On social power, the oppressed/oppressor framework, and empathy, with Elizaveta Friesem

Elizaveta Friesem writes about media, communication, and social power (i.e., the concept of power that characterizes people and their relationships). I first interviewed her about media and polarization in 2021; we talked about her book Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving Beyond Blame. Topics we discuss here include: Michel Foucault’s ideas about power (often referenced in liberal academic world); the oppressed/oppressor framework (also often referenced); how simplistic views of social power can be divisive and result in a reduction in people’s empathy; how the free will debate ties into these ideas; political polarization related to some of these ideas. 

Episodes links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:


Note that transcripts will have some errors. If you read something that seems surprising or strange, there’s a good chance it might be a transcription problem.

Zachary Elwood:

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior. To learn more about this podcast and my work, go to 

Say you get pulled over by a cop. The cop would seem to have a lot of power over you. He wields authority; he carries a gun; he could theoretically make your life very hard. But then again, you also wield a lot of power over him; for example, if he does something wrong, you could report his behavior and get him in a lot of trouble. Depending on what he did, you could even ruin his life. 

So what is this concept of social power? Who has power over who? Is such a thing even possible to define and quantify in such a complex system as humanity? 

Today I talk to Elizaveta Friesem, who thinks and writes about media and social influence. She’s the author of the book Media Is Us, and I interviewed her about her ideas in that book back in 2021. In that book she made the case that we shouldn’t think of media as something “out there,” some external force that exerts control over us, but as just another manifestation of the interaction of human minds, in a similar way that talking in person is a manifestation of human minds interacting. I thought that was an important point as it tied into how I was thinking about political polarization; that we too often reach for blame of systems and institutions when those systems and institutions are just a bunch of people doing people things. 

In this episode I talk to Elizaveta about social power, referring to the power that people hold over other people. Topics we discuss include: 

  • The philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas on power, which are often referenced in liberal-leaning academic circles
  • The oppressed/oppressor framework, which is frequently referenced by liberal people these days
  • How simplistic views of social power can be divisive and result in a reduction in people’s empathy 
  • Elizaveta’s ideas on social power
  • How the free will debate ties into these ideas (and, by the way, you might enjoy listening to the last episode before this one, which is a talk with a physicist about free will; I think all these things are related)

I think these ideas we discuss are important; they tie into so many discussions these days. For example, they often come up in the context of American divides, as you can hear some liberal people speak about Republicans as if they’re oppressors, and as if social power is some simple, easily defined element. And this language is often heard in the Israel/Palestine debate, too.

I’ll include some links to things we talk about in the entry for this episode on my site

You can learn about Elizaveta’s work by going to her website If you want to search for her online, her last name is spelled FRIESEM. 

Okay, here’s the talk with Elizaveta Friesem. Hi, Elizaveta. Thanks for coming on the show.

Elizaveta Friesem: Thank you so much for having me again.

Zach: Yeah, my pleasure. Maybe we could start with it seems like I think a lot of people think that Foucault’s theories of human power are rather simplistic and people think that they describe someone having power and then someone not having power. But in your work, you’ve talked about the complexity that Foucault actually brought to the discussion that his work was more complicated than that. Am I getting that right? That there are a lot of people who think that’s what Foucault’s work said that basically, there’s power here and then the people without power over here?

Elizaveta: Well, first of all, I need to clarify that I don’t see myself as a Foucault specialist.[chuckles] I read a few books and I read a lot about him and I chose one part of his writing, one part of his theory that works well for me to explain my own ideas about power. So I wouldn’t speak for other people, I think other people might actually have more complete understanding of Foucault’s work as a whole. Right? But I find his ideas very insightful when he talks specifically in this book called The History of Sexuality. In the first part, there’s one section that he introduces this idea of power as not a binary relationship. And that’s what I find especially important for my own theory of power.

Zach: And you got into being interested in this. Did it come about through your interest in the media examination? Am I getting that right?

Elizaveta: Yeah. I have a background in philosophy. My first doctoral degree was essentially in a humanities and social sciences and I studied in the college of philosophy back in Russia. But then I came to the US and I studied media and communication and then I started noticing this connection. I mean, I saw a lot of people are using post-modernist ideas and Foucault’s ideas to explain society’s problems, and specifically problems related to the media. Then I started thinking more and more about it and I wrote the book “Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving Beyond Blame”. We talked about this book about a year and a half ago, right? Or was it two years? Two years and a half ago.

