Power is Knowledge

While you’re probably familiar with the adage that knowledge is power, it’s important to remember the inverse is true as well.

As Danish urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg writes, “Power is knowledge…Power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.”

In his work, Flyvberg documents how power directly and indirectly influences outcomes.

In the Danish town of Aalborg, for example, decisions about a major transportation project are significantly influenced by those in power. Key elected officials make their opinions known and technical workers seek solutions that implement those official’s visions.

They decide what questions to pursue and what findings to present based off what those in power hope to accomplish.Then their proposed designed, shaped at it’s core by politics, is presented as a purely technical document. As unbiased research. As simply the facts.

I love Flyvberg because his reflections of how power shapes knowledge and defines reality rings true beyond Aalborg. I’ve seen power shape knowledge. I’ve seen power define reality. And I’m willing to bet most of you have too.

And while many of us may find this new adage useful as we stand up to power and try to empower others, it’s also important to remember that…power is knowledge may apply to us as well.

I didn’t grow up in a position of power, but I’m certainly in one now. There are many more powerful than I, of course, but there are those with less power as well.

“Power is knowledge” is not a story of villains. It’s a story of people who pursue what they think is best and use their power in pursuing that vision.

Maybe those in power are right. Maybe they do know what is best and maybe the outcomes they devise really are ideal.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is that by leveraging their own power, they disempower others. They take certain data, questions, or whole topics off the table and in doing so diminish the agency of others.

I’ve said before that I believe the best outcomes come from the most voices. That’s a truly hard goal to pursue, but, I believe, it’s a worthy goal.

Should I find myself in a position of power – however little that power may be – I aim to always remember that goal. And I hope you will too.

If we’re fighting for what we know is right – for justice, equality, and fair treatment. If we’re fighting for the good by using our power to shape reality, to suppress knowledge that doesn’t conform with our views. If we’re using our power to disempower others…then just what are we fighting for?

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