Since publishing my last piece, I’ve continued to think a lot about the issue of hierarchy in relationships, and in the broader societal context.
I began, almost immediately, to question my assertion that hierarchy is unhealthy (for me, at least), and then realized that that’s partly just because I haven’t even figured out exactly what hierarchy means.
So I want to explore that more, explore how else hierarchy plays out in our lives, and other ways to perceive the world that still respect difference, but do not ascribe higher power or value based on those differences.
What is hierarchy and why do I want to challenge it?
The first context in which I learned the words ‘hierarchy’ and ‘horizontality’ was at the Purple Thistle Centre, a radical youth run arts and activism drop in centre located in East Van, Unceded Coast Salish Territory. It is run by a youth collective, funded by grants, free to all who use it, and as much as possible tries to stay ‘horizontal’ in its organizational structure.
Oftentimes there was (is, but I am writing from a place of having been on the collective for a long time and no longer being directly involved with the place) confusion about how we could call ourselves non-hierarchical when we had some clearly defined roles such as director, coordinator, mentor, intern and collective member, and especially when we considered that some, but not all, of those roles involved an exchange of money. In that context, having clearly defined roles was useful for organizing purposes, especially considering that not everyone had time/energy/desire to have roles with more responsibility and some shit just had to get done if we were going to stay open. The paid positions were generally temporary and whoever wanted to be involved in the decision making (or “hiring”) process could be, and we paid people based on an understanding/ideal that considering that we live in a capitalist context, people have to pay rent and have money to survive, so it is radical to support them in living their lives while doing meaningful and enjoyable ‘work’. We paid people when we were able (our funding was somewhat unpredictable) and hoped that by supporting them, they would continue to support us with their time whenever they could, even if we couldn’t pay them. This generally worked out really well, and we always had tons of amazing people supporting the space with their time for no other reward than fucking loving to be there and being stoked on what the space was about.
The point is, I think that the Thistle, in all it’s imperfection (it’s a radical learning centre! how do we learn? by trying and sometimes fucking up!), is a successful horizontally run organization. Some people put more time and energy into it, sometimes they were supported in doing so by being given money so they would be able to dedicate their time without concern for their basic needs, but overall no one had more POWER than anyone else. And that is what hierarchy is really about - power.
Inherently, (it is my belief that) there is nothing wrong with power. As long as no one has power over others, the existence of power is just fine and dandy. Ideally, however, our power comes from within ourselves; from our skills, our knowledge, our self-respect, our experiences, and so on. Think empowerment.
Things get sticky, though, when our power comes from external sources, like a cultural bias about what earns people power (read: societal values) and structures set up to keep some in power over others.
Not only does this pose the obvious issue of people abusing their power, exerting violence and force to keep it, doing just about anything to make it stronger... y’know, the usual, but it also has the effect of decreasing peoples’ internal sense of self-worth, because their identity as an important human being is now tied to this power that is coming from external (and therefore unstable) forces. Sound familiar? I mentioned that idea in my last piece on this topic, and many many people have talked about a similar issue in the context of education/childhood development and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation.
At the Thistle we tried our best to be open about the powers that come with certain responsibilities and roles, be pragmatic about the usefulness of those structures, and diffuse the potential for anyone having power over others by intentionally sharing skills and information, distributing money (which unfortunately is linked to power in capitalist society) in the fairest ways we could think of, and supporting people in taking on any level of responsibility that they wanted to. The moments when things worked out the best were when people were doing their role because it was exactly what worked for them, not something they felt needed to be done or was expected of them. Their power was then coming from inside, and they could use it wisely.
Now I’m going to make the awkward transition of trying to tie this back into a discourse on relationships.
In my life, just like at the Thistle, people take on different roles. Some take up much more of my time, support my ability to thrive in more tangible or consistent ways, or take up the little spaces which are super special. None of these people have the power to make or break me, or to push someone else out of the picture. I can respect these roles as different; I admit that for some people I would drop everything if they needed me (and not just those that I am sleeping with), some have been and will be in my life ‘forever’ but take up relatively little of my every day, and others may be in my life for just a brief sweet moment.
Right now, I deeply love one person with whom I have a romantic and sexual relationship, and I put more energy on a daily basis into the act of loving them than I put into most of my other relationships. Our relationship has value based on what we both get out of it, put into it, and love about it, not from a sense of being “primary” and definitely not of being sexually exclusive. By looking at it this way, even though some might consider this simply as an insignificant shift in terminology, I ensure that my position is something that I have control over. Ladders are unstable! I have no interest in standing on the top rung of a ladder, especially not one that other people (and countless uncontrollable factors... lets say wind) are climbing too, shaking it as they go. Here on the ground, it is up to me (in communication with others, obviously) what I put into my relationship, what I get out of it, what commitments I can agree to, what I want and I give meaning to.
This morning, this partner and I brainstormed a list of commitments; in other words, we are defining our roles in each other’s lives so that we are best able to continue to bring each other joy. It was a collaborative process, and allowed us to deconstruct what commitment means to US, not what it means in heteronormative monogamy or to anyone else. Just like at they do at the Thistle, we are creating roles to suit us, not fitting into what we think “partner” or “committed relationship” (or at the Thistle “mentor,” “director,” “youth” etc.) means to other people. We create our own meaning, and in that we have our own power, power which no one can take away from us.
Non-hierarchical or horizontal doesn’t mean “no defined roles,” but yes, it might mean “anarchy.”
It doesn’t mean we pretend that everyone has the same skills, knowledge, or impact. It means that we value difference, delve into honest complexity, and challenge our assumptions. We take on roles in which we will thrive, and challenge ourselves and each other to learn more and try new roles. We confront things like patriarchy, racism, classism and colonialism that challenge true horizontality in ways that we can’t always even see.
I feel that there is so much more to say about this, but it isn’t in me yet or maybe won’t be. I would love to hear other’s thoughts on this huge topic.
And in the interest of breaking down hierarchy, I want to remind y’all that I’m no fucking expert.
I think about relationship a lot, I write as a way to process information and ideas and because I like to share ideas with people, but I am no more knowledgeable or experienced on this than most of you. We all have relationships (did you hear the news? Relationship doesn’t mean sexual partnership!) and we all experience hierarchies every day. I like to write, so I’ve taken this on as a part of my role in the world. That role is no more or less valuable than any other.
For more information on the rad youth centre that I wrote about, check out http://purplethistle.ca/