26 Hierarchy behaving badly

‘aloof complacency’

In today’s Times there is an intriguing story about the efforts of Mr Xi, the Chinese President, to curb extravagance on the part of those who work for the State and occupy important posts within it.  A decree has gone out that this elite is no longer going to be allowed to drive foreign imported cars, particularly those from Germany, such as Audis and Mercedes.  They will be required to drive Chinese made models instead.  The problem for the Chinese officials is that Chinese cars are not known for their reliability.  But there is also a problem for their perceived status in the eyes of their fellow citizens.  ‘How,’ remarked one tweeter, ‘can a senior PLA officer possibly maintain his usual expression of aloof complacency at the wheel of a Geely? (local car)’  It is these two words ‘aloof complacency’ that seems to capture aspects of hierarchical behaviour the world over.  My younger daughter, who spent a year in China, tells me that for a country who is wedded to Communism, the Chinese have developed a remarkable variety of marks of status, including the size and shape of their spectacles!

What do these two words, ‘aloof complacency’ imply?  They imply that people who occupy a high position within a hierarchical structure often develop a body language and pose that proclaims their position at all times.  Aloof is a word that describes a self-important pose, an expression around the mouth accompanied by a straight back.  It says two things.  Look at me and be impressed and simultaneously keep out of my way because I am too important to be bothered with the likes of you.  It is not difficult to convey that message from the driving seat of a large imported foreign car.

The other word, complacency, picks the part of the attitude that wants nothing to do with lower forms of life.  In any hierarchy one way of asserting your position and keeping your status is by disregarding or dominating those below you.  They are simply not worth your attention.  People below you in the hierarchy do not just get ignored, they do not engage your compassion or what Christians would call love.  Complacency thus involves detachment and such detachment seems part of the pose adopted by many who occupy high places within hierarchies the world over.

Another story parallel to the Chinese report leapt at me from the pages of this week’s Tablet, the Catholic weekly.  This is the news that Catholic clergy, with a few exceptions, may no longer expect to achieve the honorary title of monsignor.  This title was given to clergy by the bishops for such things as long service or loyalty to the bishop.  Pope Francis has spotted no doubt a kind of careerism and ambition for titles among the clergy which involved a certain preening themselves as somehow more important than their fellows who were doing identical jobs.  The Church of England has a similar system which rewards clergy who have stayed loyal to the system for a long time in one place, by awarding them the honorary title of Canon.  The title has virtually no duties or extra responsibilities but allows some of these clergy concerned to make minor alterations to their robes as well as inviting his parishioners to alter their term of address to him from ‘Vicar’ to ‘Canon’.

These examples from China and from the Catholic and Anglican churches can probably be paralleled by the reader through countless other examples from a variety of walks of life.  In my school days I can remember the way that promotion to becoming a prefect meant that one instantly stopped speaking to boys who were not prefects.  In short, hierarchy, whether political or religious, has a horrible capacity to corrupt people and make them less human, compassionate and loving.  There are some telling words in the gospels when Jesus comes in on a conversation among his disciples about who was the most important.  He said and I paraphrase, ‘Kings and Lords exercise authority and lord it over others, but it shall not be so among you.  Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all’.  There is a long sermon that could be preached on these few words.   We may comment that the undergirding message of this passage seems to have been completely lost over the centuries.  Few people criticise constructively the malign effect of hierarchy on some individuals.  They do not see that although it is necessary to have different levels of responsibility in government and church as well as in every other form of human organisation, it does not necessitate the ‘aloof complacency’ that quite often accompanies it.  Christians follow a master who saw right through power games in society and so should we.  Jesus spoke some memorable words in Matthew 23. 5 when talking about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.  ‘Everything they do is done for men to see.  They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets …..’  How little things have changed!

To return to the theme of this blog overall and the relevance of these news stories, we can finish by simply noting that ‘aloof complacency’ is a temptation always inherent in hierarchical organisations and this will increase the likelihood that power over others will be abused.  An increase of responsibility within a hierarchical structure is not sufficient reward for some.  They have to gild the lily by behaving in self-important ways that ultimately seem to be pointless and self-defeating.  It is particularly disappointing to find church organisations sometimes drawn into the same vanity power games as others.  The abuse of power wherever it is found is also often going to be rooted in this kind of vanity and superior attitude.  That is a good reason for us to be alert to notice it and resist it.  Although ‘aloof complacency’ is not easy to withstand when we are pushed down by it, we can at least recognise its ultimate futility and even see in this futility aspects of humour.    Perhaps ultimately pomposity and vanity are best defeated by humour and ridicule.  No doubt the Chinese tweeter raised a few wry smiles when describing the behaviour of the Government officials in his country!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “26 Hierarchy behaving badly

