Power dynamics and the minority voice

The CathedralRecently I have been putting together some thoughts about power dynamics in majority-minority relationships. A major area of my research at work at the moment is the representation and visibility of minority religions in the Religious Education classroom and curricula. In this case, the six major religions of the world (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism) are those in the majority, and then the minority expressions of the ‘big six’ and those outside the big six (such as Jain, Baha’i and non-religious worldviews) are the minority.
The system is one that privileges the larger religions; I am not saying this is wrong, in fact there are very good reasons for doing so, but my argument is that people who are in the power dynamic need to reflect on their place in such, and consider if they are perpetuating the status quo.

If we look at different examples, it is obvious that in many, if not all, relationships this type of power dynamic is at play. Beginning with a Marxist interpretation of society it is possible to see possible structures within society:

Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand (Karl Marx, 1858, Grundrisse).

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes (Engels, 1847, The Communist Manifesto).

Whatever our thoughts on Marx’s political ideology, this seems to ring true as we look at history, and perhaps today. The divine right of kings in the Middle Ages served to discourage rebellion or revolt, because the structure of society, or at least the place of the monarch was decided by God. The structures of society were designed to keep the powerful in power and the ‘lesser’ or the ‘proletariat’ in their place, and somewhat happy with such.

Elements of a power dynamic that separated society into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ Picture1.pngcan be seen in Donald Trump’s populist campaign for President. He styled himself as one of the masses, and it was his campaign that would ‘drain the swamp’ and replace the ruling class. The establishment and appeal of religions such as Rastafari, can also be seen to be a reaction against an unjust system. The concept of Babylon as the oppressive structures of colonialism are central in Rastafari teaching; the teachings of Rastafari enable black people to reclaim a strong sense of their identity and a royal heritage.

Picture2Sometimes, however, we are in the middle of the power structures- perhaps we are in power and we do not recognise the position in which we find ourselves. Let me amend that slightly, we might recognise the position that we are in, but we cannot fully understand the perspective of the minority. This was brought home to me as I read Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey. McGarvey writes of his experience in Pollok,
Glasgow in the early 1990s. This was particularly interesting for me as I was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pollok in 1991. I recognised the deprivation that was in the particular housing estate that McGarvey lived in, but I did not truly understand the situation that the families that I met were in. I thought I did, but I did not, and more importantly could not. I tried to empathise, but the only way for me to begin to really understand would be to listen to the honest and authentic voices. Although I was from a working-class background, my experience was not that of Pollok in the early 90s. McGarvey suggests:

A gulf opens up between the professionals and the service users which can become fraught with misunderstanding should anyone attempt to bridge it. That’s why people tend to stick to their own and conform to type, whatever side of the divide they may find themselves on (Darren McGarvey (2018) Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass p. 6).

This disconnect often leads to feelings of isolation and a sense of not belonging for the minority:

This is the other ‘deficit’ we rarely talk about or acknowledge. The deficit in our respective experiences when we come from lower class or higher class backgrounds. The deficit in how that experience is represented, reported and discussed. This deficit, which appears to be widening, has led to a culture that leaves many people feeling excluded, isolated or misrepresented and, therefore, adversarial or apathetic towards it. And it’s often based on people living in run-down social conditions, with little money, in stressed-out, violent communities… It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason for it: it’s true (Darren McGarvey (2018) Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass p. 37).

On this occasion I was in ‘power’, in other examples perhaps I can be considered to have been in a minority. Returning back to the immediate context of my work; my concern for this arises from the representation of my faith within education. There have been very interesting occasions where unthinkingly the power structures have been reinforced. Whether it is the acceptability of a discussion which questions my Christianity, while simultaneously taking offence should anyone suggest that the person speaking may fall foul of the same definition. The example I often use is the definition of a Christian as one’s Church belonging to the World Council of Churches. My usual rejoinder is that by that definition Roman Catholics are not Christian. At this point all kinds of belligerence arises, and I am asked ‘How dare I suggest that?’ My rejoinder is that I am not suggesting it, their own definition is. The irony is that it’s fine to question my faith as a minority, but the moment the majority is questioned it becomes wrong. It is important when we consider our place in the power dynamics, that we truly listen to and consider the feelings of others. Just because it is not our experience, does not mean that it is not real.

