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Rape Culture and Power Pyramids: Recent Thoughts

March 31, 2013

The past few weeks — and especially the past few days — I’ve been reminded of how rape culture thrives on social power pyramids: where the contributions of people at the top — be they star athletes, beloved artists, or skilled political leaders — are considered so important that people instinctively ignore, justify, or minimize the violent behaviors of the community’s golden child (or children).

This shows up frequently, in small ways.  I’ve heard more than one friend of a socially powerful feminist in the Bay confess to me that they feel afraid to tell her “no.”  Not that this fear necessarily defines their relationship with this person (and these conversations happened a year ago; perhaps their fears have since subsided or transformed), but to me, statements like that are a red flag for rape culture.  Someone is at the center, and getting on their bad side means you might get ostracized — or worse.  Besides, what they contribute is so vital and powerful…

I wonder to what extent capitalism encourages this dynamic: atmospheres of competition, hierarchy, and hero worship that pervade even radical communities.  Hierarchy, of course, is hardly particular to capitalist societies.  But a competitive, individualist ethic has been ingrained in me, in us, since we were kids.  We’re taught to aspire to power-over: whether in underground economies, as celebrity moguls, or as the bourgeois “leaders of tomorrow.”  We’re taught that power-over, being universally loved and feared (at least a little bit), gives us security.  And we’re usually trained to hoard our skills (all the better to market them), rather than learning how to share widely and deeply.  No wonder we feel afraid of losing our idealized leaders, if it comes to light that they’re fucking up.   What would we do without them?

In progressive and radical circles, capitalism and our critiques of it can also make us feel hesitant, I think, to strip a socially central offender of their position of power — especially if that position involves getting paid.  We know how hard the economy is; we don’t want to throw someone to the wolves of unemployment.  Especially if they are, for instance, poor, Black, queer, trans, disabled, undocumented, or otherwise positioned in a way that makes finding livelihood really fucking difficult.  We may hesitate to strip them of their power not only because we feel bad about subjecting anybody to the colder cruelties of capitalist existence, but also because a prison-abolitionist, restorative justice framework has taught us that specifically for people who do harm, pure punishment and isolation are kinda ineffective at getting them to change their ways.

Meanwhile, though, many, many survivors live in fear and trauma, as the people who harmed them continue to enjoy enormous social popularity and political power. And the community continues to operate with a top-heavy structure or culture of VIP’s.

Sorry I can’t be more specific: there’s a lot of confidentiality ish around the particular situations I’m working on right now.  But the prevalence of the problem, sad as it is, also reminds me of our beautiful potential to build less top-down, more round and collective community leadership: leadership built on the strengths of lots of people, rather than a few hot-shots.  As my friend Katy Rose put it to me once, leaders should be “trusted servants.” Not just charismatic icons or indispensable logistical lynchpins.  It’s not that I’m against excellence, but may we not expect that our excellence will grant us a free pass to abuse others.  And may we not collude so much in the building of power pyramids.

Gratitude to the many amazing people who have worked, are working, live, with these contradictions.  I’m learning so, so much.  And it matters to my life.

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