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Maslow's Hierarchy is Bullshit
The elite capture of a Blackfoot belief system
You’ve probably heard people say that identity politics is out of control. It kind of is, but not for the reasons that people think. Because people who say that tend to blame the people with marginalized identities rather than look at the way these identities have been exploited in service to whiteness and colonialism. I’ve written about how a sermon on identity politics pushed me over the edge and weirdly wound up with me writing a book. It was paywalled because it was part of the process of book writing which is what paying subscribers get, but that was last year and this is now so I’ve unlocked that essay in case you want to read it.
So I knew that the way we talk about identity politics is wrong and harmful, but I had a hard time articulating why. Not anymore.
I’m reading Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and everything else) by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and it’s giving me an awful lot to think about for a book that’s only 157 pages including the index. Broadly speaking he’s talking about how the elite of any given social group will take control of that identity and then put forward the their own priorities, how they will use the language of identity to suit their interests at the expense of others. And while he’s talking specifically about Black people in the US, it’s applicable to every other social group and really whatever your identity or identities are (because those too are layers of overlapping circles rather than silos as if we are only one thing or easily divisisble into part this part that. When I was a kid people would ask me what part Indian I was. I told them my brains and my heart, ha ha ha but the truth is we aren’t partial people so our identities exist in layers that have different meanings or relationships in different spaces) you can probably see how one layer of that group has taken control of what it means to be X and somehow leveraged that in a way that benefits them but not you.
Ultimately these elite captures serve whiteness and colonialism because in our current (but not inevitable) society that’s the top tier. That’s the center controlling everything around it. So regardless of whichever marginalized identity envelopes you the elite find a way to serve whiteness, that’s how they become the elite. We’ve all watched social movements get co-opted. This is how it happens. Elite capture.
He goes into all the different reasons why we go along with it including a really interesting reflection on the Emperor’s New Clothes that I hadn’t considered but all of this isn’t my point. My point is something he says towards the end.
Our systems of education are less about strong-arm indoctrination of people and more about making system-preserving uses of information easy while rendering system-altering uses of information difficult.
Because now think about every organization you are part of and the various ways that they use and control information to preserve the system regardless of the impact on those who rely on that system and here’s the kicker: they will insist that they are doing it for the sake of the most vulnerable even while the most vulnerable suffer for it.
I’m still thinking about churches in part because it’s a really simple application of this statement: think about how the choices made by translators and commentary writers impact the way that the text is read and then preached. How that works to make system-preserving uses of that foundational text easy while making system-altering readings of that text difficult.
If you go to church how often have you head “but Jesus/Paul/Peter said ….” Or “it has to be Biblical” or some such. Well first off we don’t know what they said. We only know what the people who recorded these things wrote down about it and unless you read Greek and Hebrew all you know is what the translators have told you the people who recorded these things said and since we don’t have any original documents we’re relying on copies of copies so you see how fragile those assertions are?
But our oral history is sus. Ok Boomer.
Now I’m going to look at Maslow’s hierarchy because that’s what I promised you. You’re probably familiar with his pyramid of needs and it makes a kind of intuitive sense if you’ve been raised in the western world. The problem is he stole it from the Blackfoot and then inverted it because his hierarchy of needs isn’t intuitive at all, not on a global scale. Maslow took it and then turned it into something that would make maintaining colonial ways of knowing easier while making Indigenous ways of knowing more difficult, seem less reliable.
For the Blackfoot, self actualization (the true self, our identity) comes first, not second last. Maslow wants to know how we become self-actualized, how knowing who we are happens. For the Blackfoot we’re born that way. We know who we are, and in many native cultures children are treated with particular respect because having just come from the Creator’s side they remember things we’ve long forgotten. We are born with our identity, we don’t have to chase it, try to find it, try to figure it out after we’ve done all the other things as if we need enough experience points before we can level up to having an identity other people will respect.
Ok, so what did I say earlier about “when you notice inequity look for the system and the people who benefit from it.” This inverted pyramid is an inequity, so who benefits from Maslow’s assertions?
Who benefits from the idea that you don’t know who you are or what your role is and you have to earn or work your way up the pyramid. Who benefits when people are told that they can’t achieve things because they are struggling to meet physiological and safety needs, or because those needs are being kept out of reach? Who benefits when identity is a thing to be worked towards, a goal near the top of the pyramid instead of something you are born with, something innate about you.
Because it isn’t like our society actually believes people have basic needs that must be met in order for them to be functional members of society . If they actually believed this and valued people’s contributions then physical and safety needs would be met.
And it’s nonsense anyway. Aesthetic needs are way at the top of Maslow’s pyramid but in The Cooking Gene, Michael W Twitty points out that everything Africans and African Americans did became spun gold in the hands of others. Enslaved Africans gave the world the blues and soul food and so much more. Don’t tell me that people whose physical and safety needs were as far out of reach as theirs were did not possess knowledge or make aesthetic contributions. They were born knowing who they were. They were born into communities and through those communities they perpetuated cultural knowledge in so many different ways. All while seeking the very things that Maslow said people need before they can do anything else.
Maslow’s hierachy is rooted in the individualism of the west. It is a system-preserving way of thinking that inhibits change even while pretending to be a mechanism for it. That keeps some of us focused on chasing basic needs kept just out of reach while those with means get to control identity, that expression of our collective selves.
And it’s bullshit.