Some time ago I watched a two-year-old have a temper tantrum at a hotel pool. It was a textbook meltdown. His parents stood there at a complete loss for what to do. (As a parent, I’ve been there myself.)
My family and I had also been enjoying the pool, and I had been sitting next to the parents chatting with them. The mom had a PhD and had published both scholarly and popular work in her field, and the dad had an MBA from an elite business school and was currently a manager of a major money market fund. Their net financial worth was easily in the tens of millions of dollars. They had impressive social and political connections.
At one point during the child’s tantrum the mom turned to the dad and within my earshot said, “Why do I feel like our son is running the family?”
It’s an interesting question: according to commonplace criteria for power, these parents (individually and together) towered over their toddler: financially, academically, developmentally, socially, institutionally it was no contest; the power asymmetry–the hierarchy–was off the charts.
But if so, why was the little guy in charge? Why did the parents feel so powerless?
Why? Because power dynamics in social interactions are incredibly complex, far more complex than we might think–more complex, at least, than the (often) exclusively materialist (quasi-Marxist) conceptions of power found in our institutions of higher learning.
In the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when Toula, the protagonist bride, laments the fact that, as the man, her father is “the head of the house,” her mother humorously, yet insightfully, responds, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”
Power dynamics are complex–even in traditional hierarchical relationships.
It is not an overstatement to say that in literature written by proponents of various forms of both hierarchicalism and egalitarianism (but more so the latter) there is an incredible oversimplification–one could fairly even say an astonishing naïveté–regarding power dynamics in social interaction. In my estimation this gross oversimplification has significantly contributed to an overwhelmingly, even exclusively positive public perception of egalitarianism: it is the ideal for which we are all to aim in every sphere of social life. Conversely, this has led to an exclusively negative perception of any and all hierarchical relations.
And, as was argued in a previous post (Is Christianity Hierarchical or Egalitarian?), the ancient texts that the earliest Christians regarded as sacred–as the word of God–uniformly endorse hierarchical relationships. This led us (in a second post Hierarchicalism in the Bible and the Hope of Egalitarianism) to consider the hope of egalitarianism as an alternative, suggesting that, despite its initial attraction, it is in fact deeply flawed, even dangerous.
Consider the following comparison of hierarchalism and egalitarianism.
Here is a picture that captures how we conceive of hierarchy, or more particularly, patriarchy:
Stated (over)simplistically, as traditionally conceived, patriarchicalism necessarily involves the domination and exploitation of women by men. This domination and exploitation are masked and (unjustly) legitimized by the way they are incorporated (or “encoded”) into the very definitions of who women and men are and what they are supposed to do. It is always and everywhere evaluated negatively.
In (very generic) contrast to such patriarchalism is egalitarianism. As Westerners this is often how we conceive of egalitarianism:
(This picture was very deliberately chosen. Please, ask yourself: if this were America, who’s missing?)
Egalitarianism is regarded as overwhelmingly positive, regularly associated with inclusion, cooperation, fairness, privacy, respect, etc.
But as we watch the news and simply watch our own lives–families, relationships, marriages, etc., is this the reality?
In 2009 two professors from the University of Pennsylvania, Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, published a study provocatively titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”
The study asserts that in comparison with their predecessors 35-40 years ago women in the industrialized world today are more educated, better paid, have “an unprecedented control over” the ‘if, when, and how'” of child-bearing and child-rearing, and share more domestic responsibilities with their spouses than ever before, and yet the study concludes that “women’s happiness has fallen both absolutely and relative to men’s [happiness] in a pervasive way among groups . . . throughout much of the industrialized world.”
Why is this? Though offering some possible explanations, the researchers themselves are stumped–hence, the study’s title (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”).
To move from the statistical to the anecdotal. On a number of occasions I’ve heard stories like the following:
Referencing the very same study above, a London Times columnist, mother and self-described feminist, shared about how a friend (and publisher, mother and feminist) asked her one day over tea: “Do ever wonder if our generation of women has got it all wrong?” The columnist went on to say:
“The fact is, emancipation is not a one-way street. As with all complex progress, there’s a price to pay. In the case of women, it’s this: with no more barriers (the patriarchal conspiracy, corsets, the Pope), to hold us back, there is really no one left to blame but ourselves when life doesn’t turn out quite the way we had expected. That is the flipside of feminism: responsibility, uncertainty and a whole lot of self-doubt . . . . Maybe were sold a bit of a pup with the whole work/life balance thing; maybe equality is not the deliriously ecstatic state we imagined it to be. But if we are unhappy, at least it’s an unhappiness of our own making.”