Zach: Maybe three or two. It’s been a while. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yes, on this podcast. As I was writing this book, I just realized that I need to talk more about power. Because I read a lot of scholars discussing social society’s problems, which I think is a very important thing to discuss, obviously, because society does have problems and some people are disadvantaged and suffer. But then they were discussing it through the lens that I identified as a lens of blame, sort of dividing everybody into somebody who suffers and somebody who causes suffering just by default. And I just felt that something was wrong there. Personally, I felt that I wanted to dig deeper into that. That’s when I remembered how I studied Foucault back in Russia. He had this idea that power is like a flow. He said power is like a flow that is just running all the time through society. And it’s not something that anybody owns, but rather it’s something that influences everybody’s actions. And it does sound kind of strange and I’d be like what exactly was he talking about, but I felt like it might help me explain what I wanted to explain when I wanted to say we need to go beyond that blame.

Zach: Right. In a recent blog post of yours on your site, you talked about many people’s kind of simplistic idea of power. Like, there’s a king and there’s a peasant as a common example of somebody having power over somebody else. Can you talk a little bit about what you wrote in that post and how you saw more complexity in that dynamic?

Elizaveta: Yeah. You’re referring to a page of my website. I have a website that I specifically dedicate to exploring power as a paradox as opposed to power as a binary. Power as a binary – this is a common perception, so we consider that with just some people have power and some people lack power. Or power is something that you can clearly say, “Okay, I have it,” or, “I don’t have it and the other person has it or doesn’t have it.” Right? And I wanted to explain how it’s more like a paradox that it’s something that you can have and lack at the same time. So I thought that this example with a king and a peasant can describe it well because… Well, first of all, I wanted to take to an example that is sort of detached from the modern debates because I feel like whenever we use examples from controversial issues, then very soon people just stop listening because they’re sort of felling very strong emotions about those issues. So I felt like king and peasant is something that is further removed from our everyday life, but also a very vivid example because you could think of a king as somebody who has absolute power over this peasant, right? So, king has power and can do whatever he wants, and the peasant has zero power. I mean, he makes some choices in his everyday life, you know, when to harvest or whatnot. But then if the king decides to send soldiers to arrest or kill the peasant, the peasant won’t be able to do anything, you know? This sort of relationship. And so I wanted to explain that when we think about power as a paradox, it’s not like we’re saying, “Well, a king and a peasant have the same amount of power.” It’s not like the king has power over the peasant, but the peasant has a power over the king. You know, kind of reversing this relationship. So this is just turning this simplistic binary around. It’s true that the king, in many situations, has more power than the peasant. A king can make a law and then the peasant has to obey this law, for example. Right? If we just focus on this relationship, it’s fairly clear who has power over whom. But it’s not like this is the only relationship in the world. There are other relationships. There are a lot of people around the peasant and around the king.

Zach: And there’s many peasants and only one king too.

Elizaveta: Well, in this specific country. [chuckles]

Zach: Yeah, that’s another thing. If we look at those other relationships, we start noticing that things are not as simple because first of all, the king was born to be a king, right? And he doesn’t necessarily choose to do things that are expected of a king. Now it might sound kind of vague, those examples, but I can give some life to it. I’ve been actually researching life of Louis XIV because I thought this could be an interesting figure to dive into and I’m now working on a page about his life based on a very extensive book that I read written by a historian. So there are plenty of examples to show how Louis XIV, with all the power that he had, he also lacked power in many ways. You know, he became king when he was four. And then as a child, he didn’t have much power at all. He was pushed around and he needed to follow different ceremonies and he was used as a pawn in political games of his relatives and parents. And in general, living in the royal family in a court was tough. This all is not to say that he had worse than a peasant. Obviously, a king like Louis XIV, I don’t think he ever experienced hunger, for example. But there are a lot of things that he couldn’t control. He wanted to control desperately because he was told… He was born into this meaning of absolute power and he was told that he’s supposed to have it. But throughout his life, he had many instances when he couldn’t use power. He had to do what other people wanted him to do or expected him to do. And he had to live according to this idea of monarchy that he didn’t invent the expectations for what it means to be a king. And those expectations, if you think of it, were created before him and supported not just by him and embraced by everybody in France and in Europe of the time. So in this sense, peasant does come into play because believing in the monarchy, believing in the power of religion that gave the king the divine rights to do whatever he wants, supposedly, that everybody in his kingdom played some part in that. Although obviously, people did criticize them and disliked him and some people. Yeah, so that’s where it gets complicated.

Zach: Yeah, it’s like you’re saying, to some extent, these systems around us and the systems of social interaction or whatever are outside of any one person’s control. I think in a lot of people’s minds, what Trump does or says sets the… His supporters just follow along. And I think in that in that context, you can see it’s much more complicated because for example, when Trump was trying to take credit for the vaccine so he wanted to tell his supporters that this was a good thing, we did an amazing thing. And his supporters at that rally booed him, basically, and I think he got the message, “Well, there’s a limit to what I can get even my enthusiastic supporters to go along with.” It’s like he and anyone has a part in this system that is not fully in their control. Right? Would you say that’s an example of what you’re drawing attention to there?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think it is a good example and I think that… Well, there’s this very good book that if you didn’t read yet I recommend. It’s called “Strangers in Their Own Land”. She wrote it around the time when… A little bit before Trump was elected. And there’s towards the end where she explains his popularity. Like he was at the right time in the right place, that sort of thing. So of course, it’s not like it’s nothing about what he did, but it’s also something about the circumstances that were there and are there that, like you said, allows him to remain popular among some people or I guess a significant amount of people.

