The meaning of power.


When I was a child, my family kept rabbits. We kept them in hutches in the backyard. They rarely got out to play or interact with anybody. They were confined to small hutches for their entire lives.

When I got older, and began to experience confinement myself, I began to see that this was wrong, but still did nothing for the rabbit who lived in a cage now high up in a tree to keep him away from the dog. I was still a child, but I was more aware that rabbits must not belong in small hutches in backyards.

As an adult, I came across information from the House Rabbit Society, which I’m now a member of. They said plainly that keeping a rabbit confined to a backyard hutch is like doing the same to a cat, or (proportionally increased) a human. They are a social species and solitary confinement is awful for them. They need room to run around and play and that is not possible in a hutch.

Nobody in our family bore the rabbits any malice. But each rabbit lived out their life in solitary confinement, and died in solitary confinement. I have experienced long-term solitary confinement, and it is not just the lack of socialization, but the lack of anything to do, the looking forward to only meals as the high point of the day, if you get those… it is highly unpleasant. It must be more unpleasant for a member of a prey species that depends on others of its kind for protection and survival at all times.

I talked to my parents about it when I found out. My mother said, “I had no idea. I had no idea.” My father said, when I brought up animal neglect, “I think I know what you are going to talk about. And… you had help [in neglecting the rabbit].”

I know that I’m now going to live forever with the fact that one animal that I could have done something about, spent his life and died in highly unpleasant circumstances, ones I know the unpleasantness of because I have been subjected to them, only he had no way out. That is the rabbit from when I was older. Aptly named, Reality.

When I was growing up, my parents told me stories about people who “let their rabbits run around the house and had them litter-box trained”. The idea always struck them as somewhat ludicrous, a little crazy. Again, they bore rabbits no malice. They would not view themselves as cruel to animals. And yet until I became old enough to learn about it, I absorbed some pretty strange values about animals (including that it was okay to dump a rabbit by the side of the road in his old age, and that, having spent his life in a cage, he would still live a wonderful life in the woods and not, say, starve or get eaten almost immediately).

a picture of a rabbit in a hutch

That is the meaning of power.

It is not comfortable. It is very possible to get defensive about it. It is scary to wake up to it. Much as Dave Hingsburger has described in Mourning Has Broken, it took a long time to fully realize what had happened.

When I posted this story elsewhere when I was finding out about this stuff, one person got very angry at me. He told me that he didn’t care if I’d found out about how things really were, it was too late, and he’d never trust me. I told him that I didn’t mind that because it might just be one of the consequences of having mistreated a rabbit, even as a kid. I will never, after all, get a chance to make his life any better, or to apologize to him. He’s dead.

I feel bad about it, but feeling bad won’t actually do anything, so I try to cut that off. What will do something is changing my ideas about power, about how I relate to the world. What will do something is telling other people what happened, what can happen, to rabbits everywhere. What will do something is applying this knowledge to other areas of my life.

There are a lot of myths about power.

One of the ones Hingsburger describes is the myth of not having any power, and therefore not being able to abuse that power. “Front line” staff often think they have no power because they are at the bottom of the staff hierarchy. But they are still above inmates/clients in the hierarchy. They can use their “powerlessness” as an excuse not to examine how they are treating other people. When I had power over that rabbit, I had power over almost nobody and nothing else in my life. But I still had power over that rabbit and I misused it, not out of intentional abuse but of neglect. (My father has pointed out that I had help. I did. But I still have some of the responsibility.)

Another myth about power (which I don’t know if it’s in Power Tools or not, because every time I buy a copy it gets snagged by staff and never returned) is that if you’re a good enough person, you will never misuse power. In fact, the more power you have over someone’s life, the more likely you will be to misuse it. Even if you love the person from the bottom of your heart.

In Same, Different, Human (a good review as well as a place to snag a Power Tools quote), Cal Montgomery says (quoting Hingsburger):

“I don’t believe that most people realize,” he tells us, that “they have power,” that “they routinely abuse that power,” that “their behaviour is invisible only to themselves,” and that “their responsibility isn’t diminished because they ‘didn’t mean to’ ” (Power Tools, p. 4). That’s not merely a description of most “direct care” staff; it’s a description of most people.

When I say that I bore the rabbit no malice, by the way, I am not trying to say that to make myself into a better person. I am saying that because it’s all the more horrifying to a lot of people the amount of damage we can do without meaning to, the amount of power we can wield without being consciously aware of it, the amount of evil things that can happen in the name of good or neutral intentions.

