Race, Gender, and all that

In a recent prior post, I attempted to engage some thoughtful members of the the modern, mostly left leaning, community and their notions of race, gender and equality. This attempt, for the most part … struck out. For I had thought some of my recent reading might provide some interesting grounds for discussion. But, I’m going to try again and in an attempt to lure in more readers, by turning the post on its head a bit.

A crucial postulate of race/gender theory is that hierarchy is bad. Hierarchy, which is by definition the coercive imposition of authority on others group. Normally the oppressor is the usual whipping boy, coined in my last essay in a phrase I particularly liked, the “pale male”. Being male, and “pale” myself then I’m one of those targeted as the “greater source of man’s evil” of our age, which is somewhat unsettling (annoying?). But, alas, I think the underlying hypothesis behind this notion is in error. That is the notion that hierarchy is “bad” or should be avoided. For instead hierarchy is instead a fundamental part of man’s makeup and not necessarily at odds with equality. Moreover, authority and coercion are opposed not conjoined concepts.

Hierarchy is found in every human grouping or society. Hierarchy is a natural outcrop of the different abilities which humans are gifted. Every single personal quality which one can consider, decisiveness, empathy, charisma, charm, various aptitudes (maths, logic, physical strength, agility) are given and developed in each of us to different measures. In any given pursuit, different people have also personally developed different levels of familiarity and expertise. This leads to natural hierarchy. If you begin a new pursuit, you will defer to an instructor. This instructor does not have authority because of coercion, but because you grant it to him. When men form community, natural leaders emerge. These men (or women) are given authority by those around them. Coercion has not (as yet) entered the picture.

Coercion is the corruption of authority. If a person, now more typically in a political sphere but domestic spheres may apply as well, lacks authority, that is the authority of his/her requests are not recognized then there are two options, his authority is broken or a subset of his followers who remain under his authority apply threat/coercion to exert and replace this lost authority. For if authority was granted then it would be obeyed in the absence of coercion or the threat of same.

Therefore we have the following propositions.

  • Hierarchy arises because of difference. Different talents in individuals yields to the natural impulse to grant those with greater talents greater authority in differing spheres.
  • Hierarchy is natural. Difference is undeniable. No human social or political groups have ever emerged without having hierarchy also emerge. Hierarchy arises when people acknowledge the expertise and authority of one or more within their number. These experts can vary by sphere and need not be the same person for all things.
  • Hierarchy does not deny equality. A teacher or instructor having authority in the classroom does not imply that the person regarded as a person is not equal to his students.
  • Lost of equality comes with coercion.
  • The source of this hierarchy is not coercion but difference.
  • Coercion and authority are opposites. Coercion is a sign of the breakdown of authority not a feature of authority.

So therefore, if authority is not linked to coercion and hierarchy is a natural part of man’s makeup it seems to me the gender/race theorist has some re-working to do for it will not do to a priori reject hierarchy nor authority out of hand as being wrong. See the above linked essay for some notions of how Christian Trinitiarian theology might impact the consideration of hierarchy and authority and its solution from an ontological perspective.

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15 comments

  1. Who opposes hierarchy? I’m curious as to who you’re alluding to.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,
    The easiest group to identify is the feminist theorists who rail against “the patriarchy”, but I think race theory as well lines up their arguments sometimes in similar fashion. What I was thinking is that there is an underlying assumption that equality and hierarchy can’t abide together and that therefore hierarchy is to be avoided.

  3. What I was thinking is that there is an underlying assumption that equality and hierarchy can’t abide together and that therefore hierarchy is to be avoided.

    I’ve never heard that, but maybe you’re right. Seems like people’s real complaint is about the abuse of power, though, not power itself.

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    I’d agree the real complaint should be about the abuse of power. But it seems to me the complaint is not that the “patriarchy” (or the “?? of the white male”) abuses power but that it exists in the first place.

  5. History reveals that it’s pretty much inevitable that when one group has power over another, the other is oppressed. As such, an actual patriarchy or whites-only power group can be seen as inherently problematic.

  6. Mark says:

    JA,
    Well, that’s not the fault of “hierarchy” as such, but at the difference vs division problem.

