I Blame the Kyriarchy

Happy May Day. As people around the world celebrate the struggles of laborers, and as many immigrants and supporters of immigrant rights set off on protest marches around this country, I wanted to link you to one of my favorite blog posts of the last week: Sudy’s explanation of kyriarchy, a concept coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

It’s a useful neologism for an idea that comes up a lot: multiple, overlapping, shifting pyramids of power. Try to focus too hard on just one, try to figure out with some kind of precision exactly which individuals are at the top, and you lose sight of the entire awful kyriarchy, that has any number of ways to crush people. It’s another trick that power structures play to distract you. I’ve heard this kind of concept discussed before — some people I know just use the word “hierarchies” to talk about this, and in some feminist writing this is what “patriarchy” means. But I like the word kyriarchy, not least because it doesn’t just focus on “fathers” as the top of the pyramid.

For me the word summons up a bizzare image of holographic, floating, disappearing and reappearing ancient step pyramids. Because that’s how complex the overlapping of power can be, and how surreal. Sometimes we talk about this stuff like patriarchy, white supremacy, or homophobia is a bunch of craggy old white guys having a meeting down the street where we can kick the doors in and turn over the table piled high with money and blood. Too bad that the history of oppressive cultural attitudes, social enforcement, the accumulation of religion and greed and control and security is never that simple. But don’t think I mean it’s all ideology either. Kyriarchy kills. Don’t let it slip behind you when you’re not looking — or under your feet.

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21 comments for “I Blame the Kyriarchy

  1. irishgirl1983
    May 1, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Love the concept!

    Is this sort of addressed by folks already with the disparaging phrases “hierarchy of oppression” or “oppression olympics” ? But i think coining a new word is better then belittling other words

    More on this: It’s like I think folks just need to be real about what prviliges they have and what oppressions they face, right? Like sometimes I have gotten caught up in a my queer identity, or my trans identity, or my sex identity – but I still need to be real about being white, middle class person who went to college and a bunch of other stuff.

  2. shah8
    May 1, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    The key issue with kyriarchy is not that it exists and it’s bad. The issue is that at heart, it’s undefined, and dynamic in meaning across all levels and reaches for base and high desire alike from all sorts of people to sustain itself.

    It’s largely another name for maya.

    And the only cure is mass enlightenment.

    Pretty high goal…

  3. May 1, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks for linking to and highlighting Sudy’s post. What a useful term; more than just a term, really – a handy framework for thinking and talking about power and oppression.

  4. shah8
    May 1, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    hmmm, reading my comment, I should clarify something…

    When I said undefined, I was talking about the individual’s reference frame in the midst of everything that’s going on. I.E., that it’s hard for a single person to define Kyriarchy as it resolves around her, and relate a coherent understanding to the person next her.

    Not talking about the actual definitions, what it is, or anything else. Just pointing theory and practice differences.

  5. Leah
    May 1, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Possibly a stupid question….but how would one pronounce kyriarchy? (Of course, aside from the -archy part, I think I got that down).

  6. May 1, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Well, the word kyrie is usually pronounced keer-ee-ey — although these days you mostly hear it in the phrase kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy on us, which is used in various Greek Orthodox and Catholic prayers. (Which if you ask me, also makes the word kyriarchy even more appropriate.)

    So I guess kyriarchy would be keer-ee-ahr-kee.

  7. She-cago
    May 1, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Speaking as someone who’s name is Kyrie, I say boo :-( Hope this term doesn’t catch on…

  8. exholt
    May 1, 2008 at 6:14 pm


    Thank you for this post as this term could be more easily and widely applied to analyze the social and power dynamics in differing socio-cultural contexts….or an individual/group whose privileges may change depending on which socio-cultural context s(he) happens to be in.

  9. May 1, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    I love to see Sudy getting props for giving props to Schussler Fiorenza. I love the concept, even though I’m always slow to take up neologisms.

    But shah8, I think you’re right. This is very close to maya, and I’ll remind you that mass enlightenment doesn’t happen all at once. Mass enlightenment emerges from the localized enlightenments working together. Google Meg Wheatley for more.

    To me, the trick to living in a free-of-kyriarchy way is to recognize, and truly live aligned with the idea, that no one is better than you and you are better than no-one. In situations were there are socially-recognized (false, but socially-recognized) hierarchies, formal or privilege-based, love the people “below” you as you love yourself, and love the people “above” you as you love yourself. And remeber that the most important voice is the little one inside you that tells you to do the right thing.

