Word of the Day: Kyriarchy

As contrasted to ‘patriarchy’:

Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.

Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men do not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).

– Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001

Put like that, it seems pretty clear which term is the most useful for making sense of reality. Many thanks to Sudy at A Woman’s Ecdysis for introducing her readers to the term!

Some reflections on slut-shaming, class, and power

I’ve just read this account in Al Jazeera America about a recently published study on college slut-shaming, and I’m feeling ambivalent.

On the one hand: Yes! Of course slut-shaming is about class! It’s long been the case that what passes as sexual liberation among those with cultural capital gets disparaged as sluttiness among the unlettered classes. And it’s about time that we bring class-consciousness into our discussions around slut-shaming. (Obviously, race/ethnicity, dis/ability, gender identity and sexual orientation are important parts of this story too. I don’t raise them here because the Al Jazeera article doesn’t raise them.)

However, I’m less in accord with bits like the following:

“Viewing women only as victims of men’s sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities,” Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology and organizational studies professor at the University of Michigan, said in a release. “By engaging in ‘slut-shaming’ — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.”

I mean, yes, to the extent that people should be held accountable for helping to reproduce unjust systems, then of course this accountability must extend to both men and women. Sure.

However, I’m just not on board with the liberal view that individuals are answerable for systemic inequities.  The thing about the interlocking systems of power that Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has helpfully termed “kyriarchy” is that we mostly reproduce such systems without ever deciding to do so. Even when we’re well-intentioned and trying really hard to treat people justly and to leave the world a little better than we found it, we daily, behind our own backs, reproduce the unjust system of which we are a part. We can hardly help it, having been socialized within the system.

Sure, some people are just assholes. And, I’ll bet that’s true of some of the Greeks in the slut-shaming study. Ultimately though, it’s really important to remind ourselves that tenacious systems of power are tenacious precisely because they operate through not just isolated assholes but through all of us – nice, well-intentioned folks included.

So, rather than deciding whether men or women are to blame, or trying to zero in on which men or women are to blame, we should focus our attention on understanding the mechanisms of systemic injustice. Taken with a grain (or a cup) of salt, this study may be helpful to that end.


[H/t CB for the original link.]



On Insults

NSFW:  I use swears/slurs in this post.

I recently got into a discussion with a few of the other bloggers on this site about insults and blog etiquette, particularly in light of ableism.
(Here’s a starting point if you’re not familiar with the concept.  If you are interested in reading more on ableism or activism for mental health, I recommend the blogger Daisy Bee at Suicidal No More, who is a fantastic writer and incredible human being and Renee at Womanist Musings who has an seemingly endless amount of stamina when it comes to social justice and calling out bullshit.  Neither of these blogs are of the ‘101’ variety so please be aware of that should you choose to leave a comment on either.)

To sum up the issue at hand: I think using the word “crazy” to insult people is somewhere in the territory of using a slur.  I think it only works as an insult because it is relying on the stigmatized status of people with a mental illness.  It’s an easy and nasty way to silence people, claim that their perspective is illegitimate, and dehumanize them.  In future posts of my own I’m probably going to ask commenters to not use that word or similar words in this manner.


This is a controversial stance, though, even in the context of anti-ableism and anti-sexism.  I invite others to think about this along with me.  My own thoughts on insults and especially the word “crazy” have changed drastically in the past five years, and I expect them to morph further in the years to come.  While personal insults might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things politically, I take the concept of  “safe spaces” very seriously, even if they are ultimately ideals that are unachievable in theory or practice. (This is not to imply that others don’t take this seriously, but only to articulate my own priorities.)

Also please note: I’m not arguing that the word “crazy” should be stricken wholly from the English language.  Also, in this context, I’m much less concerned about words with sketchy histories than I am with words that trade on current oppression to silence and insult people.  However, maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I can make that division and at least temporarily avoid the slippery slope concern.


(much more after the jump)
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Can Humor Make Us Better Thinkers?