Zach: The idea of powers is complex. I think in our first talk, we talked about the cop citizen example in modern times where in a lot of people’s consumption, it’s like, oh, the cop has a lot of power. But the cop has power in one context, like in the in-person interaction, but the citizen can have a lot of power after that interaction. They can clearly file a lawsuit and destroy the cop’s life if the cop does something wrong. So it’s just drawing attention to these sometimes simplistic ideas we have of there’s different there’s different types of power, there’s different power in different context, and especially for a society where you have more recourse for unleashing your power in various ways.

Elizaveta: Yeah, definitely. That’s another good example. Yeah, certainly. You can take any example where people will say, “Well, clearly, there’s a power imbalance.” And I would be like, “Yeah, there is an imbalance on one level. But on some other level, things get complicated.” And that’s where my own theory comes in, which I call theory of micro and macro power. The goal of this theory is to show how we can at the same time acknowledge that there are some imbalances and inequalities, and at the same time, deal with them going beyond blame and using empathy. And empathy comes when we understand that even people who in those micro situations clearly have power, when you zoom out and look at the macro situation, you see that they don’t choose the world where they operate. They don’t choose the ideas that dictate their actions. And you’d think they choose their worldview or their decisions and desires, but there’s an element of choosing. And we can talk about the freewill part. All right. But there’s a lot of not choosing. Let’s put it this way.

Zach: Right. Yeah, and I get the impression that some liberal people, especially the more far-left activist type people, it seems like they can resist the idea that power is complex. And I’m not an expert on how standard this is across academia but it strikes me that a lot of people have a sort of… They communicate a simplistic idea of power in the sense that it’s like these people have power and these people do not. And it seems to me like the reason that they may resist the idea of power being complex is because it can strike them as a blame-the-victim type of thing by implying that people can basically play a role in their own oppression, in some sense, that can seem offensive to them, even though as we stated, clearly there can be bad things that people do and people can be oppressed. But it’s like the idea that the power dynamic is complex can seem offensive. Do you think I’m getting… Is my perception accurate, do you think?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think definitely the blaming the victim that’s a big no-no. Right? And believe me; I’m spending a lot of time thinking how to phrase my ideas in a way that they don’t seem like I’m blaming victims. And my whole theory that I described right now is to go beyond that to show that there are victims or there can be victims and people can suffer. And you can say, “Hey, this person hurt that person.” And at the same time, you can say, “Hey, but the person who did the hurting, it’s more complicated there.” But there is this danger. I’m always concerned that people can interpret that as like, “Oh, so now instead of empathizing with the victim, you want us to empathize with the perpetrator.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, I guess you could put it this way. But that’s doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

Zach: Yeah, I think that’s what’s so hard. I spend a lot of time in my depolarization work trying to think about how to best phrase some of these similar concepts, where it’s like trying to understand the dynamics and how the systemic dynamics of the more contempt people show, basically, the more you’re creating a dynamic and environment where the most polarized people have more power, you know? And trying to see the very human nature of a lot of these things, even for people we may very much dislike or find dangerous, it’s like people can be very challenged or offended by the idea that we can have empathy or try to understand the human aspect for these people we think are bad and dangerous. But I think that’s an important part of lowering toxic polarization or just understanding– like you’re doing– understanding the dynamics.

Elizaveta: Mmh. Yeah.

Zach: Oh, and I realized I was saying his name wrong. It was, as you said, Foucault is the proper pronunciation.

Elizaveta: Oh, he has so many letters there. You know, French spelling.

Zach: Yeah, the French thing threw me off. And many people have criticized his ideas as being pessimistic and dark in the sense of painting this portrait of people’s… Kind of a cynical portrait of people using power and structures of knowledge to control people or oppress people, whether they were doing it intentionally or not. Do you see his ideas… I know you said you’re not an expert, but do you see that some of those ideas are kind of pessimistic about human nature?

Elizaveta: Yeah, I think they’re pessimistic because… Again, maybe there’s somewhere that he wrote something more optimistic, but as far as I know, he focused on problems and he focused on how power is hurting people and creating issues in everybody’s lives. I don’t think he had this suggestion anywhere– I might be wrong– that oh, this is what you can do to get out of this unpleasant situation.

