Saturday, June 09, 2012

Hierarchy: what is it good for?

The following is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans' Week of Mutuality.

Longtime readers of this infrequently-updated blog know I’m working toward a doctoral degree in counselor education. This summer, rather than hanging out at the beach reading trashy novels, I’m taking a counseling supervision class. Part of what that means is that I (and each of my fellow students) get assigned an MA-level student to supervise through their first semester of clinical work.

To put it another way, each newbie counselor is assigned a newbie supervisor.

(If that makes you nervous, rest assured: we're not left alone to flounder. We have professors helping us all walk through the process. You can exhale now.)

During the first week of my supervision class, the instructor repeated two themes over and over, beating them like a drum. The first one was "You're the supervisor. You're responsible." And only slightly less-repeated was "It's a hierarchical relationship."

And I struggle with that idea, because I work hard to establish egalitarian relationships.

After reading Rachel’s post yesterday I started to think about that clinical supervisor role and other similar roles where one person is above and is responsible for the other: parent/child and teacher/student are relationship pairings that come readily to mind.

In all cases like that, the person who is at the top of the hierarchy is working to develop strengths in the other person; and in all cases, the top person knows that if they do their job well, the other person will one day be their peer. The hierarchy is necessary for the person's development, but it is temporary.

But the patriarchal ideal makes the authority/submission formula a permanent one. Husband is permanently over wife (and any unmarried daughters). The similarities to other forms of subjugation cannot be ignored: one group declares its superiority to be ordained by God, and insists its authority is permanent and unquestionable.

It seems to me that isn't about developing peers. It's about developing slaves.



  1. Anonymous12:43 AM

    Can we talk about this unmarried daughters thing for just a second?

    I'm a single, nearly 30 year old female who's once again living in my parents' house because financial strains have made affording an apt in the Mid Atlantic impossible. Those financial strains, just for the record, come because of student debt I accrued getting my Master's degree. I'm no slouch. I've worked hard my whole life. I'm educated, disciplined, responsible. And I am, in fact, a grown-up, accountable to God for my personal, grown-up choices.

    If my father wanted to claim headship of this unmarried daughter, then I wish he'd claim my student debt too! But, it seems that doesn't fall under his "authority."

    Go figure.

    1. Good points, Amber.

      Of course, I would view the father's responsibility for (and control of) his unmarried adult daughter as a cultural thing, one which is certainly not necessary or valid in your situation. But some view it as the biblically-prescribed ideal, and I'm not just talking about the Quiverful/Vision Forum people. I've heard that message preached in a much more mainstream setting, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

  2. Anonymous5:49 PM

    I love the crystal clear way you brought this to the fore: hierarchy is usually temporary for the sake of developing people to the level of peer. I would love to see this developed even further, such as when/if/how that change from pupil to peer happens. Does it require ceremony to be recognizable and respectable? But more importantly I want to prod the question, WHAT is that temporary hierarchy based on? In your example, it is based on ability or achievement. But what about hierarchy based on assignment, such as levels of authority in government? One does not always have to work his or her way through the ranks to get to the top position, if one can be appointed or voted in directly. Or hierarchy based on social class--like in India? If you are born into it, that will be seen as permanent no matter your achievement or opinion polls. So if patriarchy/matriarchy are not the only hierarchies that are permanent, we need to get more specific about what are valid, value-added reasons for permanent hierarchy and which are not.

    1. These are really good questions. I'm probably unqualified to answer them from any kind of a sociological perspective. From a theological perspective the answer seems to come from Gal. 3:28 -- because of Christ, we are all equal, and there is no permanent hierarchy that is legitimate.


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