This picture (cropped from here) doesn’t prove anything, but it exemplifies a thesis I’ve had rattling around in my skull for a while.   There are certain ideas out there, such as, “There is this thing called systematic racism exists and if you don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis, that’s a privilege you have no real right to brag about.”  Now, a lot of people can be really obtuse about these this kind of idea if it’s presented as an argument.  However, I’ve seen a bunch of situations where someone comes up with the right joke and suddenly a switch flips–people get it.  (i.e. They understand what you’re trying to say…and they seem to agree with most of your premises.)

tl;dr When I look at the kind of humor people are able to pick up on, I suspect that more people understand basic issues of kyriarchy than I realize.


(Go here if you want to browse more of these jokes on twitter.)


More rambling after the jump.

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A breakthrough for women in india!

The upper house of India’s partliament has passed a bill that would reserve  a third of the seats in National and State legislatures for women.  It has serious hurdles to get over, but at least efforts on behalf of women in politics may have taken a large step forward.

The amendment is a long-sought tool to improve the lot of women in India, the world’s most populous democracy. Despite having had several formidable female leaders — including former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, the current leader of the Congress Party — Indian women lag behind men in virtually every sphere of life.

There is a concern being expressed:

Opponents of the bill say that it will favor wealthy upper-caste women at the expense of the lower castes and Muslims.

“We are not against women reservation,” said Lalu Prasad Yadav, leader of one of the parties seeking to block the amendment. “Give reservation to poor India, to original India. Ninety percent of the population is deprived in India.”

Critics of the amendment say that it will only worsen what is already a big problem — powerful men substituting their daughters, wives and sisters as proxies in political office.

I cannot speak directly to the last worry, and many feminists will recognize the worry of women being used as proxies as possibly stemming from a familiar  inability to see women as agents.  As the notion of kyriarchy  can make us aware, providing power to all the members of a class can be much more complicated  that it may appear at first..

Is there a word for it?

We’ve just had this question from reader SG, and we don’t know how to answer it. Do you? We’d be very grateful for your thoughts.

I’m a philosophy PhD student and am writing a paper on feminist and race critiques of objectivity in science. I want to connect these specific critiques, however, to a general category of critiques of kyriarchy. But, I can’t find a term to identify all these people who make critques of a kyriarchial society. (So, a word that would express what feminists, race theorists, and people who study all the other kinds of social oppressions have in common.)

Telling a life: Plus a concluding unscientific feminist postscript.

Michael Jackson’s life and death has been described in many very different styles.  One style, which I associate with certain UK common rooms, treats the life as an aesthetic phenomenon, excised from its real world consequences. Another, which has for me very different associations, does quite the opposite. Here are excerpts from two examples; see if matching them with their authors is as easy as I think it will be.  Would you qualify or add to my characterizations?

Example One:

Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure–so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.

In the wake of his death, many have hailed his “crossover appeal.” There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that “appeal” had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was “the White Negro,” so Michael fashioned himself into “the Negro Caucasian.” He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.

By now the stories of that suffering are well documented: Jackson’s body was scarred from the abuse that his father, Joe, a former boxer, administered to him when he was a small child. …

No wonder Jackson grew up to resemble a walking, talking fright mask, playing with the putty of bodies, of childhood, of kindness, of trauma, of forgiveness. What remains inexplicable, however, is the absence of social, ethical or legal limit to the excesses of Jackson family life. … Medicine is a practice, not a commodity fun house filled with new noses and chins and feel-good opiates to be issued like goodies from a Pez dispenser.

Fortunately, the question of medical complicity in Jackson’s death is beginning to percolate in the media. Perhaps, too, his children’s custody will be more closely scrutinized. It is extremely troubling to learn that Jackson’s mother, Katherine–and therefore her depraved husband, Joe–has temporary custody of them. …
Jackson’s fame and fortune ensured that he had few barriers to the pursuit of whatever whimsical fancy seized him. He became a more brilliant and frightening version of the Mad Hatter than even Tim Burton could conjure. And with that power, Jackson arranged for the bringing-to-life of three innocent souls whose racial embodiment pantomimed all he could never be.

