There’s a saying that goes, “If you want to know who controls you, ask who you’re not allowed to criticize.”

That may be roughly true in terms of who’s trying to force you into something, but that’s not the same as knowing who has power.  In fact, when it comes to finding out who is powerful, I think the opposite is true.  I say,

If you want to know who has power, ask who you can criticize freely and openly.

If a person or group has to force you to withhold negative opinions, they lack power.  It may be that they incorrectly perceive themselves as powerless, but believing you are powerless is self-fulfilling.

The truly powerful aren’t threatened by criticism.  The fearful and powerless are.  The weak and panicked seek the use of force and control to protect their fragile identities.  The powerful don’t care.  Your good opinion isn’t required for their success.

It’s easy to see people, groups, and ideas protected by strong legal or cultural controls and conclude they are the power brokers.  If you’re not allowed to criticize the priest, professor, or politician, they must be the puppet-masters.  This conclusion is false.  Their fragility drives them to violence, threat, and manipulation.

Meanwhile, those with genuine power are comfortable being lampooned.  They are as likely to laugh at satire at their expense as to ignore it.

When an opinion is shut down by force, weakness hides behind the threat.  When criticism is free to fly, power hides behind it.

If you want to know who has power, ask who gets poked fun of and criticized with abandon.

*I am referring in this post to power in a general, value-neutral way.  Power can be used for a great many things, but true power doesn’t require force, threat, manipulation, control or propaganda.  The powerful are not always who they seem.