  1. These power games have seeped into the soul of English society. It is a great cause of depression to me. It has been so well camouflaged by the disciplining organizations that I and my friends were subject to. I have seen and I Know the damage done. I have seen the complete destruction of an individual followed by a life sentence of brain policing solitary confinement. I am reminded of the indifference towards the lower working class by John Constable’s painting; ‘The Haywain’ . Everyone sees the ‘Lovely Picture’ but does anyone notice the laborer
    on the Wain, in the sweat and toil of the harvest? That’s how easy it is to miss this vital issue if you are ‘up there’ with a stilted overview. Go to you Vicars, go to your leaders, look them in the eye, show them this blog, ask them , ‘Do you want to change this?’ If ‘The eye is the light of the soul’ you will get an instant answer, I think! Chris Pitts.

  2. Oh yes! But if the snob is your feudal overlord, there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. When he smiles upon you, things are ok. If he had a bad night, you have a bad day. Being an alpha female cunningly disguised as a fat old wifie who works on a till I really come in for this. Alphas expect to be recognised by other alphas. I am still surprised when I am spoken to like a half wit, or, well, simply not treated like an equal. I remember having a happy five minutes exchanging jokes with a group of people who plainly didn’t know they were supposed to look down on me on one occasion, and then I caught one of the bosses watching me. Sure enough, I was punished for it later. Something I valued was taken from me with no exlanation.

  3. There is so much more that could be said here! I recently suggested that I think hierarchies are an inevitable part of society. But when we look at the terrible effects, we see the work of the prince of this world. We’re all coming at this from different places, and a major part of our spiritual development is to learn to see, feel and understand in love where others are coming from, to stop hurting people and understand our true belonging to each other as God’s children. Another part is to learn to cope with our pain, another to find effective means of resistance and change. Yes humour is vital and powerful; solidarity is also essential. So much more to say, thanks for the great post: this is at the core of the gospel.

  4. Thank you for these three comments. I find that just writing these blogs I become more sensitised to the issues. Hierarchy makes a great discussion point because everyone has had experience of being part of it, either as an exploiter or as the exploited. Chris has taught me to see the effect of hierarchies from the perspective of those on the bottom of the pile. I have watched people doing the exploiting, though I have never worked as English Athena has for a lengthy period under a tyrannical system. I suppose an Anglican clergyman such as myself was in the fortunate position of being on the top of a very small hierarchy. Even if, as I hope was true of me, you never bullied anyone, at least you had some protection against being bulled by others. The freehold system does mean that unless you do something major, you survive unpleasant attacks for the most part. Yes haikusinenomine all of us need to ‘see, feel and understand in love’ this whole issue. Writing the blog post has woken me up to see the way hierarchy is everywhere and we need to adopt a healthy and wise position in relation to it.

    1. It’s very clear to me that many people who have privileged positions don’t know what it means to be poor and marginalised or seriously disempowered. But I think the reverse can be true too. As someone who has never be very high in any hierarchy – but had a privileged upbringing in some ways – I also think it’s worthwhile to try to understand what the challenges are for those who are higher up, and how they may or may not try, succeed or fail in maintaining their humanity and leading well without abusing. An example quite relevant to this recently was a film I saw called “A Highjacking”, a Danish film about a Danish ship highjacked by Somali pirates. Part of the story was about the plight of the crew and how they were affected. Part was also about the way the CEO took responsibility for saving them through the negotiations. He took the hard option of insisting on being in personal charge all through, against the advice of both the professional hostage negotiator and the company directors. The film explored the psychology and meaning of this, and the sacrifices involved. If we only concentrate on talking about abuse, (which certainly does need to be held up and taken seriously) we do not set before people anything better to strive for, or show those in responsible roles that we recognise their dilemmas.

      Another way this has played out in my life has been to understand sympathetically the needs of professionals in the mental health system in order to contribute as I have done towards helping them to be more aware of the needs and humanity of service users. Taking a purely antagonistic position towards their many failings, driven by fear, pain and anger – disempowerment – coming from things in my history and the difficulties I still have, has been a temptation at times, but is not the most obviously constructive way forward. There are such obvious parallels of course between the health and clergy hierarchies. However it seems to me that it’s much more culturally acceptable now to be purely negative about the church than about medicine.

  5. Lashing out. That’s a lot of it. If you’re having a bad day, you shouldn’t be kicking the dog. And if two people are having an argument, and one is a great deal more powerful than the other, well, power should pull its punches. If the managing director shouts at the cleaner it’s totally different to if the cleaner shouts at the managing director. She can do no harm.

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