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Cookie Monster Chaos and the Future of ‘Power’

So the other night when I’d finished for the day, I lay in bed, turned on the side light, and continued reading my book: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, by Rutger Bregman, a captivating read about human psychology. The overarching point he is trying to make is that humans are intrinsically good, and it is civilization that coaxes out our inner evil. Rather than civilisation acting as a rose-scented polish on the turd of our untamed natures, he says, the reverse is true. Civilisation is the turd we smear on our naturally rose-scented selves, tarnishing, putrefying, self-sabotaging. Very nice argument, I say. I have time for a little optimism at the moment. 

So, when I opened the book after a long hard day of quite depressing, waffling, pompous, verbose, silver-spoon-up-the-arse literary theory work, I was looking forward to a few pages of sunshine and rainbows. And actually, for the most part, that’s what I got. It was in the section about ‘How Power Corrupts’ that I read about the ‘Cookie Monster’ experiment (how cute!), conducted by Prof. Dacher Keltner, which studied the effect power has on the behavioural patterns of children. I’m summarising here, but in effect, what they did was give a group of children a banal task to complete with a randomly selected leader. Then, halfway through, they bought out a plate of cookies (one more than the number of group members) and put it on the table. All group members took one cookie and munched it, with the last one resting on the plate: a shining symbol of unspoken democracy and etiquette. But, alas, this didn’t last long. Having finished their cookie, the leader (and this happened every time the test was repeated) extended their dominion over the cookie as a natural appendage of their dominion over the rest of the group, demolishing democracy with their gnashers. Etiquette, slobbered over with saliva, began to slip. Keltner noticed the leader of the group seemed to shed their table manners, eating with jowls loose-lipped and blubbering, barking orders and spraying crumb-flecked globules onto their tops and over the project’s paperwork. Rather like a dog marking its territory with piss, the leader nabbed the cookie, and sprayed it over their subjects. My task. My cookie. My spit. My territory. The corrupting influence of power, ladies and gents. How amusing. 

This was a trivial by-product of quite a hefty mental reaction, as it turns out. “Once you arrive at the top”, Bregman writes, “there’s less of an impetus to see things from other perspectives. There’s no imperative for empathy”. But then he goes on: “That might also help explain why women score higher than men on empathy tests”. Due to “socialisation” (basically ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’, and the gist of Simone de Beauvoir’s “one is not born, but rather becomes woman”), “women are expected to see things from a male perspective, and rarely the other way around”. 

I was already semi-aware of this. It feels a little obvious when you think about it. But never has it been spelled out so clearly, and it bugged me. If we’re constantly trying to look through the eye of the alpha, then surely we’re basically asking to lop off our ‘nurtured’ empathetic side, and when it comes to potential leadership, who wants a cookie monster who is going to spew slimy balls of metaphorical cookie onto your hard work? Who would aspire to be a democracy-devouring table-manner-lacking leader? Not me! So why do we paint the picture of the ‘powerful’ as bass-toned masculinity, if that also brings along with it, to some extent, a divorce from interpersonality? Why do we make right-angled shoulder-padded power suits for businesswomen, all the more useful for shoulder-barging rivals? So they can emulate the brawn of the alpha? Surely we are barking up the wrong tree here. Surely if we want to prize empathy over the sort of power Bregman outlines, then we ought to be cutting cinched waists into men’s blazers, tapering their trousers and dropping their shoulder seams: softening, not sharpening. 

It made me think of Jacinda Arden. You don’t need me to tell you she is a wonderful prime minister, and an incredibly powerful woman. But she is not powerful in the traditional sense. By traditional sense, I mean she is not even in the same realm as BoJo, Biden, Macron or any of those types. The power Arden wields is kind of unexpected because she doesn’t seem to try to wield any but finds herself wielding it anyway. It’s the sort of power you gain from the EXACT empathy Bregman was talking about. She doesn’t seem to want to come across as aloofly professional, floating above the rest of us mere mortals on that sort of privileged puff of smoke, untouchable, unreachable, un-reprimandable, invincible.

I’m thinking in particular of an Instagram live she did a few months ago, where she was addressing the New Zealanders earnestly on Coronavirus from her home. This was no grandiose, gold-leafed, British-flagged office situation that BoJo seems to go for, but an average home. White walls, brown sofa, maybe some family photos on the wall and an Ikea blanket strewn over the armrest. I don’t know, I wasn’t studying it, but it was nothing you wouldn’t see at any other given address. Anyway, she was running them down frankly on the goings-on of the day, when her young daughter ran into the room in pyjamas with a little teddy bear dangling from one hand. Arden swung the camera, showed her live viewers the situation, laughingly said something like: ‘Well that’s a bedtime fail! I will be back in a second [now addressing her daughter] once I’ve put this little rascal to bed!’. 

Nothing about this situation screams power. There is no besuited man. Instead, there is a woman filming herself as she sits on the sofa at home, going through the same bedtime-related troubles as countless other parents across the nation, only she happened to be addressing that same nation during a global crisis. What a revolution, and what a comfort. Here is someone I recognise, who is worried about the same things as me, who is going to take care of my cares and concerns. There was no white-knuckles and war rhetoric. It was honest, furrow-browed concern and domestic realities. The power doesn’t come from any sense of superiority she gives off, rather the opposite. It comes from the feeling that Arden can, will and does EMPATHISE with the average joe of New Zealand, not simply giving half-truths, sly smirks and hiding behind a froth of blond hair. If this is the result of “socialisation”, then so be it: I personally believe it makes her a better leader. 

The long and short of what I’m trying to say is, must women really shed that sort of feminine empathy Bregman talks about in order to gain power? I think it’s definitely true that women are socially conditioned to be more nurturing, which is an issue when you place her smooth-edged warmth and generosity next to the bulldozing bollocks of the alpha male, but it’s only an issue if we let it be one. If empathy is bound up and coterminous with ‘femininity’, then surely we should all be trying to become more ‘feminine’, in the empathetic sense of the term, rather than less so. Maybe I’m biased… I am a woman after all. 

Ultimately, if a woman is conditioned to become a woman, she is also conditioned to be more empathetic. This can only be a positive thing when it comes to determining those who have power and those who don’t. We seem to think deficient empathy = less emotional volatility = level-headedness = strength = brawn = power, when really no empathy = a lack of connection to reality = ending up with a leader like that poo-in-a-tin (Putin) over in Russia = terror = war = total panic and instability. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you’re milky and infirm, unable to lead. Being empathetic means you can nourish, and are therefore firm and should be leading, as far as I am concerned. 

Annie Gray

Durham '24

First year English literature student.
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