Linked to oppression is the topic of hierarchy. Traveling with this ecotopia biketour community, it made me question some of my beliefs and triggered questions like; How to deal with leadership, authority and hierarchy?…and how to avoid oppression and abuse of power?. Do we try to get rid of all of it? Is there a healthy way to be a leader and use authority? Does a leader imply followers? (and is that a ‘bad’ thing?) In this and the following posts I’ll share some of my reflections concerning these questions.
Our society consist mostly out of hierarchical organizations and our human interactions are characterised by this pattern. As the picture shows, hierarchy can feel pretty ‘shitty’ at times. I think we all have been in situations we felt just like those birds at the bottom. The main point of this blog is not defend hierarchy, nor to prove it wrong, but rather becoming aware how present it is in our societ. To mention a subtle example, when meeting a new person, I realised that one of my first reactions is to categorise the other as rather superior or inferior to me. [Not that it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in itself, but interesting isn’t it? always looking for our place in the bigger context through the eyes of hierarchy.] Once we are aware of its presence, we can think about what the best way is to deal with it.
What made me realize this presence of hierarchy was by experiencing a different model at first hand. My first real experience of a horizontal self-organized group was in Ecotopia Biketour. It is a biketour organized by the people who want to join and it can be seen as a very dynamic fluctuating traveling community. For this to happen, all sorts of tasks need to be done, like people planning the route, contacting different communities and sustainable projects to visit on the way, people taking care of the food, others of cooking, and again others for transporting communal tools etc. All of this was done without any formal leader delegating tasks… and to my great surprise it worked amazingly. Being a group of around 25 people, it really worked and opened my eyes to a different way of making decisions and moving forward as a group.
I remember that when I newly arrived in the group I was confused about its dynamics but I could not tell why. It was only weeks later, when I became more aware of hierarchy and horizontalism in social interactions, that I realized that it was because I could not really identify a leader. This contrast was needed to wake me up from the trance of hierarchy. I became aware of my habitual pattern of identifying the leader of a group, understanding his/her expectations and complying to it in order to be ‘liked’ and get approval, because this time it was not applicable. I started to see how I was used to identify authority and subordinate to it. As a ‘survival mechanism’, I learned to please the ones I identified as having authority to get approval, but I was not aware of it.
I realized how, unconsciously, I was constantly giving away my own decision making and in a certain way also my responsibility. Instead of asking myself what is true to me and acting accordingly, I repressed being true to myself, in order to comply with expectations. I gave away my freedom.
So, having told this little anecdote of how I woke up to the more hidden aspects of hierarchy, I’ll tell what I take away from this. Authority and hierarchy are not only out there, represented by organizations and institutions, but are also very implicitly present and are part of our default way of interpreting life. Authority nor hierarchy in itself are ‘bad’ things, but when we unconscious about their existence, it might start playing a corrupting role in our social dynamics. Unaware of it, it could be like something attacking us from behind, and before realizing what happened, it overpowered us. When I am unaware of the authority I am submitting to, when I am not even questioning it, when I forget that I have a personal responsibility in holding the authority accountable and that I have a choice in complying or not, I give away my freedom and the joy of expressing myself authentically. Authority is something that we give (consciously or not). When I am aware to whom I give authority (explicit or implicit), I can look it in the eye, stand my ground and stay true to myself.
Related to community life, it is important to be aware to whom we consciously give authority. If it is not possible to have a transparent horizontal governance structure, then at least make sure that the hierarchy structure is very clear, that people are conscious about who they give authority, and that these people can be held accountable in using their ‘power’ for the common good.
In our daily life, authority is sometimes imposed on us. In that case I guess what is best, is to realize to which degree it limiting us, and taking responsibility of our role in suporting this authority. Authority is only made possible by enough people who subdue to it. Like Ghandi demonstrated, sometimes an act of civil disobedience is needed to make authorities realize that they are still held accountable for their actions. By becoming aware of our responsibility and possibilities we can reclaim our freedom in mind and spirit despite outer structures. We are born to be free.