Give the Other a big, fat kiss: On hierarchical dualism and the bullshit it perpetuates

You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your more distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride it it or did not notice it at all… That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.” — Octavia Butler, Dawn: Book One of the Xenogenesis Series

A fair amount has been written lately concerning overt racism in “folkish” Heathenry. I won’t repeat the details of the controversy, as they are available ad nauseum in many other different forums. And I think that many of us know racism in action and word when we see it; if you do not, chances are that you’re the racist. You can substitute any other category for race in this formula; it works with transphobia, sexism and xenophobia as well.

What it comes down to is rendering another group of human beings the Other — a category that is inherently debased due to the hierarchical dualism that structures Western thought. (If I sound extremely nerdy, it’s because I did my doctoral dissertation on this topic. And because I am an extreme nerd.) What do I mean by “hierarchical dualism”? Let’s play a game of opposites. When I say A., chances are that you’ll say B.:

  • Man/Woman
  • Parent/Child
  • Father/Mother
  • Fire/Water
  • Sun/Moon
  • Good/Evil
  • White/Black
  • Mind/Body
  • God/Devil
  • Rich/Poor
  • Reason/Emotion
  • Up/Down

If you continue to play the game on a headier level:

  • Culture/Nature
  • Sky/Earth
  • Human/Animal
  • Master/Slave
  • Pure/Dirty
  • Order/Chaos
  • Law/Criminality
  • Holy/Damned

The first half of the dyad is one of privilege. This is the “in group,” the one created in the image of G/god, according to religious doctrine; it is in the higher position, the head of the cosmic purusha (to borrow an image from Vedic mythology) compared to the feet. In a simplified version of the medieval chain of being, the first half of the dyad is up and the second down.

The second half of the dyad is the Other, which is rightfully subjugated by the holy members of the first order. They are the controlled. All “isms” come from the subjugation of this Other, considered impure and further from the ideal form of G/god.

Now, there are other ways of viewing dualism, such as the complementary principle of Yin-Yang you find in some Asian cultures. The concept of “purity” encapsulated by the Yin-Yang is subtly different from the black/white divide above: All yin contains a dot of yang and vice versa, and each is in motion around the other; you can’t have existence without either principle. The Western vision of hierarchical dualism is different in that it imagines a world without the Other: an all-yang vision, as it were, of a paradise of light, purity and disembodiment. We might parrot language of “complementarity,” but the underpinning principles of hierarchy are extremely difficult to eradicate.

Some forms of thought — and I am thinking of Wicca and Tantra here — seek to subvert hierarchical dualism by placing value on the second half of the dyad. The results can be empowering — but they ultimately do not subvert the underlying structural problem. Women, the poor, people of cultures deemed “Other” are more than just body and emotion and nature; to believe otherwise is to fall into the related myths of “the noble savage” and “women’s intuition.” A black man can be an astrophysicist. A woman can head up a university — and not be drawing on her inner white male (“animus” in Jungian terms) to do so. A transgender person (considered “mixed” and therefore impure) can be a dedicated and inspiring parent and/or colleague.

The Other is not just the Moon and Earth and Nature. And even “Nature” speaks and thinks. Animal species, we are discovering, have their own languages, customs and cultures — different from our own, yes, but of value to them.

Meaning and value are not determined by the dominant portion of the dyad. 

That’s the underpinnings of a philosophy known as “ecofeminism.” Now, I understand that’s a hinky, decades-old name that just doesn’t seem to fit the current milieu. Anti-hierarchical-dualism just doesn’t have the same panache as a term, and it has too many hyphens besides.

Insert the “Not all men/white people!” argument here. My answer: While ecofeminism does emphasize the situation of the Other, eliminating hierarchical dualism also can benefit the privileged members, who no longer have to maintain the rigid image of hypermasculinity and hyperrationality. They can be loving fathers, supportive and nurturing friends, head-boop kittens and cry at weddings — without accessing their “inner feminine.” They can be those things because they’re people and that’s what people are.

Now, it would be tempting to blame the desert Abrahamic religions for this dyad, and such blame wouldn’t be without cause. It has to be pointed out, though, that the underpinnings of hierarchical dualism also have origins in Greek philosophy, namely that of Platonism, which then filtered down into what we call “Western culture” today. Non-Western cultures, too, found their own way into dualistic fucked-up-edness: the Indian caste system and treatment of women, for example.

So what does this have to do with Druidry, Paganism and related controversies? For one, it’s this: It’s not just enough to flip the dyad. If you’re always aligning women with Mother, Goddess, Moon, Earth and related concepts of nurturing, vulnerability, emotion and dependence, you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you’re viewing people with different skin tones as Other and therefore unfit to be part of your religious group or unworthy to worship the gods who have called to them, you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you say nasty things about poor people and insinuate that they are incapable of reason (thus aligning them with “dumb nature”), you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism. If you think that someone needs to be all one or the Other (whether it comes to sex, gender, race or pretty much anything), then you’re perpetuating the hierarchical dualism.

And, well, you’re just an asshole besides.

Your challenge: Think beyond One and Two. Celtic iconography and myth deals a lot with threes and nines, for example. Fours and eights are valued in some Native American and Asian cultures. The ancient Middle East really liked sevens. Even Greece, the origin of some of our concepts of hierarchical dualism, had the Olympian Twelve.

Embrace the poly in polytheism. We are not one, but many. While we talk a good line about the One containing the Many, it’s a conceptual struggle due to the reductionism of hierarchical dualism. The Many, on the other hand, can safely contain the One — the individual in his/her/their dazzling multicolored glory (and yes, that includes monotheists. If we determine that monotheists are “Other” we are — what? — perpetuating the hierarchical dualism.)

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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