It is also strange because it can be seen that in lots of different places and on a smaller scale similar power dynamics are at work. A very simple example is from when I served on a committee that met on a Tuesday evening/ Wednesday morning UK time at 1am. The reason for the timing is that the majority of the members of the committee lived in Utah and I, and a couple of others, joined via a Skype like system. Once I suggested that maybe we could meet on a Saturday evening about 7pm, this would mean the majority being at noon, and another from Australia being at 7am. The response was ‘the majority rules, we’re staying at 6pm MST on a Monday). It didn’t really affect me too much, but it was then that I realised that I was a very junior member of the group and was dissuaded from making any more logistical suggestions, whatever happened I had to fit in with the minority.

The danger of only recognising larger voices is the idea that those in the minority feel that they are not listened to, and therefore give up in their efforts to be heard. McGarvey argues:

Enthusiasm to take part and be active in communities quickly dissipates when people realise the local democracy isn’t really designed with them in mind; that it’s designed primarily so that people from outside the community can retain control of it, over the heads of those who live there. (Darren McGarvey (2018). Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass pp. 48-49).

This is somewhat reminiscent of a lament by David Cameron, then UK prime Minister, in 2011:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.

In these circumstances, Cameron is recognising the deficiencies that that his Government had in listening to minority voices. This may not always be the case, sometimes silence is taken to be belligerence and an unwillingness to engage; or possibly agreement by those in the minority. It is the responsibility of those ‘in power’ to recognise the position in which they find themselves and evaluate whether their systems and practices are designed to be inclusive, and that they are functioning as such. I am reminded of a poem by Edwin Markham that can work top-down, or bottom-up:

            He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him in!

Those minority voices in whatever place we find them can have important things to add to the discussion. The committee I mentioned before included me, and others, as representatives of people from around the world. It was recognised that our life experiences would differ from those in Utah, and therefore an inclusion of our thoughts would produce a better product (a book in this case). An example from the world of storytelling that I often use is the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Those in power- members of the court, and the adults of society went along with the accepted narrative for fear of being seen as uncultured and ignorant. It took the voice of a child to help everyone rethink their positions.

Picture3

In these circumstances it may not be that things are changed to the suggestions of the minority, but listening to their viewpoint and contributions is transformative. I often speak about a ‘third space’ where true dialogue takes place. If people engage in true dialogue where they are open to change then we cannot help but be changed, and transformed through every one of our interactions. In some cases, we will change our practice because of the words of others that enable us to learn and develop. In other cases, we will stay with our original thoughts but they will be more considered because we will have had to think about why we think something is best as opposed to what the other has said.

I am very concerned about a society where the loudest voices seem to shout down anyone who dares to have something to add to the discussion. There are examples of reasoned debate, but the desire to learn from others seems to have been sacrificed on the altar of maintaining entrenched positions. The ability to listen to others, and most especially listen to the experiences of those who are in a minority can help us become more understanding and reflective.

I seem to have taken a long time to talk around a topic; let me finish by making some suggestions about:

  • People with minority need to speak up to have their voices heard.

The right of having your voice heard is coupled with the responsibility to speak up. Sometimes this is difficult, as you feel that you are lone voice in the wilderness, but there is a necessity to have your thoughts heard.

  • We should engage with all people.

It is very easy to live in an echo chamber and only listen to voices that are similar to ours. We should listen to people with different experiences, backgrounds and thoughts to us. Only then can we develop a holistic picture of the issues under discussion, and the challenges that face all areas of society.

  • We should go beyond tokenism and recognise the value that minority voices can bring.

Sometimes a minority voice is included as a ‘token’ or to use another metaphor, ‘throwing a dog a bone’. The inclusion of minority voices should be real and be an integral part in shaping society, practices and relationships.

  • We should reflect on our own place in the power dynamics and exercise humility and interest.

In one environment I am a minority voice- in another I am the ‘establishment’. I find it very easy to forget the lessons I learn from one when I transition to the other. In every situation whether we are in the minority or the majority we should express humility in listening to, and learning from, others.

  • Recognise a transformative third space.

We should be open to learning in every situation, and that every voice can contribute to a shared future.

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