Powerarchy: Understanding the Psychology of Oppression

An interview with Melanie Joy about her new book "Powerarchy."

Posted Jan 26, 2020

"Harvard-educated psychologist and bestselling author Melanie Joy exposes the psychology that underlies all forms of oppression and abuse and the belief system that gives rise to this psychology—which she calls powerarchy...Powerarchy conditions us to engage in power dynamics that violate integrity and harm dignity, and it creates unjust power imbalances among social groups and between individuals...She also provides tools for transformation."

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed a new book by Dr. Melanie Joy, a psychologist, award-winning author, and educator, called Powerarchy: Understanding the Psychology of Oppression for Social Transformation. I was more familiar with her seminal work on the content of some people's meal plans and her development of the notion of carnism, an ideology that conditions us to eat certain animals. 

I was pleased that Dr. Joy could take the time to answer a few questions about her new book, one I thoroughly enjoyed and from which I learned a lot about topics I hadn't thought much about. Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you write Powerarchy?

What my research and my personal experience as an advocate for various social causes have shown is that oppression and abuse, which lie at the heart of some of the most pressing problems facing our world and our personal lives — war, poverty, domestic abuse, bullying, animal exploitation, climate change, racism, sexism, classism, and so forth--all share a common denominator: relational dysfunction.

In other words, oppression (and abuse, which is essentially oppression on the interpersonal level) reflects a problem in how we relate: as social groups, to other people, to animals, to the environment, and even to ourselves. 

I wanted to identify the common roots of all forms of oppression, the “metasystem,” or overarching system that informs all other systems. And it’s this system that I call “powerarchy.”

Powerarchy is the belief system that conditions us to see certain individuals or groups as more worthy of moral consideration—of being treated with integrity, or respect—than others. Recognizing powerarchy allows us to go beyond working to end one “ism” or form of abuse at a time to bring about broad social (and personal) transformation.

How does it follow up on some of your previous interests and work?

Powerarchy builds on my earlier research on the psychology of eating animals, which was popularized through my bestselling book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.

In Why We Love Dogs, I addressed the question: Why do compassionate, rational people support an industry that causes tremendous (and unnecessary) harm toward those animals they have learned to think of as edible? The reason, I explained, is carnism: an invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions us to eat certain animals.

Carnism is essentially a powerarchy; it requires us to act against core human values of compassion and justice. To do so, it uses psychological defense mechanisms that distort our thoughts (for instance, when we look at a hamburger we see “food” rather than a dead animal) and disconnect us from our natural empathy for animals. 

Source: Pixabay

Powerarchy is also connected to my work on “relationship resilience,” or cultivating healthy relationships with others, our world, and ourselves, which I discuss in my books Beyond Beliefs and Getting Relationships Right. Because powerarchy reflects and reinforces relational dysfunction, the antidote is developing what I refer to as relational literacy—the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating.

What are some of your main messages and who else has written along these lines?

Powerarchies, such as sexism or racism or an abusive relationship, are nonrelational systems, in that they cause us to relate in ways that are dysfunctional. Specifically, we violate our integrity and harm the dignity of others, thereby causing a disconnection between us.

For instance, think of how an abusive husband perceives and treats his wife as lacking the same moral worth as he himself has — he violates his integrity when he acts against his values of justice and compassion (whether he would say he holds compassion as a value, he likely thinks of himself as “fair” and “caring” about his wife) and he harms her dignity by not treating her with respect. This leads to disconnection in their relationship. 

Powerarchies are also structured so as to maintain unjust power imbalances among the individuals in the system. Again, consider how the abusive husband wields power and control over his wife and how, over time, his wife internalizes the negative messages she hears about herself and comes to believe that she is indeed less worthy of respect than he is, so she cedes more power and control to him. 

The theorists whose work is closest to the ideas in Powerarchy are relational cultural theorists. 

Who is your intended audience?

Powerarchy is for anyone who is interested in understanding how relational dynamics inform our lives and our world, for better or worse. I also wrote it for those interested in working toward progressive social change. Powerarchy is also for those with a background in psychology and can be used as a textbook in college courses. 

Is there anything more you'd like to tell readers?

For more information about powerarchy, readers can visit powerarchy.org. And for information about relational literacy and my other work, they can visit melaniejoy.org.