Zach: Yeah, one of the things that stood out to me was when I was just doing a little bit of research on his work. He painted scientific knowledge as another means of social control. He used the example of madness in the 18th century was used to stigmatize people who might not have just fit the ordinary mold. It was a means of control in his description of his theories. I guess that can be a way that it can be perceived as really pessimistic because you could also see those people as they weren’t trying to do that, many of them were probably trying to help people that they thought were unhappy and suffering and such, even if Foucault might think that there was some underlying systemic society thing about control.

Elizaveta: Yeah, he has some important theories related to power and knowledge. Also in the book that I mentioned before, “History of Sexuality”, he talks about sexuality and people’s perception of sexuality and relationship with sexuality through the knowledge about it. You know, what is a good sexuality and what is a bad sexuality? And for him, obviously, that was very relevant because he was a homosexual himself. Yeah. Again, to repeat myself, I don’t think he had any or pointed out any silver lining. I think mostly talked about problems.

Zach: Right. Yeah, and I could see why people think of him as very pessimistic. Because when I read some of this stuff, it was like it’s not how I… I mainly look around and think most people are trying to do what they think is a good thing and trying to help people even if they might be very wrong. But yeah, I can see why people interpreted his writings as being very dark.

You’ll now be hearing an ad. I don’t endorse these ads, and I encourage you to remain skeptical of all ads.

*** [00:25:22] Ad plays ***

Elizaveta: I try to overcome this in my own work, where I say that, well, we can have hope. There are some things within our power. Although we might be powerless in many ways, I think we can make choices that eventually help us to improve things for everybody. Right? But again, I acknowledge also that that’s my own perception and my own bias, if you will. So I don’t know which one is better or more accurate, you know? Being pessimistic or being hopeful. But I certainly want to be hopeful.

Zach: Oh, and seems like there’s so much complexity too in the realm of human power. There’s so many types of ways to influence people, right? I think a lot of times with these examples, people think of physical force. But then there’s persuasion. You know, when we try to change things in society, we try to use persuasion a lot to change people’s minds. There’s sexual seduction, there’s negotiation… There’s all these various ways that people can exert various power over people and I’m curious if that’s something you’ve done much about or if Foucault talks much about that, if you know.

Elizaveta: Well, that’s where I actually don’t use Foucault for that part. On my website that I mentioned that is dedicated to power specifically, and the name of this project is Power of Meanings, Meanings of Power. I’ve been working on it for about couple of years and it’s structured as a hypertext, which basically means that I have a bunch of pages and then I try to explore different ideas related to power and show connections between them. So the page about Foucault that you mentioned, it’s on that website, and what I’m writing about Louis XIV, that’s another part of this website. And yet another part is where I’m trying to analyze power and show its different types and forms– what you’ve been asking about. And what what you mentioned, I classify more as power is influence. The division that I came up with so far and I might change or I might make it more granular over time is that power is ability. Because we can say, well, I have power to lift a heavy stone, right? Or I have power to realize that I see everything as horrible today because I’m tired. That’s an ability that I can develop and it’s also a kind of power, right? Then there is power as influence. So, power as ability more resides in us, right? Our properties. Then there’s power as influence is about interactions with others. I think I write in one place on this website that it is good to connect it to the idea of limited resources, because there are only so many things in the world and only so many things that so many ways that things can be. When somebody can decide how things should be or who should have things, they influence the way things are. Or they influence other people. So, power is influence. Say if there is an apple on the table, there’s one apple and I get to eat it. So in this particular— And you wanted it, but I got to eat it. So in this particular situation, you can say that I influenced the situation and I influenced you. Because you didn’t get the apple and I got the apple. Yeah.

And then there is power of- like I call it- may power, which I don’t know if it’s a great idea because it sounds like a month, but I meant the permission. Some people are allowed to do some things, but others are not, for example. Right?

Zach: Well, and what was the word you said?

Elizaveta: May. Like, “May I do that?”

Zach: Oh, okay. I got you. May. Yeah.

Elizaveta: I don’t know if I’ll keep this word. So basically, I’m just… Yeah, I started noticing how all of the things we call power, you can see those different types and forms of power. Which doesn’t mean that they exist separately. Me being able to do something also is connected with me influencing other people or the ways things are in the world. And me being allowed to do something is related, obviously, to other people. Because who allows me? It’s other people who allow or don’t allow. So all this division is very artificial, but it’s for the purpose to show that there are all these different forms like these things that we call power. And in each one of those aspects, we can see elements of power like what I can do. And elements of powerlessness. I created this theory that I described earlier about micro and macro power about society existing on different levels, right? There’s this very specific level of interactions between individuals. And it’s easy to say that in this relationship, who has the power over whom. But then we zoom out and then it becomes more complicated. And I know it might be kind of difficult for people to wrap their mind around this– different planes of social reality sounds kind of fancy. I tried to boil down what am I trying to say here in my theory, so I decided that the easiest way would be to say that power always coexists with powerlessness. If you look at those different aspects of power… I’m saying take a specific person and look at them, like Louis XIV, and look at these different aspects of power throughout his life. You will notice that he had power, but he also has powerlessness. You can take any other person and notice the same thing.