Some people will never force a rabbit to endure the suffering I forced (by neglect) on Reality. But everyone will be in some situation where they had power to change something bad and did not use it, or had power and misused it to do wrong. And many of us will be on the other end of it. My example is extreme. But it still happens that those without as much power in a given situation will have power exercised over them, and sometimes it will not be in a good way.

Recently I was describing the clinical words that are used on autistic people, and how there’s a difference between an adult with the power to define themselves, and a child looking up to caregivers and hearing them use certain definitions on them. Someone accused me of objectifying parents, of accusing him of abuse, and several other things.

Being aware of the power we have in the lives of others is not objectifying, and it is not necessarily an accusation of abuse. Abuse of power does not always result in the kind of abuse that people talk about as in “child abuse”.

But being unaware of power is a fast strategy to abusing it. I used to have a staff person who viewed all people as on an artificially equal plane when it came to power, she became terrified at even the mention of her having more power than some other people. The concept that, for instance, she can walk down the street without getting picked up by the cops, was more than she could take.

And she did abuse power, even though she was not abusive of people in a way that legally counts as abuse or anything like that, she was not an “abuser”. She abused power in subtle ways, controlled people, including people she loved, in subtle ways, and because she was unwilling to think about power, she was unable to curb her abuse of it. When people brought power up, she said, “I’m not that kind of person!” As if there is a specific kind of person without the potential to abuse power, and as if trying not to be “the kind of person who could abuse power” would magically make her someone who couldn’t.

When I talk about power, I am not dehumanizing anyone. People may disagree with me over how to use it, and I expect that. What surprises me still, for some reason, is the unwillingness to look at power and how it is used.

When the people with a lot of power over you are people that you know love you, screwups when it comes to power are worse. It was worse to hear from my father that I was “backsliding” when I could not do something anymore, than it was to hear it from professionals. It is worse when I am unable to type and my best friend screws something up in an attempt at translating what is happening for me, or screws up at FCing me, than when a random stranger screws something up. It is worse to hear certain things from people who love us. Their love does not make them immune to misuse (intentional or unintentional) of power, but it can make it more agonizing and problematic for us when the slipups happen.

Being a rabbit in a human household means that you have almost no ability to escape if the humans try to confine you. Being a human unable to talk back, or less able to talk back, or less able to filter information, means you have less ability to change certain ways you are being treated. A mother or father can go through years of their life innocently and lovingly describing their son, now a teenager, now an adult, as “having the mind of a 2-year-old child” and “utterly incapable of thought,” and he might be able to do very little to stop them. This is part of power too.

Misusing power does not always make you an “abuser,” nor does it always make you any less loving than the next person. But it is… a human thing to do. People do this. It happens. It doesn’t make it right. But if misusing power makes someone a bad person, then every last human being is a bad person, and I don’t think that is true. What is true is that we all have the potential to screw these things up, but we also have the potential to deal with those screwups. When I point these things out about power, it is not meant as a personal insult. It is only meant to point out things that happen to everyone. As I said in another post, it doesn’t mean I’m calling you a bad person, I’m just calling you human, and I don’t hold myself exempt from any of this.

I am also not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Feeling guilty is not useful after you’ve been reminded enough of what you’ve done, or have the potential to do. Figuring out what to do, is more useful.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

13 responses »

  1. I hope you’ll forgive me for jumping from the rabbit analogy to guinea pigs, but rabbits naturally cause me to think of guinea pigs – these animals to whom I relate so well.

    Like rabbits, guinea pigs are very social creatures. They do better in groups than singly. They also do better in large spaces than in those crappy cages you can buy at the pet store, which are always way too small (the ones they sell for “one guinea pig” aren’t big enough; you need a “rabbit cage” or a “community cage” if you have one or two guinea pigs, and you’d better build your own cage if you have more).

    I have three guinea pigs: Princess, Katonia, and Napoleon.

    Princess is a female. I have had her for two and a half years. One of my friends in Edmonton rescued her from a school she was working at. She said the kids in the class weren’t looking after her properly. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t look after her very well, either.

    When Princess came to me, about the only good thing was that the bedding was pine shavings. She was being fed “small animal pellets” (no name brand) that said on the bag that they were not for guinea pigs. She had nowhere to hide. Her bowl was far too deep. She wasn’t getting any timothy hay (a very important staple). The cage was too small.

