One day, the Sun and the North Wind had a wager. Floating aloft in the heavens, they espied a lone hipster hoofing it down a lonesome road, a large hobo coat on his back, a safety pin dangling from his left ear, a canister of organic coconut water at his hip.
“Look at that fucking hipster,” The North Wind howled. “He seems to be enjoying himself.”
“Indeed,” replied The Sun. “Would you like to have a wager, old friend? I’ll bet you five days of summer that I’ll be the first of the two of us to get him to take off his coat.”
“Wager accepted,” The North Wind replied. And at the speed of thought he was off, gusting around the hipster’s boots, howling around his body, creating gales and zephyrs, in a bid to force the hipster’s coat off his back.
The hipster merely drew his coat closer about him, and trudged on down the lonesome road.
“I must be getting old,” The North Wind grumbled, after several minutes of fruitless struggle. ” Fine, old friend, it’s your turn.”
The Sun did not respond directly to his friend’s grumbling. He merely smiled – beaming brighter, and hotter – over the back of the hipster trudging onward down the lonesome road.
Sweet Jeff Buckley, global warming is real, the hipster thought to himself. I’m glad I’m enlightened enough to eat only sustainably farmed beansprouts.
And he paused for a moment on the lonesome road to take a swig of coconut water, and remove the coat from his back.
When we think of the word ‘power’, what image comes to mind? A king, perhaps, with the power of life and death over the serfs and peasants of his kingdom. Or the general of a bannered army, vested with the authority to mobilize troops, shift supply lines, siege forts, let loose the dogs of war.
Those are indeed examples of power, in its most ancient manifestation. It is the face of power that we are most accustomed to, the face that presents itself to the world: Power as coercion.
In the days of kings and emperors, executions were held in public for all to behold. Power emanated from a central authority, and it was necessary for the primary symbol of power – the king on his high throne – to demonstrate the authority of life and death over those he ruled. State sanctioned execution and capital punishment were symbols of the king’s power, object lessons in blood and iron.
Don’t poach. Don’t steal. Don’t bugger your neighbour’s cow. Don’t fuck with me, son, and you won’t find yourself in the same state as that poor sod hanging from that noose.
The first face of power is explicit, violent, coercive.
But like the Roman god Janus, power has a hidden face. This second face of power works in a more civilized manner. It manifests not in the realm of material objects, but in the realm of thoughts and ideas.
It is deeply involved in the creation of knowledge, so much so that the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, called it power/knowledge. Sociologists have labelled it discourse, ideological power, capitalist superstructure. For the sake of simplicity (and at the risk of forsaking nuance), I have decided to term it the second face of power.
This second face of power is hidden, implicit, productive.
These days, executions no longer have to be conducted in public. We live – not in tribes or kingdoms – but in nation-states. As citizens, we experience power as soft words, rather than big sticks. Power works on us through conditioning, through national campaigns that tell you what to do, think, wear and say.
The second face of power works by producing norms and ideals of the self-governing citizen. In this milieu, there is no need to compel most of us to obey social norms through fear; we are merely educated, and then conform without question because it is ‘normal’, or ‘the right thing to do’.
Like the story of the fish who is unaware of the water it is swimming in, we absorb these norms without being wholly aware of them, and then believe them to be self-evidently true.
In my country of Singapore, it manifests in yellow boxes for smokers, yellow queue lines on the subway, chewing gum bans, no drinking zones and invisible migrants. It lingers in op-ed stories by state-sanctioned newspapers about tattoos, and mandatory abortion counseling for those with higher levels of education, a policy that was only revised in 2013.
An ideal Singaporean citizen has no tattoos, makes an average of 2.4 babies, comes from a nuclear family, works diligently at an MNC, is internet-savvy but culturally censorious, would never consider styling her hair in a liberty spike, always gives up his seat on the train.
The second face of power is not completely malignant. It is crucial to the structure that allows modern society – in all its complexity – to function. It is part and parcel of the social contract: To operate as a collective, individual rights have to be compromised.
And if that compromise is undertaken willingly, why then, all the better.
But make no mistake: When it is defied, the nation-state can still bring coercive force to bear against those who deviate from the prescribed path. Power is perfectly capable of taking off its suit and tie, and bringing out the knuckledusters.
When left unquestioned, discourses of power can lead to stagnation, homogeneity, an unquestioning faith in norms and conventions that may be problematic.
How do we make sense of a riot, for example? Is it really the drunken misbehavior of individual migrants, or does it imply the deep-seated frustrations of a marginalized community, whose narratives have been rendered invisible?
The way we speak of something determines the boundaries of action we can take towards it. The second face of power work like a truth machine: It creates a body of knowledge around a community, a race, a subculture. It disciplines bodies; influences policies; makes us believe that fabricated truths are self-evident.
You could be considered subhuman on the basis of your skin color, less worthy of procreation based on your score in examinations. When The British Empire colonized Malaya and Singapore in the 19th century, they brought with them a racial categorization system with overtones and stereotypes of lazy natives that linger to this day; to paraphrase the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, when a black man looks in a mirror, he sees himself through a white man’s eyes.
Only when we perceive that hidden, second face of power, can we take steps towards bending the rules of the social contract, to make space for the marginalized, the deviant and the imperfect.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, once declared that we should not ask what our country can do for for us, but what we can do for our country. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is not what we can do for our country, but rather the rules we should be breaking for it.