Zach: Yeah, there’s certain things they can’t do.

Elizaveta: Yeah. Louis XIV when he was around 20, he fell madly in love with a niece of the Cardinal of the time. And he really wanted to marry her and his mother and the Cardinal told him no. He was devastated but he couldn’t do it, he had to marry the niece of his mother because of the rules of dynastic marriages the kings had to obey. They seldom married for love. That’s just one example.

Zach: I’ve been watching some of The Crown– that show about the British monarchy and their families– and it’s like so much of that is about the limitations. They’re kind of trapped in this system, even as many people would perceive them as having a lot of power. That’s a good show about that kind of dynamic. It seems like reading your work and talking to you previously, it seems like a lot of this work leads back to the question of free will. Am I getting that right? And have you increasingly delved into the free will; the sticky, horrible, confusing topic of free will?

Elizaveta: Yes. Well, to tell you the truth, for a while, I wasn’t thinking about it a lot. I was just thinking about power and the term power, and thinking about when we have it when we don’t have it. And then I think its actually thanks to you, you brought me back to this idea of free will. I certainly knew about this whole debate and I learned about it when I was studying back in Russia in the College of philosophy because it’s a big philosophical debate, and it was kind of here and there in the back of my mind. But then when we were talking during our previous conversation two and a half years ago for the podcast of my book, “Media is Us”, and you said you don’t think that people really have free will and I was like I need to think about that. And I did think about it and I listened to your podcast, the other podcast, the interview with this really cool scientist—

Zach: Daniel Whiteson. Yeah.

Elizaveta: He’s a physicist, right?

Zach: Yeah.

Elizaveta: He wrote the book “We Have No Idea” which I read and I loved it about how little we know about the universe. In this podcast, you talk to him about free will and so I listened to it and I thought more about it and I read more about it. And I realized that actually, my theory of power is just another way of talking about free will, essentially. Because if we say that we have… Having free will equals having power, you know? Not having free will equals not having power. And as I said, I came to the conclusion that essentially, power always coexist with powerlessness. And to translate it into the free will conversation, it means that we don’t have free will in many instances, but in some instances, we do. Okay, maybe a better way to say it. The debate about free will is debate about determinism. Like, our actions are determined, and if so, how much they are determined by factors outside of our control. So my theory basically to translate into the terms of this free will conversation is saying that if determinism is true, there is a big part of determinism in our lives. But there is also an element of free will. And I’m a philosopher so I’m not going to give you precise numbers and tell you like, “In our life we have 95% of determinism or 50% of determinism and then the rest of it is free will.” I don’t know if we can ever answer this question, and that’s why it’s a philosophical question. Because to answer this question, we would need to take a specific person– say you– and then consider all factors in your life and everything in the world, essentially, because it could have. Anything could have influenced the way you are now and the way you live your life now. Things in the past from the beginning of the universes and… [chuckles] We need to consider everything and then think, “Well, okay, does that still have free will in this?”

Zach: Yeah, it seems like any philosophical question about people leads back to the whole free will concept eventually. If you follow it back, that’s kind of like the fundamental human mystery, right? It’s like we’re a part of a system. We’re part of a physical system, we’re made of physical things– leaving aside any religious spiritual questions, let’s just say. If we believe we’re like a physical system, we’re in a physical world with things around us, we can see the argument that there’s no free will because we are just an unfolding of physical things. But then it’s like you bring in consciousness and the feeling that we have free will and that we clearly can change things however we do that, that mystery of human nature, I feel like Foucault’s work and your work it’s kind of tackling this fundamental human mystery of us being part of a system but also feeling like we have agency, whatever that agency is. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yeah, us being part of the universe in general and with a bunch of different systems that we’re part of.

Zach: And even when you said for your theory, you think that there’s some whatever-it-is percentage of free will, but I think you could also frame it as there’s the system aspects, and then there’s the human individual agency. And maybe you could view that as some form of agency, even if you don’t believe in free will. It’s like that unit of the person is having some impact. Even if you didn’t believe it all in free will, it’s like you could theoretically separate the individuals from the overall system, if that makes sense. I was just trying to formulate it in a way that would make sense to somebody who didn’t believe in free will at all.

Elizaveta: Well, I don’t think actually that talking about impact helps. Because you could say that… Say a person comes to me and punches me in the face, they had an impact over me. I didn’t like it. I have a bruise now. Right? But then it turns out that they have a mental illness, you know, that their action was determined by their mental illness. So, just looking at the impact doesn’t tell us anything about what happened there. King can have immense impact on people around him, doesn’t mean that there is no element of power and powerlessness there.