    I rectified everything except the cage as soon as I’d got her home. The poor baby had apparently been terrorized at the school, though; she was absolutely silent for an entire month – including during her first visit to the vet. Normally, guinea pigs are very vocal and let you know that they know you have veggies in the fridge and that you really ought to give them some right away if you value your eardrums.

    Princess is still very timid and still very quiet, but she is also very friendly and she trusts me.

    I got Katonia, at the age of four or five months, from the Humane Society about a year after I got Princess. Katonia had been found in a park in the middle of November and brought to the Humane Society. I wonder at the intelligence of whoever left her there… she wasn’t yet fully grown, she is white, and North America is not only not a guinea pig’s continent of origin, Calgary in November isn’t exactly the warmest place to be.

    Katonia (or Katty, as I like to call her) is my little “Valley Girl”. She’s interested in everything and often talks quietly to herself as she explores her environment. She’s also huge – Princess is probably only 2/3 the size of Katty.

    The girls have been living together, in larger than big enough spaces, for about a year now. Katty has brought out Princess’ ability to stand up for herself, and Princess has helped to tone down Katonia’s “wild side”.

    Napoleon (Nappy) is a male, and he lives in an enclosure that is attached to the girls’ cage. He is intact, and since the girls are too old to begin having babies (and I don’t want to add to the population of unwanted piggies), he hasn’t been able to really visit them yet. He & Katty “kiss” through the bars, though. (Incredibly cute to see!)

    I took Napoleon in when he was about a year and a half old, from a family that was moving and didn’t want to keep all their pets. (Weird story; Napoleon was a breeding male – irresponsible of them to be sure – and one of my friends wound up taking in one of his wife’s babies after she gave birth. She was pregnant when given up by this family, to a local rescue operation that has since shut down. Nappy’s daughter looks almost exactly like him!)

    Male guinea pigs who are kept in too small of a cage will often become impacted, which means that shavings and whatnot from the bottom of the cage block their anus. It doesn’t do much to them except that they are unable to produce the “soft droppings” that they ingest for the nutrients contained therein.

    Funny thing about that is that I thought I was going to have to pay the vet to clean Napoleon out, but once I got him into a proper-sized cage, the impaction cleared up on its own. He hasn’t had the problem since.

    My piggies were all victims of the kind of neglect you’re talking about in this post. I’m sure the people who did it had the best of intentions, but they weren’t educated enough to be good guinea pig parents. And I don’t think my babies’ previous owners loved them the way I do.

    I don’t think I can draw a parallel between my rescuing of these three guinea pigs and the changes in the treatment of the disabled we hope to see… we hope to make happen. But I know there’s a parallel to be drawn.

  2. I find your posts very thought provoking, and they do remind me to analyse what I do. It’s very difficult to admit that you are powerful in an unbalanced relationship – especially if you have any sort of relationship (friend, family) with that person. I want to think that we’re all equal in those sorts of relationships, but we’re not. At the same time, deep down, I know that I have the power and they do not – so from a sense of altruism I try and use that power to do ‘good’ things. But this is my altruism, not their wants or needs. I’m not even talking about disability – for quite a bit I was earning money and my best friend was unemployed. I wanted to help her, but the power relationships were all screwed, and a lot of bad feeling happened.

  3. I can relate to Janna’s comment that guinea pig cages aren’
    t big enough for guinea pigs. I have rats, which are smaller, and for a long time had two in a guinea pig cage and they still seemed a bit cramped – not severely, but to the point where it’s important to take them out to play often. Now I have two rats living singly until they have sorted out their dominance struggles enough to be left unsupervised together – and I’ve sorted out my fear of finding them dead, probably related to the recent death of the sister of one of them and the more distant death of the other one’s companion.
    One of my two living rats, the elder one (whose companion’s death was why I got the other two) came from a petstore where people could reach in and pick the rats up and cuddle her. When I got the two of them, they were very tame. The two times I took them to the Vet, I got compliments about how tame they were, but partly it was just the store I got them from.
    My other two, one of whom died recently, came from a store where they were kept in a little glass cage and rarely handled. As a result, they weren’t very tame. The one who’s alive now is turning out dominant over the older rat, which surprised me since she’s very timid with me. But considering much of her babyhood was spent with her littermates but very little human contact, it’s not surprising she’s calmer around other rats.
    Recently I visited that store and held a mouse, who was so scared xe bit me twice. Quite painful, and I know why. Ironically, the house-mouse I confiscated from my cat once didn’t bite, though you’d think a petstore animal would be tamer than a wild animal.