Huh. So here are two feminists who pause over tea to reflect: where has this actually gotten us?
I would like to offer a very different picture of egalitarianism.
But before I startle the reader with that picture (yeah, I know, you can just scroll down), let’s start with this picture:
Oddly, this car has two steering wheels. As with the previous picture of egalitarianism, all parties present are happy (at least for now). This is how egalitarianism is usually conceived.
But here’s the thing: there is a reason that (almost) all cars have only one steering wheel. And that reason is blatantly obvious.
It’s the same reason that a naval vessel or a commercial airliner, regardless how large the crew, has only one captain.
Or what would you say if, at your favorite restaurant, the waiter informed you at the start of the meal that, instead of having one head chef oversee the preparation of your food, they were going to try out having five head chefs equally overseeing your meal preparations? (Isn’t there a saying about “Too many cooks . . . “?)
(Can I also say: I like the picture above because I know so many couples whose most bitter arguments–i.e., power struggles–have happened where? In the car. Sure, couples may get in smiling, but they get out seething.)
Here’s what seems to me to be an undeniable truth: regardless of how many steering wheels a car may have, only one person can drive the car. Crucially, egalitarianism maintains that power can be decentralized and then evenly (or justly) distributed, and then everyone will be happy. But if that really happened–if all passengers were given steering wheels (as well as gas and brake pedals), the results would be disastrous even if all parties were trying to work together.
(Interestingly, we could also ask: in this multi-driver scenario, after the inevitable crash, who should be held responsible? Would not every person vehemently deny culpability, insisting, “It’s not my fault!” And what are the chances that they would agree to take collective responsibility, confessing, “Wow, together we all just really blew it”? To return the bible, whom does God hold primarily responsible for familial and collective disobedience? Beginning with Gen. 3, whereas it is the woman who is deceived and is the first to eat the forbidden fruit, God squarely addresses the man first: “Have you [masc. singular] eaten from the tree that I commanded you [masc. singular] not to eat?” With disproportionate influence comes disproportionate responsibility.)
Here’s the key point:
Even when at its most sincere and well-meaning, egalitarianism does not (because it cannot) distribute power evenly: at least one person in the car will inevitably feel like they have a steering wheel (and pedals) that in reality don’t do much, if anything, at all. And that leads to feelings of being deceived and disappointed. They wonder:
Just who is in control? Who’s really driving the bus? Well, it’s hard to say.
And that’s really scary.
Egalitarianism can neither magically disperse power nor evenly distribute it. Rather, it disguises it. Recall this picture from above:
As alluded to in the previous post (via reference to the the U.S. Declaration of Independence), how is it possible that a nation that has long had at its center an explicit and emphatic discourse of egalitarianism and, as Alexis de Toqueville famously noted (yet not without serious concern), championed equality above all else nevertheless be scarred so deeply by slavery and racism?
Because the discourse of egalitarianism truly excels at disguising even the most egregious and aggressive forms of domination.
Ok, so egalitarianism can disguise power, but does it have to?
Why? Because egalitarianism operates using incredibly flawed and naïve thinking about how power “works”–as suggested by both the opening story of a child-centered family and by the analogy of the driver (and naval/airline captain and chef, to which we could add the military general, corporate executive, university department head, etc.).
But, surely, there is something wrong with the analogy of the driver. Perhaps the critical reader has been trying to deconstruct it? They should try. Analogies and stories gain their power from their ability to conceal.
But toss aside these examples (for a moment) and take a prime example of egalitarianism deeply embedded in Western culture: a jury, composed of, say, 12 persons who are each given one vote to cast, evenly distributing influence.
What could be a more straightforward example of the reality and beauty of egalitarianism?
But if one knows anything about jurisprudence (or human behavior), the reality is far more complicated. The amount of research that has gone into understanding the social dynamics of deliberating juries is vast. In a trial, lawyers on both sides expend remarkable resources in selecting and scrutinizing jury members, identifying which jurors will exert the most influence in deliberations and then tailoring their arguments to persuade those particular persons on the jury, confident that they will sway the rest of their fellow jurors.