Zach: Right. Yeah, true. True. Yeah. Well, you don’t have to tell me because you know where I stand on that stuff. And for anybody listening, if they want to listen to talk about free will, it’s not to say that I’m a firm believer that we don’t have free will, it’s more just like I find it unlikely. But I find life so mysterious; it wouldn’t surprise me if we have free will. Anyway, I just don’t want to sound like I’m overly certain on that idea or something. One thing that struck me about your work and the idea of power is that it seems to get at some really root debates in the political polarization sphere. For example, the conservative and liberal philosophies. And one thing I see there is I feel like… So for example, in our political landscape in America, for example, Conservatives philosophy is often framed as putting the emphasis on the power of individuals. They focus on, you know, “The individual has a lot of power, we should let them do what they want.” Whereas liberalism is more associated with putting the emphasis on the ways that people are influenced and controlled by their environment, and we can try to produce better outcomes by shaping their environment and helping them etc. And it seems to me like in the sphere of the political polarization, those two ideas have become unreasonably polarized. Because you have some people speaking as if humans are completely free creatures that aren’t influenced by the things around them on the conservative side and are offended by the idea that there could be some systemic influences on them that help explain their behavior or could help influence their behavior. And then on the liberal side, sometimes there’s this seeming offense of the conservative idea that the focus is on the individual’s freedom. And one example of this is that I think it’s unreasonably polarized. Because if you go to a therapist, for example, they’ll try to make you see the importance of taking responsibility for yourself for being person with agency. They’ll try to help you escape the idea that your problems are the product of your environment. You might be able to see those things, but the idea is to get you to be more at cause and less at effect. That’s kind of what I see. I think all of us have a sense that both of those things are true, that we’re both a product of our environment, that things lead to the way we are and influence us, but yet we also have this agency to control the environment however that happens, leaving aside the free will debate. That’s where I see an unreasonable polarization, and I think that the more reasonable less-polarized way to view it is like, “Yes, both of these things are true.” That kind of helps us see the arguments on both sides of some of these political debates where people are coming from because you can view both of those things as true. It’s like getting back to the fundamental mystery of being a person, right? It’s like we’re influenced by other things and yet we can do a lot. So I’m curious, is that something you’ve thought much about?

Elizaveta: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be able to speak for conservatives because full disclosure, I do identify myself more as a liberal. So I do… I am aware about a lot of ideas that are on the conservative side but my environment, people I interact with a lot, are liberals. So it’s easier for me to speak about what I observe in that environment. And in that environment, it’s interesting that you made this… I mean, I can certainly understand why you’re saying that Conservatives, for them the idea of individualism is big. Like, “It’s your responsibility. So if you are poor, it’s your responsibility,” kind of thing. I think it’s easy to associate conservatism with this vision.

Zach: Ragged individualism.

Elizaveta: Yeah, “If you didn’t pull yourself by your bootstraps, it’s your fault,” kind of thing. I’m sure there are people out there on the conservative side who say things like that. But speaking about liberalism, I actually see both of the ideas that you just mentioned represented there, but just really apply to different people. The idea is like, “Okay, so we have people who are oppressors and people who are oppressed.” Not everybody phrases it this way. Or people who have power and people who don’t have power. Marginalized, not marginalized. And dominant or… So the people who are suffering or who are disadvantaged by the system, the idea that I encountered is it’s important to acknowledge that those people, their decisions, their life, their worldviews are determined by factors outside of their control. That’s why we should empathize with them and help them. And even if they make some mistakes, say if they commit crimes, it’s because of the environment. And I agree with that because it’s true that if you are born in a poor neighborhood and you grow up with gangs and that’s the life that you know, you might also choose this path. And even if you make mistakes and really big mistakes, you still need to be able to get the second chance or whatnot, right? So when it comes to people who are suffering or who are marginalized, in the mind… Again, as I said of people in the liberal community, that’s how people who are marginalized are ever seeing it. But then we take people who are from the dominant groups or powerful groups, for them, a different standard is applied. So those people, they are individuals, they make choices, and they’re fully responsible. And that’s why we shouldn’t really empathize with them.

Actually, I remember when I was doing my second doctorate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, and I had this professor that was a great professor– I learned so much from this professor– but I remember I had this conversation with them that really puzzled me and I thought about it for a while. We were talking about gender relationships and inequalities that certainly do exist and I said, “Well, the way I see it is that there are some expectations and assumptions related to gender, and that they affect both men and women. Both men and women suffer from those limiting assumptions.” And the professor said, “Yes, that’s true. But men have power to change it, unlike women. Because they are in power. They are the powerful group, women are not the powerful group. So it’s up to men to change the situation, even if they suffer.” And I didn’t say anything because I needed to think about it. And I did think about it for a long long time and I thought, “Well, I don’t agree with that.”

