Interrogating Hierarchies: An Experiment
Most anarchists agree that temporary and consensual hierarchies are useful. We are willing to let someone facilitate a meeting or teach us a new skill; what we do not allow is hierarchies based on identity or social position. White men taking up more space than everyone else?? Anarchists don’t deal with that, thankfully. Um, wait… that frustratingly does happen, a lot. Despite good intentions all around, some people in anarchist spaces appear to have, and act as if they have, more influence than others. Some people in anarchist spaces seem to push their own ideas through, even if they say they are interested in everyone’s ideas. Despite our ideology, non-temporary, non-consensual hierarchies do often emerge in anarchist spaces, and have negative impact when they do.
Individuals who grow up in hierarchical environments (that’s basically all of us) are sensitive to indicators of power such as physical strength, vocal tone, eye contact, body language, unyieldingness (i.e., not giving up the floor when asked), and the amount of time spent talking compared to others. Many of these indicators are transmitted and received unconsciously. Even though we don’t intellectually agree with the idea that a commanding tone of voice actually means someone has legitimate authority, we may behave as if that is the case. By the time we notice that a hierarchy has emerged, its effects may have already been felt, and it may be difficult to interrupt. The proposed experiment is designed to interrogate such assumed, automatic hierarchies (not the temporary, deliberate, consensual kind that are useful for organizing and action).
Interrogating hierarchies in a low-stakes, “fun” setting (like this weird experiment) may give us more tools for when the stakes are higher (like in a general assembly or a demo). In short, practice may be important here. Every new skill requires practice to master. Noticing, reflecting on, and speaking to automatic hierarchies are all skills which might be developed over time, through practice.
If many folks in a given collective practiced interrogating hierarchies, it might reduce the need for callouts. “Calling out” someone is currently the primary way we deal with displays of hierarchical behavior that no one consented to. A callout can be a very effective intervention: it can save time, correct an immediate problem, or get a meeting back on track. The proposed experiment is not anti-callout. Instead, it tries to create more awareness of automatic processes so that individuals can recognize and address their own behavior before they get called out. If it really works, an experiment like this could lead to a more resilient, trusting, high-functioning anarchist community.
What would it look like to experimentally interrogate hierarchies? Here is one possible format:
• A group of people meets together for an agreed-upon amount of time (say, 2.5 hours).
• The group begins by assuming that everyone has the same amount of power, but that each individual has been conditioned to assume more or less power than they actually have. The group brainstorms what it would look like if everyone in the group behaved as if they possessed the same amount of power (which they’ve agreed that they actually do). They might ask, “If we were able to relate to each other truly non-hiearchically right now…”
o What behaviors would we notice, as a group?
o What would someone observing from the outside notice about the group?
o What are some new things the group would be able to do?
o What are some old things the group might stop doing?
• The group then identifies specific behaviors that are likely contributing to hierarchical patterns within the group. (Examples: “I notice this person has been speaking a lot, whereas this person has not spoken yet” or “I wonder if fear of doing it wrong is making it hard for us to take risks?”) The premise for the purposes of the experiment is that the entire group takes ownership of the hierarchical patterns in the group. Even though the work may be harder and/or less intuitive for some participants than it is for others, the goal is not to make any one person an exclusive focus of the group’s energy (unless some extreme circumstance necessitates that).
o The group does not need to identify all the contributing behaviors. Social hierarchies are dense, opaque systems made up of layered micro-behaviors. Something as minor as an audible breath or the darting of one’s eyes may be a contributing behavior. The group should grapple with this and determine how perceptive they will try to be.
• Individuals then reflect on their own behavior and state to the group what they think they are doing or not doing that is contributing to hierarchical patterns. Example: “I think I am probably interrupting more than I intend to” or “I notice that I tend to check people’s faces before I speak—is that overly deferential, or is that good practice?”
• The group then decides on ways to signal when someone is behaving in a way they believe contributes to a hierarchical pattern. (Example: “When we notice one of the behaviors we’ve discussed we will raise our hand, wait for the group to listen, give a short description of what we just observed, and then decide together if it is.”)
• With these guidelines in place, the group then undertakes some task together, such as discussing a reading, playing a board game, doing physical labor together, etc.
o If a significant amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes) goes by without any signals being given, the group stops to trouble-shoot this.
Are the target behaviors present but no one is signaling? How can participants be more emboldened to signal?
Are the target behaviors absent? The group may wish to set their “sensitivity level” a bit higher to get the most benefit out of the experiment.
o It should not be considered a success if, in a first experiment of this kind, the group is able to complete an entire task with zero signals being given. It may be considered a success if multiple such meetings result in a zero-signal result, over time (because that would indicate that learning has occurred).
• At the completion of the task, or the end of the agreed-upon amount of time, the group discusses the experiment. They identify what was harder and what was easier than they expected. They celebrate exciting or interesting moments they observed. They spend some time thinking about if and how to apply some of this practice to other aspects of their lives. They decide if they want to do the experiment again in the future, and under what conditions (With the same people? Different people? Different task? etc.).
• Questions: 1) Would this be useful for anarchist groups? Would the experiment translate into any noticeable difference in levels of awareness or problematic behaviors? 2) Will it be difficult to get folks to participate in something like this?