living towards liberation: unmaking hierarchy

this post is part of a series about imagining and creating collective liberation. for more information, read the series intro post.

hello beloveds, i’ve been thinking a lot lately about unmaking hierarchical power structures. i believe very strongly that hierarchies are morally and ethically wrong. systems which give people power over others shouldn’t exist. in a collectively liberated future, they wouldn’t.

Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in her book The Body is Not an Apology that the hierarchy of bodies in our current culture is oppressive. racism places a white body higher on the hierarchy than a black body. ableism places an able body higher on the hierarchy than a disabled body. cissexism places a cis body higher on the hierarchy than a trans body. all oppressions, Taylor shows, can be articulated this way — as coming back to body hierarchy.

the truth is that all bodies are of equal and immutable inherent worth. placing bodies — and the people within them — on a hierarchy is an oppressive lie. hierarchy is a tool of oppression.

hierarchies are also our most common organizational structure: people in management — or “leadership” — positions have power over people in non-managerial — or non-leadership — positions. (you may have heard this articulated as the ruling class having power over the worker class.) organizations that use this structure include non-profits, religious institutions, corporations and other businesses, schools, and many others, though they don’t have to and some don’t. those higher-up positions are harmful — to the people in them and to the people positioned “below” them.

hierarchies create a need for power-hoarding (a characteristic of white supremacy culture) instead of power-sharing; once someone has power, they are pressured to do anything they can to keep and increase it, which necessitates stopping others from having it.

a horizontal structure — i.e. one that does not have hierarchy — places all members of an organization on equal footing. this is a lot more ethical because it allows for people to have power with others rather than power over. it also still allows room for experts: some folks have specific knowledge or skillsets that others don’t and we should rely on their wisdom, but it doesn’t mean that they should have power over others or be paid more than others (we all are equally worthy of survival and of the tools we need to achieve it).

horizontal structures require a lot of learning, tending, and care from their members, but destroying dominant paradigms always does and is always worth it.

Taylor teaches that we must root the body hierarchy out of ourselves to root it out of the world. here are some of the ways that i’ve been thinking about that we can unmake hierarchical culture in ourselves and in the world:

  • name hierarchy when you see it. name it and call it bad, immoral, unethical, harmful. suggest alternatives
  • if you have information, share it
  • learn about, learn how to use, and use non-hierarchical decision-making methods like consensus. use them in your personal life. use them in your professional life
  • admit your mistakes and learning curves freely
  • acknowledge areas where you lack expertise. uplift and rely on the expertise of others
  • do not gatekeep, examples of how not to fall into common gatekeeping traps below:
    • make sure that any role you play in a system can be played by someone else, that the information and tools are readily available to them to be able to do so
    • if someone comes to you for help and you know a resource that can help them, direct them to that resource. do NOT access the resource for them, unless specifically requested to do so by them after you’ve made sure they have everything available to use to access it without you. (if you are their access, access the resource on their terms)
  • be assured of your own worth. your expertise, experience, and wisdom are different than other folks’; they are not worth less than others’. all wisdoms have their relevant contexts.(shout out to Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology again for this one. knowing and being confident in our own worth is a way of ridding ourselves of the hierarchy by removing our compulsion to move our place on it)

unmaking a hierarchy from inside one, especially as someone on the lower rungs, is a huge task at this moment in time and you’ll need to honor your need for rest as you undertake it. but even small actions that chip away at it are meaningful and necessary. i’m with you and if you have other ways you’re working to unmake hierarchy, please tell me in the comments!

want to support this project? become a patron at patreon.com/kymagdalene. or toss me money for a thai tea on venmo, @Ky-Magdalene.