Thursday, August 12, 2010

Out of the pot, into the fire: How hierarchy defines our lives

I've just finished the first week of what will be a four-month stay in Zambia (and the reason femonomics posting won't be daily for a while).  The first time I was in Zambia, I was a cultural outsider.  I spent a lot of time just chatting with people, anyone who would, to try out my fumbling grasp of the local language (English is the language taught in schools, but other languages remain prevalent), and understand as much as I could about the place whose people made up data points in our research.  After three months spent working with Zambian women, living with Zambian housemates, cooking and eating Zambian food, and making Zambian friends, I felt integrated enough into the culture that when I returned this time, part of it was strangely like a homecoming--returning to an old familiar place and the memories it holds.

But as I felt less cultural separation between myself and the Zambians around me--of course we still came from different backgrounds, but I no longer felt like a complete outsider--I noticed a strange thing.... I was adapting more to the class hierarchies of Zambian society.  Instead of chatting with guards and bus drivers, I offered them curt greetings and hurried on my way, trying to avoid the inevitable discussion of my relationship status that I'd learned would follow.  I found myself referring to domestic workers in local terms, as a "garden boy" and "maid," despite finding these terms pejorative, and using "She doesn't even speak English!" to express that someone was uneducated to my housemate.  And honestly, I had no idea why.  The less I saw my middle class Zambian friends as separate from myself, the more I was adopting their way of organizing the world into "other" and "same."  As I saw things less in terms of me versus them, developed country versus undeveloped, white(ish) versus black, the more I saw them as educated versus not, laborer versus professional, economically comfortable versus poor.  I was absorbing a new set of hierarchies and division to replace the old, and it felt as natural as breathing.

There are many misconceptions about developing countries, especially African ones, that I hope to address in a future post.  But one of the most pernicious is that everyone is poor, destitute, and miserable.  Far from it.  Plenty of Zambians, especially urban ones, are middle class, comfortable, and caught in between the same appreciation of their good fortune and striving dissatisfaction that so many Americans face.  And very often these individuals seem to define themselves in contrast to those that are not, just as much as we define ourselves in contrast to our vision of them.  Why is that?  Is it human nature for us to make sense of our landscape through hierarchy?  Does our wealth mean nothing if we are not richer than?  Is our education useless if we're not smarter than?  Or is it the insidious effect of Colonialism, still boiling away, in which class and ethnic divisions were often encouraged in order to better control Colonial lands?  (For more on this, see Mahmood Mamdani's wonderful book Citizen and Subject, about how the British encouraged hierarchical and authoritarian local rule in South Africa in order to better oppress the Africans they sought to dominate.)

If we rid ourselves of one form of oppression, will another replace it?  Is hierarchy truly as natural to us as breathing?

1 comment:

  1. It depends on the framework within which you ask this question.

    If you're asking, "Is hierarchy the dominant cultural form on this planet, and have all of us been so thoroughly trained in it that we do it as natural as breathing," then I would answer yes.

    If you're asking, "Is hierarchy an unchanging hallmark of human nature?" then I would answer that I believe the jury is still out on that one, since only small pockets of non-hierarchical indigenous culture survive the massive expansion of our own.

    If any of us, raised in a kyriarchy since birth, tried to create a different, non-authority-centric system and practice living within it, we'd have to be very self-aware, mature human individuals who were constantly on the lookout for subtle ingrained responses, much like de-programming yourself from a lifetime of racism and misogyny, but on an even grander scale.
    I do think that working to have human responses rather than racist or misogynist responses is the first step towards imagining this mad new human-centered world, though.


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