We are surrounded by hierarchies.* They are as ubiquitous and as inescapable as the air we breathe. And almost all of them are unethical. Harmful. Abusive.
It doesn’t have to be that way. While hierarchies will always contain the possibility of great harm, they can also be ethical. Healing. Freeing, even.
Hard to believe?
I don’t blame you, but I bring to this discussion a not-common background. I come from years of 24/7 dominance/submission relationships. I have spent more years with other kinksters discussing how best to make our D/s relationships just that: ethical, healing, and freeing – for everyone involved.
Are all D/s hierarchies beneficial? Of course not! If they were, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking about how to make them so. But all D/s hierarchies are supposed to be two things that put them way ahead of most other hierarchies: chosen and visible.
Humans form hierarchies as naturally as we breathe. Put a group of people together for any length of time, and we will form a hierarchy. Most of these hierarchies go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Invisible hierarchies. I see these all the time in intimate relationships. There is always someone who has the final say. Unless the people involved are fighting about it. Then you end up with social infighting over who will have the final say.
In intimate relationships, this infighting is most visible in fighting over chores. As The Polyamorous Misanthrope said some years back, fighting over chores is almost always a cover for power struggles in the relationship.
That’s not to say that the same person always has the final say. In intimate relationships, I often see power divided by area. One person always has the final say over where they go for dinner. If this person doesn’t agree, it doesn’t happen. Another person controls what food is bought at the supermarket – and thus brought into the house.
“But!” you say, “I/partner does the food shopping because that works best for us! That isn’t about power and hierarchy.”
Do you think the fact that you agreed person A would do the shopping because they have flexible work hours erases the power that gives them? How much power will vary, of course. In some homes, where it’s easy for anyone to pop out to the corner store, that power is minimal.
It still exists.
In other homes, the person doing the shopping has significant power. My own home is a good example. My nesting partner can’t get to the store on her own. If I don’t want something from the store here, it won’t be here.
That practical power could be overruled by social power. If I did all the shopping, but my partner held social control, I might not bring anything home without their approval. That social control might be ethical or unethical. The unethical version we see in many abusive relationships, where the victim has been coerced into abiding by the abuser’s rules. An ethical version would be if my partner was a nutritionist and I agreed to let them design our nutrition plan. In that case, I would choose to give them that power — to decide what I buy at the store.
Of course, in both those cases, it isn’t an invisible hierarchy anymore — it’s a visible one.
At least to the people involved.
Though many people still won’t think of it as a hierarchy.
Because it doesn’t feel like what people think of when they say ‘hierarchy.’
What Is Hierarchy?
Many people think of hierarchy as a big, massive thing that is imposed on us. Something from the outside that fucks us over with restrictions and power.
But that’s not what hierarchy is. Or at least, not what it needs to be.
At its simplest, hierarchy is a method of organization.
Let’s imagine a garden that’s 10 miles square. Maybe a reforestation project or something.
It’s a huge garden, too big for any one person. But there’s a big group of people willing to work this garden. You could divide the garden up into lots — everyone gets so many square feet to take care of.
But then there is no one seeing the ‘big picture.’ Everyone is focused on their own little plot. You could try to rotate people from one garden patch to the next. This gives everyone a better idea of how the wider garden works, but no one would get an in-depth understanding of their own area and what it needs.
So what if you break into teams? Each ten-person team has nine team members assigned to a specific area and one person whose job is to keep up with everything in the team’s region.
The folks assigned individual areas are experts in their area, so maybe they make those decisions. And the tenth team member is the only one who knows the whole region, so the tenth team member will make decisions that impact the wider area.
You’ve created a hierarchy. This hierarchy is no more or less than an efficient way to organize a massive effort. No value judgment, no implication of who is ‘better’ or ‘more important.’ Everyone in this hierarchy has a specific role, with power and responsibilities within that role.
Unfortunately, we usually apply value judgments to hierarchy.
Maybe we insist on a ‘top down’ view — the tenth team member is most important/special because they cover the widest area — the team lead. Or we might take a ‘bottom up’ view — the individual team members are the specialists who are important for their knowledge, and the tenth team member is an assistant who ‘just’ helps them coordinate.
Neither of those views is true. Neither of them is false. Neither of them is inherent to the hierarchy.
But Hierarchies Are Harmful!
I promise you, every tabletop game I have ever played in had a hierarchy. (The DM was in charge.) None of them were ever harmful.
I was lucky in that — many players have dealt with shitty DMs. But even then, players can walk away from a game with a shitty DM.
Most hierarchies are nonconsensual. That alone, with no other issues, would make them harmful. And most hierarchies have many other issues.
Let’s take the US school system as a hierarchy.
The US School System
The US school system is a top-down hierarchy by society’s value judgment. It is also a hierarchy where people ‘lower’ in the hierarchy are actively stripped of their power and agency. That’s usually called ‘top-down’ also. (And if I keep writing about this topic, I need some new terminology. For now, let’s roll with it as best we can.)
The US school system was not invented for the benefit of students. It was created to benefit employers who wanted trained workers. It has also become a ‘daycare.’ We saw this clearly during the brief time that everyone took COVID seriously. Many argued that students needed to keep going to school even if no teachers were available because otherwise, parents had no one to watch their kids.
Schools are a tool for propaganda and forced assimilation. Any homeschooling family can tell you how much criticism they have faced for failing to ‘socialize’ their children through public schools. Not that our children are failing to get an education, or that our children should get a chance to play team sports or the art and drama and STEM opportunities it is hard to offer from home. But that they won’t be ‘socialized.’