From recent dialogue with a 20-something conversant in nighttime television, apparently, CBS has a new “comedy drama series” called Bull, based on this very premise. I’ve never seen it. But I can recommend curling up one night to watch the classic courtroom thriller 12 Angry Men or maybe even the movie adaptation of the John Grisham piece Runaway Jury–Gene Hackman kills it. But if you really want to learn something, a helpful summary of academic research on juries from the second half of the 20th century, called “Jury Decision Making: 45 Years of Empirical Research on Deliberating Groups” by Devine, Clayton, Dunford, Seying, and Pryce in the APA’s peer-reviewed journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, [7:3] 2001: 622-727, can be found here.
Now I want to offer what I think is a far more accurate picture of egalitarianism:
Egalitarianism not only disguises power, it often divides people. That is to say, egalitarianism polarizes. How so?
Egalitarianism identifies and demonizes any and all hierarchies, dividing parties up into either the dominated or the dominating, the oppressor or the oppressed, and seeks to deprive those who dominate of their power.
And it is precisely here is where egalitarianism gains its appeal: the very real and incalculable injustices against those in positions of weakness is leveraged to give egalitarianism an incredible emotional and rhetorical force.
A force that can, um, dominate.
In the name of justice, egalitarianism often uncritically identifies the one with greater influence and is altogether ready to identify them as an oppressor (how could they not be?). It then strips them of their power, so that it can then go . . . where? just magically disappear? be evenly dispersed?
Crucially, key questions get left unaddressed:
Who gets to decide who is oppressed and who is oppressor? Who gets to have the authority to deprive the oppressor of his (or her?) power? of how much power? Perhaps most crucial of all, how would we know when power has been justly (or “evenly”) redistributed–who gets to decide that and why them?
No wonder egalitarianism feels so innocent. So innocuous.
And (perhaps now?) so naïve. And fanciful.
In truth, the “either / or” conceptualization of oppressor / oppressed is incredibly–dangerously–simplistic. Consider the incredible power asymmetry between a newborn and its mother. Is this asymmetry necessarily indicative of oppression? Hardly. In truth, some of our culture’s most transformative, life-giving relationships–those of parent/child, teacher/student, coach/athlete–are quite strongly asymmetric. (Who often provided heroic leadership and mentorship for Afro-American communities in the Jim the South? Afro-American principals, teachers and pastors–and, no doubt, parents. See the beautiful and tragic accounts of their leadership and how it was taken from them in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation by Dr. Stuart Buck, Yale University Press, 2010).
Indeed, such a radical power asymmetry may well be indicative of overwhelmingly beautiful protection and maturation (what philosophy professor Thomas Wartenberg calls “transformative power”).
And perhaps this is, at last, the place to ask it: does power asymmetry necessarily imply inequality?
The French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault conceives of power in a more sophisticated way when he says, “Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads, they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising power.” That is, far from conceiving of power as overwhelmingly invested in titles or institutional authority or even individuals, power has many forms, faces and facets. (For an entry point into Foucault’s thought here, see “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” in The Final Foucault, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987: 1-20.)
Even the most casual observer can discern that there are significant and incredibly complex power dynamics present on any given playground, classroom, or counseling office.
Or in any given church congregation.
Even in the most explicitly fundamentalistic patriarchal church, power dynamics are complex. For example, on a church’s org chart (and budget) a non-ordained youth director may (sadly) be at the bottom of the totem pole, but if he (it is, presumably a ‘he’) has lovingly invested in the children of the church in a way that becomes beautifully evident to their parents, woe betide the well-paid, well-educated, power-preaching “senior” pastor who decides to let the “youth guy” go, because of, say, a perceived pattern of insubordination, for that senior pastor will soon be hearing from some very disgruntled parents, parents who give (or withhold) their tithes and offerings to the church.
Power dynamics, then, are astonishingly complex–something that most any leader intuitively, perhaps unconsciously, knows (and often laments). Not too surprisingly, Amy Allen, a professor of philosophy and gender/sexuality studies at Dartmouth, in seeking to distinguish three forms of power–viz., power-over, power-to and power-with, hastens to add that these “forms” of power are rarely expressed in some unadulterated fashion; parsing them is a complicated business.
Foucault, therefore, insists that anyone who holds out a utopian vision of human interaction in which power is either essentially absent or evenly distributed is, to use my own words, either hopelessly naïve or selling something. Indeed, such utopian visions are dangerous, because, as we’ve said, they will only push inevitable power dynamics and agendas below the surface.
