The Third Side: Why is Power Inequality a Problem?

Why is Power Inequality a Problem?

Power inequality causes problems for people on both side of the power divide. Essays that describe this problem in more detail include Power Inequities. Plutarch wrote, "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." This essay deals with the power inequities that have existed in almost all human societies.

Low-Power Groups

Power Inequities are a big problem for low-power groups:

  • Justice Conflicts - Perceived injustice is a frequent source of conflict. It is usually characterized by the denial of fundamental rights of the less powerful by the more powerful.
  • Human Rights Violations - Abuse of human rights often leads to conflict, and conflict typically results in human rights violations. Thus, human rights abuses are often at the center of wars, and protection of human rights is central to conflict resolution.
  • Unmet Human Needs - Human essentials go beyond just food, water, and shelter. They include all of those things that humans are innately driven to attain, such as love, dignity, and safety. Some theorists argue that most intractable conflicts are caused by the drive to satisfy unmet needs.
  • High-Stakes Distributional Conflicts - These are distributional conflicts that really matter: over jobs, land, a parent's love. Since the stakes are high, the willingness to compromise or lose may be low, making resolution more difficult. When power is greatly unequal, the powerful almost always prevail in conflicts of this type.
  • Rich/Poor Conflicts - The gap between high- and low-income countries is widening. Though there is debate about the impacts of this gap, it is certainly leading to potential — if not actual — intractable conflicts.
  • Social Status - Social status is intrinsically linked with ideas of power, humiliation, dignity, and hierarchy. In many societies, there is a perpetual struggle between those at the top and those at the bottom, with equality a very elusive goal.
  • Prejudice and Discrimination - Harry Bridges wrote, "No man has ever been born a Negro hater, a Jew hater, or any other kind of hater. Nature refused to be involved in such suicidal practices." This essay discusses how prejudice develops, what its effects are, and what can be done to change it.
  • Delegitimization - Delegitimization refers to the negative stereotypes used to describe one's adversaries. Delegitimization is one of the major forces that feeds violence and prevents a peaceful resolution.
  • Siege Mentality - Many societies believe that other societies have negative intentions towards them. But with the "siege mentality," the situation is far more extreme. They believe that the entire world is hostile toward them.
  • Dehumanization - Dehumanization has the power to justify society's most violent and terrible impulses. If outsiders — such as the Jews in Germany or the Tutsis in Rwanda — are seen as less than human, then this clears the way to commit atrocities against them.
  • Humiliation - Humiliation is reducing to lowliness or submission. It is theorized to be a major cause of violent and intractable conflicts. The humiliation of the German people after World War I, for example, is frequently seen as a cause of World War II.
  • War Crimes - Although inhuman acts have been committed in wars throughout history, the concept of war crimes is relatively new. It was only with the atrocities of World War II that people began to think of some of the horrors of war as crimes, for which perpetrators could be held legally accountable.
  • Genocide - In recent years, genocide, or attempts to completely erase adversaries — either through death or exile — have become increasingly common. This essay describes the unique problems posed by genocide and other war crimes.
  • Refugees - Conflict can cause people to flee an area, either because of intolerable living conditions or forceful expulsion. Such situations can lead to more conflict, both in the host country and when refugees try to return home.
  • Victimhood - In the early 1930s, millions of Ukranians died under Stalin's violent policy of forced collectivization. The depth of pain, fear, and hatred that continued to characterize the Ukrainian attitude toward Russians is typical of all victimized people. A feeling of victimhood can greatly prolong conflicts and prevent reconciliation.

High-Power Groups

Perhaps surprisingly, power inequalities are also a problem for high-power groups, as they cause conflict and threaten the security and the social status of those groups. Some of these impacts were discussed in the essays listed above (for example Justice Conflicts, High-Stakes Distributional Conflicts, Humiliation, and Social Status), but other essays highlight tactics that low-power groups can employ, which cause problems for high-power groups. These include:

For More Information

Much of the material on this user guide is drawn from Thanks to William Ury and Joshua Weiss for giving us permission to republish their material here.

  • Costs of Intractable Conflict - The twentieth century was the deadliest in all of human history. With eight million Jews murdered and one million Rwandans, it was named "the age of genocide." However, human casualties merely scratch the surface of the true cost of conflict. This essay discusses the human, economic, social, and political costs of intractable conflict.
    • Violence - This article examines the nature of political violence and what can be done to stop it.
    • War - War has been a common feature of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. However, this essay questions whether it is an effective or efficient way to solve problems and suggests things people can do to stop wars from happening.
    • Terrorism - Terrorism is defined differently by different people, but fundamentally involves extreme acts of political violence, targeting civilians, and intended to arouse fear as much as or more than the actual damange the violence causes directly.
  • Social Psychological Aspects of Intractable Conflict- These dimensions include emotions (fear, distrust, hotility) as well as processes such as framing, stereotyping, and scapegoating. These factors significantly influence the way a conflict is perceived and responded to.
    • Fear - Fear is both a cause and a consequence of violent and some nonviolent conflicts. It certainly makes conflict resolution more difficult.
    • Guilt/Shame - We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are. Both lead to and are caused by conflict.
    • Distrust - Distrust can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, where every move another person makes is interpreted as evidence to distrust him/her. When the other person reciprocates this sentiment, there is mutual distrust that further fuels the escalation of conflict.
  • Threats - Huey Newton wrote, "Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed." Though not all politics is coercive, it is certainly one way among others to force people to do what you want them to do against their will. Though coercive power is sometimes powerful, it usually has destructive effects.
    • Extremists or Spoilers - Extremists are people who take extreme views -- those which are much stronger, and often more fixed than other people's views of the same situation. In escalated conflicts, extremists may advocate violent responses, while more moderate disputants will advocate less extreme measures.