft power. Be water. It is the basis of Tai Chi. By bending and flowing, you get people moving in your direction. Give your audience what they want, and they will accept what you have to give. Thus, all great art works on the borderlands of the known and the unknown, blazing a trail into the unknown, but doing so without getting anyone lost in the process.