Teachers, many of whom care about educating their students, struggle to teach under poor pay, poor education themselves (most grade school teachers don’t actually know the subjects they teach), lack of community support…
So kids are forced into this hierarchy that they are told is for their own good (but really isn’t). Teachers are tricked into this hierarchy wanting to help students (but can’t, and are abused themselves). Administrators are often teachers bumped upstairs, hoping to find a way to fix the system… and frequently doomed to fail. And the hierarchy continues all the way up to the politicians in the state and federal departments of education. These people (in theory) see the ‘big picture’ of the school system. More often, they see the personal advantage they get from controlling the system. Advantage they get by using their power in the hierarchy to benefit people who aren’t part of the hierarchy — parents and ‘taxpayers.’
This is as if, in our imaginary garden, the tenth person controlled the team bank account and used it to buy themselves 5-star dinners and vacations instead of tools for the team.
And then they blamed the rest of the team when the progress goals weren’t met!
This is the type of hierarchy we are used to living with and under. This is what most of us mean when we talk about hierarchies and the harm they do.
What Makes a Healthy, Ethical Hierarchy?
I called hierarchy a form of organization before, and it is. But it is a form of organization that creates relationships. If you and I are in a hierarchy (just the two of us or as two among many), then we have a relationship with each other.
A healthy, ethical hierarchy has the same requirements as a healthy, ethical relationship:
- Everyone must consent to be there
- Everyone’s voice must be heard (or not heard) as they prefer. (That is, no one should be talked over, and no one should be pressured to speak.)
- Everyone’s needs and desires must be taken into account and addressed as best possible.
- Everyone must have the ability to set boundaries, to have those boundaries respected, and to have honest acknowledgment if those boundaries cannot be met within available resources.
- Everyone must be able to affect the structure of the relationship/organization.
- Everyone must take responsibility for their own needs
- Everyone has a responsibility to set reasonable expectations on the relationship/hierarchy
- Everyone has a responsibility to respect others in the relationship/hierarchy
And as any polyamorous person can tell you — the more people you add, the harder it gets. A fully ethical, healthy hierarchy may only be possible on a small scale. Up to a few hundred people if everyone works at it.
That doesn’t mean that any large hierarchy is doomed to be abusive and toxic. There’s a wide range between ‘fully ethical and healthy’ and ‘abusive and toxic.’ But the more people there are, the harder it is for everyone’s voice to be heard and everyone’s needs to be met.
We can still work for healthier and more ethical hierarchies. Perfection may be beyond humans, but we are experts at persistence.
A Historical Oddity
In the Early Modern Germanies (and, I believe, other areas ruled by the Holy Roman Empire), when a noble died, their subjects had to swear fealty to the heir. The heir would ride around the countryside taking oaths for several days. If they failed to, they might inherit the personal property of their predecessor but not the right to rule the territory. If they took too long about it, someone else could sneak in (or brazen in) and pick up all those oaths.
Now, for all practical purposes, most people were forced to swear. Knights and soldiers were standing by to enforce it. Some people may have refused to swear, but self-preservation meant it couldn’t have been common.
Still, we see here the hint of a system that recognized the individual’s right to consent. The new lord couldn’t command their fealty: it had to be given, or he wasn’t the new lord.
Let’s consider that applied to our modern-day feudal system — corporations and employment.
What if, every time someone bought a majority of stock in a company, they had to collect the signed consent of everyone who worked there? Had to go to every office, every factory, every garage?
Well, many folks would be less interested in owning giant companies, that’s for sure!
What happens when someone refuses to sign? Says ‘I don’t consent to work for this person. You bought the company; you didn’t buy me.’
In reality, most people can’t afford to do that. Like the knights standing by for the old fealty oaths, the paycheck would keep most signing whether they wanted to or not.
That’s how it is. Not how it has to be.
- What if… what if the buyout couldn’t go through if more than 10% refused to sign?
- What if folks who refused to sign had guaranteed unemployment and support in finding another job?
- What if UBI came through and it was safe to leave employment at any time, whether or not a shit-head new company owner came on board?
- What if…
I don’t have answers today. But I want to get folks thinking.
Hierarchies will always exist. Even if they didn’t seem to be a reflexive part of human socializing, they are just too damn useful a tool.
But hierarchy as it usually is today is not what it has to be.
As I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a while — and talking about ethical hierarchy with my fellow kinksters for even longer. I’ve picked up a lot of ideas from many people, and I’m afraid I don’t remember it all clearly enough to credit most of them.
That said, I want to give a shout-out to the Combahee River Collective and their essay on the Tyranny of the Structureless, which helped me understand the harm done by invisible hierarchies.
To Bitchy Jones, Stabbity, and Miss Pearl for their work and essays calling out abuse in kink communities and exploring what makes for healthy kink.
To Michon Neal, who talked about a lot of these ideas with me over the years.
To my partner Star who worked with me to understand the hierarchies in our relationship, both inside and outside of D/s context.
* Note: It is not my purpose to defend the existence of hierarchies. I don’t care if hierarchies are inherently good or bad. I believe they are inevitable. That being the case, we must do our best to increase the good and reduce the harm. I’m not interested in arguing this point. If you believe hierarchy can be done away with, don’t comment — prove me wrong. I’d love to be proved wrong. But if you think you’ve proved me wrong — double-check that you aren’t at the top of an invisible hierarchy.
Planting Life in a Dying City