Getting Your Way
by Stephen Cox | Posted January 30, 2011
One of the most useful concepts I know is Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between freedom and power. Freedom, he says, is the right to be left alone; power is the ability to have and to do things. Confusion on this score can be fatal. The world is full of people who believe that their nation, race, or religion can be “free” only if it has power over its neighbors. Here at home, our government is bankrupting its citizens by forcing them to pay for everyone’s alleged “freedom” to have healthcare, to have a job, and to have 15 children whether you have a job or not.
Libertarians have rightly emphasized freedom in its true definition. But power is also important, nor is it a bad thing, if it helps one to enjoy one’s freedom and master one’s own life. To get a job, maintain a home, gain money and respect, improve one’s existence materially and spiritually — these are good things; these are ways of shaping life creatively. Yet personal power can easily be squandered, passed off to others, in the sordid transactions of daily life.
This is where Sharon Presley comes in. Her book starts in this way:
“Experts and authorities can take your power away by intimidating, manipulating, abusing and bamboozling you. Examples are everywhere. Physicians tell you to leave your treatment to them because they are the experts. Bureaucrats give you the run-around. Clerks and customer service reps say it can’t be done . . . .”
She continues in that vein, because such conflicts are everywhere; and although many of them are unimportant in themselves, they are always discouraging. Remember the last time something went wrong with your computer. How many hours did you spend trying to interpret the “advice” you got when you resorted to the “help” button? How many hours did you then waste on the phone, fuming while an “expert” treated you like a child, suggesting to you that your machine might not be plugged in, putting you on hold, interrupting your attempts to explain, mystifying you with terminology ten times more opaque than even the insultingly unhelpful “help” pages?
If you’re like me, your day was ruined. You lost your cool, yelled at the “expert,” yelled again at his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor, felt helpless and guilty, and finally found yourself searching the phonebook for a fixit company that would charge you a hundred dollars an hour to repeat the process.
That’s not power, and that’s not life. But these conflicts are inevitable, and some of them are much more serious than that glitch in your downloads. Just consider what may happen on one of those awful, though possibly “routine,” visits to your doctor’s office. I well remember the horrors of dealing with the office staff of my former “primary healthcare provider” — people who put me off, wouldn’t listen when I talked, said they’d return phone calls but didn’t, communicated lab results long after they should have been available, and offered me no help at all when, facing a possible diagnosis of cancer, I was unable to get an appointment with a relevant specialist without waiting three months for it. Finally I located a hospital ombudsman (actually a woman) who was concerned about my plight and in a few days got me a quick appointment with a specialist — a magnificent doctor, who immediately found the cancer and removed it. Never once did my “primary healthcare provider” or his office check back with me.
Libertarians are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive.
At my next routine physical, which required months to arrange, I sat in the doctor’s waiting room for almost an hour after the scheduled time, wondering why medical doctors are the only people who keep you waiting like that. Then a fat nurse or para-nurse (all these people are fat) opened the door, boomed out “Cox” as if she were calling hogs, and led me into an examining room, where I sat for another half hour. At that point, I went crazy. When the doctor asked me how I was, I said, “Angry! I’m angry! I’m sick of being your patient and seeing myself and all your other patients being treated like cattle!” Then I recited what I’ve written above, except that by now I was shouting loud enough, I hoped, for the poor slaves in the waiting room to hear what I said.
What surprised me was the expression on the doctor’s face. It was obvious that he had never been talked to like that in his life. He wanted to object, but he didn’t know how, because he obviously had no idea of how his office operated, from anything like the patient’s end of things. I almost felt sorry for him — almost.
The next time I came back to that office, the situation had changed. I was now “Mr. Cox,” and there were more or less appropriate displays of civility. Later, I found that if I persisted to a moderate degree, I could actually get my calls put through to someone who knew something, without waiting weeks to obtain the information I required. This improvement may have had some relation to the fit I threw.
Was it worth it? I suppose it was. But perhaps I could have handled it better. I don’t want to live in a world in which people — even people like me — are always screaming at each other. I want things to work right, without my having to scream. I want the power to get things done, without throwing a fit.
Sharon Presley knows all about such situations, and she has excellent practical advice about how to deal with them. It’s not about the supposed delights of naked “self-assertion” (i.e., yelling). It’s about ways of gaining people’s attention and getting them to do what needs to be done for you, in the way that’s most likely to be successful and least likely to deplete your own energy. It’s not about sermons on self-esteem; it’s about gaining self-esteem by increasing your practical power. And of course a lot of it is about thinking through what authority figures, whether doctors or teachers or technical experts, have to say, to make sure that you possess enough information to take power over your own decisions. In short, a lot of it is about exercising your power of rational analysis.
Presley doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed.
Presley’s practical advice is divided into sensible categories: dealing with doctors, lawyers, teachers, bosses, merchants, and so on. The subheading of one of her chapters reveals her primary concern: “Dealing with Bosses without Getting Fired.” A book of psycho-babble would focus on “taking back your power” by “communicating your feelings” and expressing your “true identity.” Presley isn’t opposed to such goals, but she doesn’t want you to lose your job, either. You don’t have much power if you don’t have a job. Presley wants you to be yourself and keep your paycheck, too — in other words, to have your cake and eat it. Sounds good to me.
One excellent feature of this book is the fact that Presley bases her advice on the experience of hundreds of real people; there are no made-up characters. Another is that she seems to have consulted every book, article, and website in the field of “critical thinking,” personal power relations, and just plain good advice for the contemporary world. She tells you which texts she thinks are useful, and why. That’s a big gain.
I want to compliment Presley for her constant and persuasive suggestion that adults should act like adults. What she wants is for her readers to get their way, satisfy their legitimate demands, and achieve success and happiness. Dissident minorities, such as libertarians, are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive, as in the familiar zest for martyrdom. Presley will have none of this. She doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed. She doesn’t mind getting down to basics:
“Develop a skill that you can succeed at. If you already have a skill, keep that in mind when you feel as if you can’t do things right. Perhaps there was a time when you were able to stand up to an authority figure. You lived through it, didn’t you? Remember your successes, not your failures.”
Isn’t that good advice? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we followed it? It’s a matter of perspective. Rather than banging the computer keys and screaming at that poor “technical consultant” in India, have some coffee, think about the good things you’ve done in your life, and turn to the chapter where Presley suggests how to deal with the immediate problem.
Editor's Note: Review of "Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused," by Sharon Presley. Solomon Press, 2010, 389 pages.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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