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Deception: Knowledge Isn't Power

I'm starting to think that we need an organization that bans the use of certain phrases. Here I'm speaking about the phrase, "Knowledge is Power." Is it? Whose knowledge? Whose power? What should this knowledge and power be aimed at? We are all bombarded by empty slogans and catch-phrases everyday and for the most part we simply let them pass by. Yesterday a startling contrast came up at a conference I was attending in which the phrase "Knowledge is Power" was borderline offensive...

The hilight of the conference was a presentation given by Stephen Lewis, a name well known in Canadian politics and now in humanitarian causes. Stephen gave a brilliant speech at the conference in which he spoke about pressing international issues. His work is now focused on helping to eradicate the AIDS/HIV pandemic that is now occurring in South Africa.

What does this have to do with "knowledge is power?" Stay with me for a moment.

According to Mr. Lewis, there are 5.3 million people or 20% of people age 15-49 carrying the AIDS/HIV in South Africa alone. He referred to the horrific "repetitive pattern of death" that he himself has witnessed. There has been a sudden expansion of funeral homes and casket-builders that cannot keep up with the death toll. Caskets for infants are made by hand out of paper mache. Sibling families (those families in which a child is forced to become head of the family) are on the rise. Women are assumming a massive burden of care, even when they themselves have been infected. It is expected that there will be 25 million orhpans in South Africa by 2010.

And then he dropped this question:

"Why does the world fail to respond?"

There is obviously no good answer to this question, especially when approx. $200 billion is being spent on the wars in Afganistan and Iraq, while raising one or two percent of this amount per year to save millions in South Africa seems impossible.

I'm getting to the knowledge is power bit...

Stephen then went on to describe some of the major catastrophic human events throughout the 20th century and provided a brief summary of how "the world" responded (or failed to respond). The genocide in Rwanda is a startling example of how the world can turn its back on people. It caused to me to wonder why, when we live in a world that has never been more connected and networked than it is now, we fail to pay attention. Of course, a detailed answer would be quite complex - but the simple answer is, "Because the world chose not to pat attention." Stephen Lewis is taking personal action and has created The Stephen Lewis Foundation to help eradicate AIDS/HIV from South Africa.

It was an inspirational speech and I could not help but think just how powerful the narrative of Stephen Lewis is. Then came the issue with, "knowledge is power."

The person thanking Stephen Lewis stepped up on the stage and recited the words, "Knowledge is Power" and then moved on to the next speaker. Say what? Mr. Lewis gave a heart-felt presentation that was all about taking action, not building knowledge - it was about doing, not thinking - creating meaning and purpose, not information for consumption - it was about living through and immersing oneself in an experience, not studying it from an armchair. Perhaps the insane 3-hour drive to the conference (2.5 of hours of which was in rush-hour traffic) had frayed my patience, but I have to admit I was hoping for the hook from stage-left to appear.

Slogans can be vacuous and misleading, and this one is. Knowledge isn't power unless someone takes action on it. The problem is, evil dictators as well as brilliant humanitarians have knowledge and power alike. Further complicating this is the fact that a lot of people have knowledge, but little power - as well as those that have power but clearly lack knowledge.

Having knowledge simply isn't good enough. Knowledge isn't power and it never has been.

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Hi John: You're right. Sharing knowledge can have the power to move other people in postive and profound ways. The observation you've made is an important one and clearly I was moved by what Stephen Lewis had to say and there was very definitely a power in his story that moved me.

And, in the end, it all comes back to me, the listener - the learner, to decide what to do. So maybe knowledge is power when I take personal responsibility for it in my own life, develop a sense of purpose from it, build a course of action, and find selfless ways of giving the same shared knowledge/power back to others.

Thanks for creating a much needed sense of balance here.

Brian: Good post; I share your sense of frustration when I hear this phrase used.

I think what people sometimes mean by it is "Hoarding knowledge, keeping it tight, makes you powerful". I think it might create a fantasy of power; or a kind of control bought at a price.

But sharing knowledge, that creates a different kind of power. Maybe by sharing his ideas, his passions, the speaker did create power; not power he controlled, but which has moved you - and I hope others - to some kind of action.

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