Power Resides Where People Believe It Resides

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. “Do it,’ says the king, “for I am your lawful ruler.’ “Do it,’ says the priest, “for I command you in the names of the gods.’ “Do it,’ says the rich man, “and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”

“The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

“So power is a mummer’s trick?”

“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

―Varys (A Clash of Kings)

I got in an argument on the internet recently. It devolved at one point into the other person calling me a virgin. I’ve been processing, for a while, exactly how I would like to have responded, ideally, and exactly why that kind of discourse ever happens in the first place.

I could have said, “No, I’m not”, and it would’ve been true, but pointless, since I wouldn’t be able to prove it and the other guy wouldn’t have been able to disprove it. I could’ve said, “That doesn’t matter, and the fact that you’re saying it does not say positive things about your ability to argue a point rationally.” To which the simulated mental antagonist goes, “HA, so you are!”

Thing is, even if I could have somehow proven it, I wouldn’t have wanted to, really. First, because I’d feel uncomfortable using the people I’ve had sex with as power points in an argument, and second, because I don’t want to reinforce the idea that it matters how many people you have sex with. I’ve had plenty of sex in my life, and I still manage to have insecurities about that kind of thing on a regular basis—the last thing I want to do is play into the culture that causes that angst.

It’s strange that I even find it anything other than amusing. After all, the guy was wrong, and even if he weren’t it wouldn’t matter, and in effect, he was doing nothing more than demonstrating what a dick he was. So why, of all the arguments, is this one of those ones that sticks in my head as something I wish I’d had some sort of perfect comeback to? Why does it make me feel like defending myself when it’s such a patently absurd thing to need to defend against on so many levels?

In thinking about that, I’ve been thinking about the above quote from A Clash of Kings. Power resides where men believe it resides. Whether or not I’ve ever had sex was so utterly unrelated to the argument that was happening that it should’ve been absurd to the point of hilarity. Like he had said, “Yeah, well, you have brown hair!”

But really, on some level, we both understood what was happening. It was an insult. It was something said to make me look weak. It was understood that way because we, as a society, believe that power resides in certain places and not in others. We tend, as a culture, to assume power resides in people who get laid more than other people. We assume it doesn’t reside in virgins. To varying conscious and unconscious degrees, we also tend to assume it lies in wealth, fame, gender, race, physical prowess, positions of authority, college degrees, intelligence, and a host of other things.

In some cases the assumptions make a certain amount of sense, and in some cases they don’t. In a great many cases, though, the quote applies to a tee: power resides where we believe it resides. In the argument I had, that comment was made because the guy I was arguing with believes that saying I’m a virgin implies a certain type of powerlessness—a certain type of inferiority—in spite of the fact that it had literally nothing to do with the conversation at hand.

There isn’t a particular driving point to this post other than to make an observation about the strangeness of some of the assumptions we make about power. To ask why having a lot of sex partners casts such a very large shadow on the wall. A whole ‘nother post could probably be written about the ways in which our assumptions about power contribute in ways large and small to many (if not all) forms of bigotry. I think that’s an avenue of thinking worth pursuing and that this is an analogy worth applying to thoughts about that, but for now, I’m just making the observation in general and putting it “on paper”.


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  1. Pingback: Permission to Flirt? | Research to be Done

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