Friday, 8 February 2013

Relationships as Microcosms of Culture: Hierarchy Part 2

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

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Relationships as Microcosms of Culture: Hierarchy

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of relationships as microcosms of culture. I think there are endless possibilities of directions to go on that, and I hope to get to some more of them, but I'm also interested in compiling a zine on the topic, from many voices. If you're interested in writing (or talking to me) about how relationships reflect capitalism, class, racism, patriarchy, "democracy," nation states, or any other cultural institution/phenomenon, I'd love to hear from you!

The following doesn't really get into hierarchy on a broader level than relationships, and therefore doesn't really show how this is a microcosm effect, but I think you probably all can look around you and see how the issues of hierarchy apply to your daily life. Anyway, blogging is an infinite resource so it's okay that I don't cover it all in this one post.
So here goes-

Hierarchy vs Horizontality, not Monogamy vs Polyamory

I’ve been thinking a lot about monogamy and polyamory lately, about what does and does not work for me, and a common thread keeps coming up - that of hierarchy.
I don’t think that either monogamy or polyamory are superior to the other. What I know, is that any relationship model based on the idea that certain relationships (usually the ones involving sex or “romance”) are more important or of greater inherent value, really fucks with my head.

While the word monogamy generally gets used to mean the condition of having only one sexual and romantic partner at a time, polyamory or non-monogamy means the condition of having multiple sexual and romantic partners at one time, or at least the freedom to do so.
Neither, fundamentally, implies a necessary hierarchy. That said, our culture has ascribed a whole host of additional meaning onto the term monogamy (often used as if synonymous with “committed relationship”) which I personally find so difficult to shut out, that I must avoid the term so as to avoid the myths and biases that go along with it.

What are some of those myths? That in a “committed relationship” it is wrong to desire sex or “romance” from people other than your one partner. And not just sex, but also certain kinds of support and care, certain kinds of hang outs, a high level of excitement, or pretty much any other super awesome thing
(at least if it is perceived that the other person in these roles could possibly be attractive/attracted to you - from here we get a whole bunch of subtle homophobia and so on...).
That true love means that one person can pretty much satisfy all your social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs, and that if you are wanting it is because you do not love as much as you should, OR because your partner is just not perfect enough. Again, getting bits of these needs met from people who are perceived as out of the question for you to be attracted/attractive to (read: not a threat to this ridiculous hierarchy) may be acceptable.
Add that commitment is synonymous with sexual exclusivity, and that love is a finite resource which we must hoard.

Now, this last one, about love as a finite resource, is complicated. I actually don’t ascribe to the "love is an infinite resource" idea, and I’ll explain why.

First of all, how can we talk about any of these issues without figuring out what we mean when we talk about love? My definition is ever evolving, but is currently heavily influenced by the words of bell hooks in All About Love.
She suggests that love is an action, not a feeling. To love is to nurture someone’s spiritual growth.
Spiritual is a word that I don’t always connect to, so I think of loving as the act of nurturing someones personal growth; challenging them with kindness, compassion, and deep self-reflection so that we ensure we are not simply trying to make them grow like a bonsai bush into our favourite shape.
Many people think of love as a feeling, and I think there’s room for that within the discourse as well. But it’s not a feeling independent of the action. You could think of it like “runner’s high.”
There is no limit to the potential for the feeling of runners high for any individual or for the world, but you can’t experience runner’s high without running. Can you run infinitely? I certainly can’t. So to feel love, I must be doing the act of loving. To do the act of loving, I must have the time and energy to honestly nurture someone’s personal growth. This is a fairly energy intensive activity in my experience, and just like I run out of breath when I’m running, I use up all my loving energy sometimes and need to recharge alone, or in less love intensive social interaction.

Okay, time to return to the original topic of this post: hierarchy.
The main reason that monogamy and it’s cultural meanings (read: myths) fuck with my head, is that it reduces the value of the relationship to the maintenance of the hierarchy associated (through those aforementioned myths). I know folks who identify as monogamous and do not ascribe to those hierarchical ideas, and I’m super impressed and think that’s fucking great. The way my brain functions, I ascribe huge meaning to words and have a really hard time disassociating from the meanings that are culturally ingrained, so I can’t use the word monogamous without internalizing the cultural values that go along with it. I quickly associate so strongly with the relationship and with my partner, that I lose my sense of self, and my sense of self-worth other than that implied by the hierarchy. And because (in my experience) that hierarchy is VERY unstable (because we can’t actually be everything to our partner, or their absolute priority in every way, or the only person they find attractive, and so on) I start to feel very unstable myself. And that fucking sucks.
So, although I’ve been learning about non-monogamy and practicing it in different ways since I was a teenager, I still tend to forget it all when I really like someone, and start believing the myths again. I think, “oh yeah, i know i’ve identified as non-monogamous for 4 years, but that’s just ‘cause i didn’t like those people as much as i like this person (read: when love is true, hierarchical monogamy is magically realistic)” but also “well i don’t want to throw all that cool poly stuff out (or, my partner likes someone else so i better be okay with it) so we’ll be primary partner model non-monogamous (read: hierarchically non-monogamous).”
and then I face all the same issues around unstable hierarchy, only with the twist of putting my self (semi-) consensually in the position of constantly facing the threat of my partner meeting someone who will climb the ladder of hierarchy and replace me.
And then I fall apart and beg my partner to be monogamous so I don’t have to face that fear all the time, but that only makes me feel even needier, less stable as an individual, stronger in my identity as a partner not a person, AND like I am indebted to my partner for sacrificing their other desires to calm my nerves, which isn’t working anyway. Read: the past 1.5 months of my life.


I need to change the framework, create a new world, not try to change or fit into the flawed one I’ve been born into. Why would this be true for all my other beliefs, but not relationship? I don’t believe that by making capitalism “green”  we will solve the problems of infinite growth on a finite planet, so why would I believe that making hierarchical relationships “open” could solve the problems of placing hierarchy on something as complex as human relationship?

I am not advocating for relationships without conditions, or commitments, and if one of those commitments is that you and your partner save much of your loving energy or all of your sexual energy for each other because you don’t have enough of it to spread out too thin, then that’s just fine. I do think that most of us do have it in us to love more than one person, and that not all loving relationships need take up tons of time and energy (and none will ever look just like another). Regardless, a relationship that includes sex, or “romance,” or a lot of love, isn’t necessarily any more fundamental to a person’s thriving than their relationship with themselves, with friends whom they have a major intellectual connection to, someone who is very easy to be around when they are low energy... etc! All of these kinds of relationships are important.

Why have our conversations about relationship models so often been reduced to a comparison/contrast of monogamy and non-monogamy/polyamoury? I see this as a huge simplification. It's the underlying values that change the issues and our experience, more than the shape our relationships actually take. As with most things, I think we all benefit from a willingness to recognize the complexities of ourselves and the world. Relationship is too fundamental to human experience to allow it to fall into the pit of things we'd rather not deeply examine.

Everything I've written above has been greatly influenced by reading and conversation.
If you're one of the (many!) people I've spoken to about relationship recently, thank you.

Here's some of the writing that influenced my ideas, and that I think is super valuable as further exploration:

on hierarchy:

on love:
All About Love by bell hooks

on commitment:

a song i've been listening to on repeat (not that is is what Feist had in mind...):