  7. Kate says:

    Mark, in this post you characterise the error of “race/gender” theorists as being one of misunderstanding of the ‘true’ nature of hierarchy. That is, you have stated that in your view such modern theorists view hierarchy as
    “by definition the coercive imposition of authority on others in a group.”
    I would actually argue that most critical race or gender theorists characterise the above as oppression rather than hierarchy, or at least call it “an oppressive hierarchy.” As I understand it, hierarchy is simply any system of rank, where something or someone is rated more highly, the higher up they are. Where this is enforced through coercion, it becomes oppressive: you identify this enforced hierarchy as not being “true” hierarchy, but actually signifying a breakdown in authority, which you see as being granted by those ‘under’ the person in the position of authority. (In this view, you’re not far from Foucault despite your professed lack of knowledge re: postmodernism..)
    I don’t think, following your definitions, that critical race/gender theorists tend to say just ANY form of hierarchy is bad. If I needed to learn a new language, say, I would not have a problem deferring to the authority of a native speaker of that language. However, I do think that when structures of power are involved, we can trace aspects of coercion, which thus undermine the idea that those structures are embodying the ‘natural hierarchy’ you are talking about.
    The point of departure between your outlining of the nature of hierarchy, and many, for example, feminist theories which critique it, is perhaps more to do with your ideas on authority, and how it is maintained within a society.
    I’m curious, because you allude to the ‘difference vs division’ problem above – but I’m still not quite clear on what that is. Forgive me if it is an ecclesiastical notion as I’m not well versed in such things. I wonder if you could explain further.

  8. Kate says:

    OK Mark, sorry, I have reread the other post and you do explain difference/division, although I admit I am not familiar with the writers you mention.
    I guess I would disagree with seeing the ‘problem of difference and division’ as ontological in nature, at least insofar as it applies to differences and divisions between races/genders. Most of the differences and divisions assigned to people on the basis of race or sex seem to be socially constructed to me, varying as they do over historical periods or across different cultures. Thus, for example, ‘differences of ability or learning’, whilst partially influenced by an individual person’s genetic inheritance, can be seen to be problematic insofar as it gets applied to groups.
    Furthermore, if you are following Jouvenal (who, again, I confess I am not familiar with) by saying that “an entity has authority is when it’s instruction or command is obeyed willingly” then I would have to ask you what your definition of coercion is, because I suspect it might be different from mine.

  9. Mark says:

    Kate,
    My plane is not boarding. I’ll write a longer reply to this later, there’s a lot you’ve written in a few words.

  10. Kate says:

    No worries! Indeed, thanks for taking the time to reply.

  11. Mark says:

    Kate,
    I try to reply to every comment (I don’t get the traffic to the point that’s impossible), except if I feel I’m just beating a dead horse or have nothing new to offer.

    I understand the notion that gender/race theorists have no objection with hierarchy, only hierarchy when it is coupled with coercion. But, I’m a little in doubt of that. Your insight that it may be it be how we define “coercion”, but still I’m wondering if that’s completely right. Patriarchy, I suggest, is rejected by feminists with or without coercion, e.g., my guess is that feminists would dismiss the example represented by these women girl-talk.

    Jouvenel is a good read, … I borrowed it when I read it a few years back, and I’ve been dredging my memory for ideas for some time (actually today I broke down and ordered my own copy so I can actually copy quotes instead of relying on my faulty memory). The basic notion is that the sovereign is granted authority those who submit to the same, by force of personality, belief and trust in his wisdom and so on. The founders of the US for example, had authority by this manner. Through the written word and the institutions they establish that authority/sovereignty is transmitted down through generations. A so-called (misnamed) authoritarian state uses coercion to rule because it lacks authority (which is why I note it’s misnamed). Threat of violence (and literal violence) and fear must be substituted for authority in those states. I think that notion of coercion works other social situations (family for instance).

    On the difference/division problem (does it have a ontological or ethical solution), I’ll be writing more as I’m not quite finished with the Zizioulas’ book and have barely scratched the surface of Sartre (which I’d hoped to read “at the same time” for comparison).