The French philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida agrees, going to so far as to say:
“I do not think there are non-hierarchical relations . . . . The erasure of certain coded hierarchies always gives rise to a more stable, more symbolic hierarchy, the code of which still remains in the formulation. I do not believe in the erasure of hierarchy” (Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971-2001, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002: 21).
(Whatever their differences, Foucault and Derrida shared a deep suspicion of all claims to neutrality. In doing so, they unwittingly stood right next to Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” The possibility of neutrality is a fundamental, and flawed, presupposition of Western liberalism.)
Power, then, is inevitably present in human relations, and it will always be asymmetric in its distribution: in any group of persons, no matter how strongly it claims to bear the title “egalitarian”–be it a jury, a marriage, a church’s elder board–this power asymmetry will always be present.
And such asymmetry, when sustained over even a small amount of time, has a name: it’s called a hierarchy.
Here’s the bottom line: if asymmetry is inevitable, it means hierarchy is inevitable (if, as we’ll see, there is to be order).
Which means that egalitarianism is never achieved, because it can’t be. When we make it our goal, one or more parties will at some point object that they are not being treated equally, that they are being oppressed by another party or parties–and who is to say that they are wrong? And one of two things will result: either polarization, in which tensions will escalate over what “equality” looks like, or (temporary) settlement, in which parties will agree (often unconsciously) to function with an inevitably asymmetrical power distribution. (Little wonder that in the Federalist #10, when James Madison inquires into the origin of political factions, he not surprisingly answers: an obsession with equality.)
As one struggling husband in a so-called “egalitarian” marriage admitted to me, “Either I agree with my wife that our current arrangement is fair, or I disagree with her and am accused of being ‘domineering’ . . . . I’m confused.”
This husband felt powerless. Why? Because in some ways he really was.
In the common Greek language of the first-century Mediterranean world the word for ‘rule’ or ‘ruler’ is arke (or arkon). If a ruler, or arke, was overthrown, it was understood that this would result not in egalitarianism but rather in what is called anarkia.
Can you guess what anarkia means? Anarchy, or chaos.
(Have you ever been to a meeting at work, or to a nonprofit committee meeting, where there is no stated leader? What happens? Usually very little, since it’s a chaotic mess, until a leader emerges, and some progress is made.)
Overwhelmingly, the ancient Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day already understood what Foucault and Derrida had “discovered”–namely, that power asymmetry was inevitable. Indeed, many in the majority world today still understand this. Could that be one (very good) reason why various parties within the majority world are not so immediately taken by “our” ingenious and ever so modern Western construct called egalitarianism? (As Peter Morriss’s work Power: A Philosophical Analysis suggests, the very way in which power itself is conceived, not too surprisingly, differs among cultures.)
Could that be one reason they have far less trouble with the hierarchies found in the Bible? Could they actually know something “we” enlightened champions of liberalism don’t?
The English philosopher Roger Scruton thus keenly observes, “. . . the attempt to achieve a social order without domination inevitably leads to a new kind of domination, more sinister by far than the one deposed. The seeds of the new structure of power are present in the organization necessary for the violent overthrow of the old.”
If hierarchy is inevitable (and egalitarianism is impossible, only disguising power dynamics), what is to be done? We’ll consider that question in the next post, turning to the New Testament’s countercultural, counterintuitive yet ever so compelling conception of Christian community.
And, perhaps now not so surprisingly, this conception has absolutely nothing to do with egalitarianism and almost everything to do with hierarchalism. Wait, really?
Given the sheer lack of exposure to theories of power, below is a sample bibliography on the subject. These works hardly represent some sort of consensus on the issue, and even authors themselves have significantly developed and reworked their own theories (as, for example, Lukes did in his second edition).
Allen, Amy. The Power of Feminist Theory: Domination, Resistance, Solidarity (Westview Press, 1999)
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence (Mariner Books, 1970).
Lukes, Steven, ed. Power. Reading in Social and Political Theory, no. 4 (NYU Press, 1986).
Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Morriss, Peter. Power: A Philosophical Analysis, 2nd ed. (Manchester University Press, 2002).
Wartenberg, Thomas. The Forms of Power: From Domination to Transformation (Temple University Press, 1991).