  4. I bet the wild mouse was too terrified to bite you, actually. I haven’t dealt with mice a lot, but in wildlife rescue we had a lot of birds who were less aggressive when utterly terrified. (And utterly terrified birds can die from the physiological effects of terror, so that was something we tried to prevent in a number of ways.)

  5. We have a house full of animals–three dogs, five cats, a guinea pig (her name is Prince)a couple of fishtanks, a Quaker parrot, and a degu. Until a few days ago, we also had a lop-eared rabbit name Monty. She had been a stray bunny probably dumped by someone after her Easter cuteness wore off. We had called our local Humane shelter, inquiring about lost rabbits, but there were no reports of missing bunnies, so we dragged the spare bunny cage out of the garage and kept her. She detested the cage so much. We discovered that she was litter-trained and moved her to our basement, where she was able to run and play–free. Last week, she discovered the doggy-door at the top of the basement stairs. The weather was warm and she made her way outdoors. Our cats and dogs didn’t bother her. She was a pet, and they knew it, somehow.
    My neighbor sorta chided me for not capturing her and returning her to a cage “for her own good.” But I didn’t have the heart. She languished in a cage–she wanted to be outdoors, and besides, she was too dang quick to catch–I did try on several occasions.
    One evening I drove my teenage daughter to her very first job interview, and as we drove down our street, I saw an animal in the road. It looked like a possum at first, but I couldn’t tell. On the way home, I slowed enough to take a good luck–it was Monty. She had been hit by a car. She wasn’t mangled, there was one small drop of blood by her head. She was still warm, but gone.
    When I got home, I took a box and walked down to retrieve her. All I could say to her was, “Well, you were free and happy for a time. That’s all most of us get, bunny.” I buried her in the backyard the next morning, after the kids had gone to school. The little ones don;t know, and it’s going to be one of those mysterious disapperances. I don’t have the heart to tell them. Poor Monty. RIP.

  6. Yeah–we kind of like ours and kind of don’t. He’a a sort of a “rescue” that my son brought home from a friend’s house. The friend’s dad was violently disliked by the bird. So now he lives here, squawking, whistling, chatting us up and shrieking and wishing he could answer the phone.
    He most adores my teenage daughter–inexplicably. I feed him, I clean his cage, I buy him fun new toys, I talk to him, yet he adores her. Figures.

  7. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » Myth-Debunking, and an additional myth

  8. I think your post is amazing. I am trying to do a paper on the power dynamics in my relationship with my childhood friend and me, and you have really inspired me to think on a broader scope. Thank you.

  9. I used to have a rabbit. He was very friendly and affectionate, even communicative. I did realize his case was way too small to stay in long-term, so I let him out whenever I was home, including at night.

    But the thing is, I paid for that, big-time! That guy vandalized everything he could reach, in two apartments. He liked to sleep with me on my bed, but he also tended to piss the bed in his sleep. He killed all my plants, including eating through a Euphorbia that supposedly has caustic sap. (He chewed the spines of first.) He chewed holes in clothes, books, and carpets. He damaged furniture, eventually undermining my bookshelf to the point of collapse. (I got steel bookshelves after that.) Especially, he chewed through every wire within reach, and I had multiple computer systems! I called those years “the war of the wires”, as I kept having to splice phone lines, tried to move wires out of reach, and (unsuccessfully) looked for something that would make the wires taste bad to him.

    If I hadn’t loved that guy so much, he’d have been stew several times over… instead, he lived to die of apparent old age, found in his “relaxed” posture. But I’m never going to recommend that somebody else keep a rabbit indoors!

  10. It’s not that nobody should keep a rabbit indoors, it’s that they should bunny-proof the rooms the rabbit has access to. You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for drinking the Drano out of the sink cabinet, you’d lock the cabinet so she couldn’t open it.

  11. “I am also not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Feeling guilty is not useful after you’ve been reminded enough of what you’ve done, or have the potential to do. Figuring out what to do, is more useful.”
    Those words should be painted in ten-foot-high-letters everywhere.

    My family has a guinea pig named Donkey who is in an indoor hutch, alone, with virtually nothing to do. She often runs up and down for no reason that my family could work out. She often makes squeaking noises that sound like little screams. She gets really hyperly excited when there is salad in the room.

    That all makes a lot more sense now.

    We have a cat. Letting Donkey run free indoors is unlikely to be safe.

    So, the right thing is either to find her another home, or have a cat-proof room and a friend for her.

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