  12. Kate says:

    I’ll wait on your next comments re: the difference/division problem. But if you’re seeking to understand feminism, then can I suggest you read De Beauvoir as well as Sartre?
    Thanks for the tip on Jouvenal. I’ll definitely look into it, if I can, though it’s a little difficult for me to get English language books where I live.
    I wanted to raise a couple of preliminary points from your reply.
    I would define coercion (in the sense of an unjust hierarchy) as not simply involving the threat of violence (implicit or explicit) but also the threat of emotional violence, of the withdrawal of love/care. I guess this would apply on the interpersonal level, in families, and I think that is a large part of our socialisation into gender roles.
    In that sense, I could critique the choices of the women from ‘girl-talk’ as not being entirely free. However, I would respect their right to choose their own religion and way of life – I don’t think feminism is about restricting women’s choices! It all gets a bit more complicated when you start to talk about families, and the rights of children of course…or if you are considering the question of an ideal society…I think most feminists have a problem with the more conservative ideas of family when they feel those roles or choices are being ‘imposed’. Patriarchy is not just something that men impose on women.
    I’m not an expert on the history of the US, but I would have thought that your example of ‘the founders of the US’ having a pure or true authority is problematic in terms of critical race theories. That is, it only applies if you consider the colonies to be the US as is. I’m pretty sure that critical race theory would point out that the indigenous peoples did not submit to the natural authority of the ‘founding fathers’ without coercion etc.
    BTW I found an online article, well, an overview of Jouvenal’s works called “Bertrand de Jouvenel’s melancholy liberalism” online, by someone called Brian C. Anderson. It’s listed at the bottom of his wiki page. Since I’ve not read the original works, I don’t know if it’s an accurate summary, but it seems interesting.

  13. Mark says:

    Kate,
    On Jouvenel and Engilsh, as you’ve likely discovered, the English versions are translations, he wrote in French originally, just in case French texts are easier than English to obtain where you reside.

    I’ll add De Beauvoir to my list then. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is there stimulated by the direct existential references and comparisons in Zizioulas (from Maximus).

    From where I stand, it seems to me that the women at girl-talk are not coerced. Saying such is even perhaps a little condescending toward the self-perception of their own condition, i.e., intimating that those women are not perceptive and aware of their being coerced. It seems to me they embrace their role instead. Although, I must say, my reading in Zizioulas recently has given me the idea that both the “egalitarian” and “complementarian” (how the gender “discussion” is cast in ecclessial circles), are both wrong. That is to say, the hierarchy as demonstrated by the Trinity, being one of hierarchy which exists with and supports freedom, equality, and love between members is what is needed and the complementarian/egalitarian debate misses the point.

    I wasn’t trying to point out the US as a pure or true authority, just to show how authority can exist past the duration of the life of a particular man (or men) through writings and law.

  14. Kate says:

    Hi Mark
    Sorry to not reply sooner, I was a little busy.
    You’re right to identify the issue of autonomy/free will re: the women at girl talk as a tension within feminism. I think this applies to any theoretical system which seeks to explain how we may be constrained by social forces, and it’s picked up a lot by people who don’t agree with that analysis. For myself, I tend to see theories arguing from essentialist positions as more problematic for the issue of free will.
    As for whether coercion exists regarding your example, I would ask: what would the likely consequences be, for these women, if they rejected the ideology behind ‘biblical womanhood’? What would the consequences be for their daughters? I don’t think it’s necessarily patronising to suggest that these women are constrained in a different way than, say, men of the same faith/belief. And I am not saying that the women of ‘girltalk’ are particularly constrained, where other women may not be. One might look at the example of, for instance, a women working as a prostitute who claims she is not coerced and that it is a free choice. It may be a free choice for her, given the existing opportunities in her life as she sees it. But is that a reason not to question the social system which conspires to limit her choices, or to make that particular choice the most attractive?
    I am still interested in your notion of a hierarchy which co-exists with equality, and I hope you will delineate this further when you’ve had a chance to finish your reading and formulate it. I think you may be onto something with that. I’m most interested to hear how it will differ from complementarian viewpoints. And whether it will be helpful for non-Christians!

  15. Mark says:

    Kate,
    I’m guessing the consequences might be less than you’d imagine. They are in America after all. “Changing” their viewpoint of course may be difficulty having gotten married in a situation where going in they and their husband(s) both believe the the correctness in their interpretation of Biblical womanhood. However, if one of their unmarried daughters grows up and “falls away” my personal experience with that sort of situation in Church settings is that understanding is far more common than not ala Monica/Augustine.

    You may be interested in my post “Applied Ontology“.