Zach: It’s too simplistic a framing.

Elizaveta: Yeah. And that’s why exactly… That’s one of the conversations that sparked my ideas about power and the theory of micro and macro power that I mentioned already in this conversation.

Zach: Well, yeah, it makes me think of this conversation I had recently with Yakov Hirsch. It was about the Israel-Palestine conflict but on a deeper level, it was about how when we feel animosity towards people when we’re in conflict, we really lack empathy for the people on the other side who we see as doing bad things or abusing their power or whatever. It reminds me that because I think to your point, one thing that comes to mind is people on the left who will basically insult rich people and act like they’re clearly horrible people just because they have money. And it relates to this lack of empathy that we have where even from a functional standpoint of what is insulting them do, there’s a lack of empathy, which leads to insults, which leads to a lack of caring maybe on the rich fields part where they’re just like, “Well, if I’m going to be insulted by people, why would I help?” And it’s like leaving aside the fact that clearly there are rich people who do good things, and wouldn’t you want to encourage them to do the things you want them to do? So it kind of reminds me this lack of empathy people can have when they are in a dynamic where they feel the power isn’t balanced.

Elizaveta: Yeah. When we think about, well, somebody… They created the situation, they keep it going, they need to change it, it’s their fault. So this is this blame dynamic that I want to help more people see beyond, essentially.

Zach: Yeah, and it sounds cliché and spiritual to say, but the way I think of people is like they’re just me in another form. I could just as easily be them, it’s just a happenstance of chaos and randomness that they’re them and I’m me. I don’t know if that’s how you feel.

Elizaveta: Yeah, that’s an interesting way to put it and I think sometimes this way. I don’t literally think like they are me or I’m them, but I’m thinking how can I judge somebody if I don’t fully understand their circumstance? If I were born in their place and grew up in their environment… When we blame, we assume that free will is almost absolute. Like they chose to… It doesn’t matter what kind of factors are out there that influenced them, they made those choices. But I’m thinking that they’re all those circumstances outside of their control and if I were them, then it was very possible that I would have made those choices that they’re making and I might be disliking. So it’s not about saying oh, what they’re doing is okay. You brought up the example with rich people and said, well, some rich people could do good things. Well, some rich people might do things that are hurting other people, but it’s still not a reason to be like, “Well, they’re evil or they’re bad people.” And it’s not the same as saying what they’re doing is okay. There’s this excuse-explain explain-excuse conflation that I heard in a person doing a really meaningful work around polarization saying– I think his name was Robert Wright, I can send you a link later. But basically, that when we are explaining somebody’s behavior, it’s not the same as excusing it. And you can bring up a more famous figure, Martin Luther King, he was certainly very much fighting against inequalities and over the years, he became more and more adamant and more vocal in his calls for resistance. But at the same time, till his last days, until the end of his life, he was committed to the idea of non-violence; which is essentially the idea that you can resist and you can fight in, but you don’t have to do it through contempt or hate. Violence just breeds more violence and hate just breeds more hate.

Zach: Yeah, I think it so much relates to the political polarization thing because it’s trying to separate the contempt we feel for other people from the disagreements we have with other people. And I think that seeing other people as part of a system and being like yourself and having empathy for them, even as you may think that they are very wrong or even very dangerous and bad, I think it results in a better way of engaging with other people. And I see that as very much related to the depolarization work of reducing contempt. Is there anything… Oh, yeah, I wanted to ask you… It seems like from my perspective, you seem to be in an interesting space of work. Because like you said, you are politically progressive, as I understand it, but your work also questioned some common dominant liberal ideas and academia. For example, in your book, “Media is Us”, you started out that book with a story about some false distorted news in mainstream liberal-leaning media that was making the rounds that specifically was about an allegedly racist Dove soap ad. And you learned that it was a distorted framing and basically wrong framing of it. And you started the book out as a way to talk about the media failures that we perceive and that can make us angry sometimes and that we blame the media for. That’s just one example. And then your work in the power space is also kind of questioning what I think are simplistic ideas about power in the liberal academic space. I’m curious, is that how you see your work? And do you feel like you’d get more notice for your work if you weren’t pushing back on some of these ideas? Or how do you see that?

