Oppression and the desire to dominate others comes naturally to people. There are many examples from world history that can prove this claim. (forced labour, genocide, racism, sexism and every other ‘ism’ you can think of) Whilst oppression is abhorrent, there are plenty of subtle and more acceptable forms of oppression such as hierarchy, deference, and royal lineages.
There are also systems which aid certain groups to perpetrate dominance and oppression over others; such as patriarchy, dubiously implemented religious values and cultural practices. These are great tools to control and oppress those at the bottom of those systems, those who do not have any power to manipulate the functioning of these systems and therefore cannot benefit.
A classic example of one such system is that of hierarchy based on age. It is almost universal that in most cultures around the world, age is often revered. Age is equated to wisdom and there is a special form of deference that is reserved for those who are older than us. This notion is often silently passed down to our children. My observations of my 5-year-old and her cousins have revealed something about how age hierarchy shapes their interactions.
My daughter and her cousins ages range from 8 years old to 6months old. The 8-year-old regularly calls the shots and the younger children often have a choice, to either fall in line or do something different; to rebel. Those that rebel face the risk of being alienated as their older cousin has persuasive power over the majority. In one of their interactions the 8-year-old declared, “you guys have to do what I say because I am the oldest” And as parents we have reinforced this notion by repeating “if x happens then you (referring to the two eldest children) will be in trouble because you should be looking after your younger cousins”. This has two consequences; the first one teaches the older children responsibility but the unintended consequence is to create a hierarchy divide where the older children can dominate the younger children, to set the agenda for their own benefit in the guise of them being older and being responsible.
This reverence for the older person has also been apparent in my own life experiences. As a child a much-loved grandparent told a shamefaced lie; they knew it was a lie as did my cousins and I, however when we challenged this were menacingly asked “are you calling me a liar!?” Remember: as children we were told that our parents and elders don’t lie. When in reality they liked to fib!! Heaven forbid the beating we would have received, not to mention the taboo of challenging an elder, so we kept our mouths shut and spoke of it no more. In this way we were socialised into the culture of allowing the wrongs committed by our elders to continue without justice. This may seem to be a small thing but when you look across the African continent at the elderly presidents that often declare themselves elected kings and make terrible governance decisions, despite this they remain respected and dubbed ‘fathers of the nation’ robbing the masses of justice. Those who have seniority, who occupy positions of power in the hierarchy can abuse their positions of power and go unchallenged: from a parent their child a lie openly, to the MP’s who can fiddle with their expenses or the African senators who pay themselves exorbitant wages whilst killing their nations and withholding wages to their civil servants.
We socialise our children to accept certain hierarchies without question, this is good and bad. It is good because with leadership and clear roles for each member of the family there is harmony and order, children are prepared to be good workers and productive citizens. It becomes bad when we show them the privilege associated with certain positions and when we show them how to abuse those privileges for personal gain or to excise power over others just because we can.
That’s my two cents
Peace and love