We Speak Power

The West has emerged from the East a long time ago; what is nowadays the Western European population has come from the vast Russian grasslands thousands of years ago. Genetically speaking, we can trace back Europe’s ancestry to the territories north of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Siberia. Psychologically, at the foundation of what the West is, lies both Christianity and an Indo-European practical wisdom. However, while the Eastern European population has remained orthodox (not in the religious sense but in the sense of sticking to traditions and deep-rooted convictions regarding the general worldview), the Western European population has evolved under the influence of concepts such as “having a rational and scientific viewpoint on reality”, “tolerance and equal rights” or “compromise as a way forward”. This has led to a schism of philosophy, the East remaining under the influence of the past and the West moving towards a potential future, which can be seen as some sort of grand-scale experiment. What we’re witnessing for some years already, are the limits of this potential future, as the costs of evolution and the departure from the old-style lengthily-verified customs do have their price.

Understanding the East involves understanding the concept of power. And the Germanic languages, with their tribal background and the geographical position of their motherland in Central Europe, can give us a clue. English is a Germanic language originating in Northern Germany, so it’s still close enough to facilitate some insights about the nuances of the concepts of power.

Expressing “ability” in English is done in 2 main ways: with the verb “can” and with the verbs “may/might”. Today there are different nuances, as “can” is direct and familiar, while “may” asks for permission, is related to someone from the exterior, and “might” is even more remote, weaker, and less used. In German, these modal verbs have closer meanings to the original ones, and for those speaking German, these meanings are obvious.

The verb “can” in its Old English form as “cunnan”, used to mean “to be able, in the sense of to know how”. It comes from the Proto-Germanic “kunnaną”, which means “to know how, be familiar with, to be able to do something due to one’s own capabilities”. Ultimately, it comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵneh₃-, which means simply “to know”. Therefore, when you “can” in an ancient way, you are able to do something by yourself directly and through your own power and skills. You “can” invade other countries, you “can” kill people, you “can” spread communism in the entire world. You “get it done” and period. The equivalent German verb is “können” but also “kennen (lernen)”.

The verb “may” in its Old English form as “magan”, used to mean “to be able, in the sense of to be permitted or allowed to”. It comes from the Proto-Germanic “maganą”, which means “to be able, the ability existing due to favorable circumstances that are not under one’s control”. Ultimately, it comes from the Proto-Indo-European *megʰ-, which means “to be able to”. The same Proto-Indo-European term gives birth to the Proto-Germanic “mahtiz”, which means “power, strength”, with originates the Old English “miht” (ability, power, strength, and finally “might”) but also the German “macht”. The German equivalent for “may” is “mögen”, which expresses an uncertain possibility. Therefore, when you “may” or “might” in an ancient way, you “may” or “might” do something in certain circumstances or contexts, following deliberations, negotiations, bureaucratic feasibility studies, pondering on the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, following an elaborated process. You “may” give back freedom to your colonies (with certain reservations perhaps), you “may” give (limited) equal rights, you “might” jump in to protect some individuals and you “might” or “might not” honor your international treaties in case an allied country encounters problems (or is attacked). Finally, you “may” or “may not” act as the de facto policeman of the world, depending on – as stated above – favorable (or advantageous) circumstances.

For the subtle mind, the difference between the Eastern and the Western mentality is obvious.

Aside from the difference of perception of the concept of “power”, there is also a difference in the concept of leading, as an outward expression of power. Leading is expressed in several ways, but there are mainly 2 verbs currently in use: “to lead” and “to conduct”. Again, we will go back in time…

The verb “lead” comes from the Old English word “lædan”, which means “to lead, to guide, to cause one to go”. Furthermore, it originates from the Proto-Germanic “līþaną”, meaning “to go through, to pass, to travel” and finally, from the Proto-Indo-European *leyt-, “to go, to depart, to die”. Leading essentially means “to make someone go” or “to determine, convince or use any means so as to make someone to do what you want”. The meaning persists today in the very definition of modern Western leadership: to use consensus, negotiation and compromise in order to make or do something.

The verb “conduct” however, comes in English from both Latin and French, and here we can see a different mentality. The Latin “conductus” (to lead, to be in charge of, to direct) comes from “condūcō”, which is a constructed word meaning “to bring together”. The construction is made of “con-” (to bring together several things) + dūcō (to lead away, in the sense of “pulling others behind oneself”), arising from the Proto-Indo-European *dewk-, meaning “to pull, to draw”. Conducting essentially means to “pull others behind your own person or personal vision, by bringing them together”, which involves an obvious display of force used 2 times: a first force is necessary to gather together everyone and a second force is necessary to drag or pull everyone after you (or rally them behind you). Looking at the numerous dictators and tyrants of today, from South America, Africa and up to Asia, one can witness the popularity of this strategy of leadership: pressure to come together and punishment if one has a different vision from the approved one.

Now, knowing all this, it is laughable to believe that one can sit at the negotiating table with an authoritarian leader or believe that the population behind him cares about western values in a deep and significant way. For an “Eastern Mind”, negotiation means invariably weakness; it has no value, as power is asserted and forced upon, but never chosen or conveyed democratically. Plus, the westerners with their moral relativity depending on the context and personal gain, are always seen as hypocrites. The Eastern mind is used to the fact that power is hijacked and squeezed in the hands of the One who “brings everyone together and pulls them towards his despotic vision”. On the other hand, for the “Western Mind”, it is unacceptable to be “offended” or “abused”, as the familiar leadership style is the one of lengthy negotiation, words and words and more words, and the essential skill of a leader is to “seduce” his followers, not to “rape” them. A Western leader will lead his “flock” by “making them wish to go as if this decision comes from their own judgement and not his, while staying behind and pulling the ropes”, which is unthinkable for an Eastern mind who expects its leader “to lead the battle mounted on a horse or a tank”, depending on what is available at the time.

As an Eastern European who lived extensively in the Western World, I understand both leadership styles and I’m aware of the different perceptions of power. And I wanted to share this so that you can ponder a bit more on the ancient, fundamental differences between the two worlds.

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