Elizaveta: Well, there’s a lot of different factors at play. I consciously chose to do my work outside of academia because I like to… There are a lot of limitations for doing scholarship in academia. You need to choose your field and you need to publish in certain journals and certain amount of things and write things a certain way. It’s certainly well intentioned, and it makes sense because you do want to people to be able to focus on some issue and dig it in data, or you want to be able to have good publications or they need to be structured in certain ways. But for me, it didn’t work. I like jumping between disciplines and ideas and drawing ideas from different sources and practices. Like I think about Martin Luther King but then I connect him to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. I think about philosophy and sociology and media, and that it can apply this to politics and parenting and art and everything. And I wanted to be able to just be free in what I write and how I write. So I decided I’m just going to do it on my own through this hypertext that I mentioned before. Honestly, I’m kind of very afraid to go out into the social media. You know yourself that there can be very unpleasant conversations happening there and where people might misinterpret me. I’m unfortunately very sensitive to that. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m just doing this on my own and sharing it little by little.” I’m really grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to share it with more people in this very helpful friendly and supportive space of this podcast. I think it fits perfectly the work that I’m doing. But then you can ask why am I afraid? It is connected to what I’m observing. I do think that some people would not be very receptive to this whole idea of empathy for everyone and trying to talk to people across divides. And you know it perfectly well from your experience. Right? You said that you feel like you’re losing some readers and listeners for you.

Zach: Yeah, the more polarization-related things I do for the podcast, the lower the viewership or the audience gets. [chuckles]

Elizaveta: Yeah, so you said. And I’m sure you had conversations on social media where people would accuse you or attack you…

Zach: Yeah, lots of hate for that stuff. Yeah.

Elizaveta: So there’s certainly something to your assumption that my ideas might go against some dominant ideas or people’s feelings. I don’t know if it’s necessarily just in academia, or in more general, the cultural climate. So yeah, it does go… I feel like it does go against some of those ideas.

Zach: Well, it’s like the whole power conversation. It’s like if the system isn’t ready for your ideas or anyone’s ideas, they won’t be boosted. It’s almost like the systemic qualities of, well, if the system changes in some sense, your ideas and you would have more power. I was just thinking of the systemic element of there’s a limit to what you can do. You’re dependent on the system and its overall vibe. Yeah.

Elizaveta: Yeah, and the system– and I just wanted to say because first of all, system sounds very cold and abstract. The system is just other people.

Zach: The network of people, yeah.

Elizaveta: People doing people doing stuff, understanding things a certain way, doing things a certain way, organizing their practices a certain way. And here’s where we can bring it to the idea of free will and say that it’s not just like, “Okay, well, I am powerless here and I don’t have free will to use in the situation and to change the system.” Actually, I feel like that’s what gives me the boost to keep doing what I’m doing. Because I feel like there are actually people out there like you and people that would be interested and would be receptive and might benefit from my framing. And if I’m doing what I’m doing and they’re doing what they’re doing, that’s how that system that you mentioned changes over time. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Elizaveta: Yeah, that reminds me of when I wrapped up my “Defusing American Anger” book, which is honestly way too bloated and I know that. It’s way too long. But I ended with thoughts about the fundamental conflict of that paradox of I do believe people have a lot of power. I feel like you, me, or other people have a lot of power. Because sometimes people can clearly change things. They have an impact, right? And it’s like the fundamental paradox of, “Yeah, I can feel that way at the same time as feeling like I or other people are part of this physical system of whatever it is and feel like I don’t think free will is likely,” but at the same time feel like, “Yeah, but I can do things.” That’s kind of like the fundamental paradox of these ideas. Maybe that’s a good place to wrap it up, unless you had any other any other thoughts.

Elizaveta: No, it is a great place. That’s why I framed my scholarship writing as trying to understand the paradoxes of power. Because I think it is a paradox. And it is very difficult to talk about, partially because I think that our human language is just not meant to discuss those things.

Zach: Yeah, we can’t.

Elizaveta: It’s either too simplistic, and then I find myself repeating myself using the same words. Like if you try reading Foucault, you probably fall asleep on the third paragraph because it’s so convoluted. But he does have some interesting ideas. If you reread him several times, you might get somewhere. So just like you said… My take on it is I have hope. Or I want to have hope. Maybe that’s part of how I’m using my power, is that I’m using it to hope. And I think that one thing that I realized about power is that power always has something to do with making an effort. If something happens to you, just like breathing in and out, it’s not a power because you need to… That happens to you, otherwise, you die. Right? But if you learn to control your breathing to influence your mood and calm down, this becomes a form of power. So you put an effort. And empathy is an effort, you know? And so I make an effort and sometimes it’s really hard to hope that we can get somewhere and that we can eventually make the world a better place for everybody. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Zach: That was a talk with Elizaveta Friesem, last name spelled FRIESEM. Her website is at If you enjoyed this talk, you might like that previous talk I had with her back in 2021 about her book Media Is Us. You might also enjoy the talk about free will, which is just before this episode. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it and learn how to support my work at I’ve got a book coming out soon about America’s toxic polarization problem called How Contempt Destroys Democracy; you can pre-order that on Amazon. 

Thanks for listening.