Example Two:

Another beautiful boy is gone, wiped out in an instant. Michael Jackson, unable to cross the threshhold into manhood, has died at 50, still a boy, coquettish, fantasy-ridden, horribly vulnerable, unable to take control of his life.

His sudden death is a strange kind of victory. He had managed to prevent his ageing and even his growing up. There was no beard upon his chin; his voice was a childish treble. Instead of entering middle age and letting himself be chained to earth, he has floated away like a wisp, annihilated on the brink of a 50-date concert tour that I for one was dreading. …

As his imagination faltered and grew dim, the fending off of maturity became desperate, demented and pointless. The struggle against ageing turned into self-harming and self-mutilation.

Ever since Dionysos danced ahead of his horde of bloody-footed maenads across the rocky highlands of prehistoric Greece, dance and song have been the province of boys. Like Orpheus, Jackson was destroyed by his fans, whose adulation and adoration prevented his living in any kind of normal society. The creativity ebbed away day by day. He became a parody of himself. It is time now to forget all that and salute the miraculous boy who will triumph over death as Dionysos did, becoming immortal through his art.

Author A:  Germain Greer, writing in an English newspaper.

Author B:  Patricia Williams,  writing in a US political journal.

The  postscript:  Posts like this may raise the following question:  Does this really belong on a feminist blog?  What’s feminist about descriptions of MJ’s life?  If we think of feminism as concerned with kyriarchy, then the answer comes quite easily.  The finally fatal tensions in MJ’s life cannot be expressed by the linear model of patriarchy.  Indeed, particularly on one analysis offered here, his resources from positions of power make fatal his responses to his positions of subordination.

Rational Agency and Feminist Philosophy

Do posts on rational agency or new behavioral econimics count as feminist?  Does feminist philosophy have to address issues explicitly about women or gender?

One thing going on behind the scenes here is that we see wordpress’s daily tally of the main search terms bringing  readers to this blog.  And sometimes one is “kyriarchy,” which Jender wrote about.   And that’s the pyramid structure of power relations that constrain and oppress so many.

 Looking recently at the search terms and that  post, I realized that feminists’ work that isn’t explicitly about women or gender may none the less have a very closely related topic, the kyriarchy.  Writings about the conception of rational agency or the domination of traditional economics can certainly be in many ways about the kyriarchy.  For example, the European self-conception of rational agency is  very present still in discourse about the “conquered” or enslaved.  

Three questions arise.  Please join in on them.  To some extent they raise the question of whether professional philosophy has often to present itself as politically disengaged.  Perhaps the answer to that  is easy.

1.  If we counted papers on  the kyriarchy as feminist, would there seem to be more feminist papers in the top journals?

2.  If  papers and books on the kyriarchy were candidates for feminist works, would we end up with works in the feminist corpus which really are not feminist at all, maybe to the point of being hostile to women?

3.  Are there many papers in philosophy which do criticize the products of the kyriarchy as unfortunate ways of thinking but don’t seem to contain any awareness of their political significance?  Relatedly, is bringing out the political significance of one’s criticism of the ideas of rational agency a way of inviting rejection by Phil Rev?

I would think that a lot in virtue ethics and some neo-Wittgensteinian work does undertake tasks very congenial to criticizing some of the cultural artefacts of  the kyriarchy.  Is Alva Noe’s work on perception covertly relevant  to the kyriarchy?  Any other candidates?  Specific or more general?

Intersectionality = Lack of Focus

Is apparently what Linda Hirschman thinks intersectionality brings to Feminism, as expressed in the Washington Post. Apparently women’s issues and race issues are separate things.

The limitations of this position should be obvious when the author apparently made no effort to garner the opinions of the women of colour that she uses as examples, brownfemipower and sudy. Women, who actually engage with intersectionality.

Hirschman’s feminism illustrates perfectly what bell hooks calls ‘reformatory feminism’ – feminism  that does not strive to bring social justice to women are, so to say, at the bottom of the heap, but to a small subsection of women, who already have a considerable amount of social privilege (based on class, race, etc). Intersectionlity, in contrast,  can address the worst circumstances women are in and allows women to articulate their concerns.

Responses to Hirschman here and here.