  10. May 1, 2008 at 7:30 pm
  11. May 2, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I can see how overlapping hierarchies of oppression is useful in analyzing much of the real world, and I can see how it can be useful to have a word for the whole huge multi-dimensional pyramid.

    That being said, I don’t think I’m going to adopt the word yet. Maybe once I get a better handle on the kyriarchy concept this will change, but right now with kyriarchy I feel like I’m off the hook, whereas with the concepts “patriarchy” or “heteronormative culture” or “white privilege” I know I’m part of the group that’s advantaged by the surrounding structure. With kyriarchy… see, I’m not part of the top 5% in wealth, a single missed paycheck would be a serious financial burden, and at work I don’t have anyone reporting to me. I, personally, am not in a position of authority (“Lord”) over anyone (except, I guess, my young daughter, and that’s a shared authority). So the kyriarchy oppresses me, yet I don’t have to take responsibility for advantages it gives me over others because I’m not “Lord” in any sense in my day-to-day life.

    And yet, as a white, straight, Christian male, I know that’s bullshit. My opinions get taken seriously automatically almost everywhere because of the larger groups I belong to. I’m judged competent and trustworthy until I prove my incompetence, not the other way ’round. Even though I’m very glad that today is payday, I’m much, much better off financially than the vast majority of America, and a big part of that is because of where my parents (and their parents, and their parents, …) were able to be financially, and we all know the various subtle and non-subtle ways that was affected by race and ethnic background. I have a ton of privilege, and I can’t just shrug and say “well, I’m not really in charge, so it doesn’t count”.

    So anyway, for now I’m not going to use kyriarchy. Maybe once I understand the term better that’ll change, but for now all I see in that word is that I’m not the one in charge so it’s not on me to recognize my privileged position.

  12. felagund
    May 2, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    I thought this was a really valuable and interesting way of framing things. I read it a few days ago and it’s definitely changed my perspective on many issues.

  13. irishgirl1983
    May 2, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    @ Daniel:

    An attitude I got from your comment, which I could’ve totally mis-read, is that you have some sort of guilt identity. Like you’re getting pleasure from thinking how awful you are. Do you really think you’re better and happier then everyone else?

  14. sophonisba
    May 2, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Wow, he didn’t say anything like that.

    Is this that thing where people try to think of a way to talk about privilege and oppression that doesn’t imply that your everyday average white man has anything to do with either one, and then get defensive when decent, honest white men politely decline to be pandered to and patronized? (Thanks for that, Daniel, by the way.)

  15. sophonisba
    May 2, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    And furthermore, just how much does this ‘patriarchy is just a tiny piece of the puzzle, look at the KYRIARCHY!’ business differ from the whole rotten ‘try to put racism out of your mind for a second, silly black woman, and look at the bigger picture–we’re all women together! Just fight the PATRIARCHY!’

    Remember how well that doesn’t work? Telling people to ignore the actual oppression they actually experience, to fight the real enemy?

    If anybody wants a slogan for the kyriarchy-protestin’, I recommend “Solidarity at the Expense of Uncomfortable Facts.” Or, “I’m Not Dick Cheney, So I’ve Got Nothing to Worry About.”

    Maybe once I understand the term better that’ll change, but for now all I see in that word is that I’m not the one in charge so it’s not on me to recognize my privileged position.

    Nope, that’s how it’ll be used across the blogosphere, and that’ why people wll love it. You can bank on it.

  16. May 2, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Daniel — I think you missed part of the point, and I can see how that would be easy to do. The idea of kyriarchy is by no means a replacement for talking about white privilege, heteronormativity, sexism, etc. In fact, that would be exactly the wrong way to use the word “kyriarchy” and I think we ought to be clear about that, otherwise it would end up getting used just like sophonsiba said. If you just use it as some sort of replacement, then there isn’t even a need for a new word — you’re just doing the same thing over. The point is to also think about kyriarchy ON TOP of all of these other things, to keep in mind the fact that overlapping intersections and shifting power dynamics are happening even when we try to focus on one problem at a time. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (and in this case, greater means not only worse, but more elusive, like shah8 says) — but that doesn’t mean you can just replace each part with some vague reference to the whole, either. There are no shortcuts here — and we ought to resist them.

    And yeah, irishgirl? I totally did not get that from reading Daniel’s post.

  17. Adrian
    May 3, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Maybe once I understand the term better that’ll change, but for now all I see in that word is that I’m not the one in charge so it’s not on me to recognize my privileged position.

    Is that any different from a term like Patriarchy? Surely using terms like Patriarchy could give other people a similar ‘I’m not in charge’ feeling. As you obviously understand that you do have certain priviledges, surely it would be more beneficial to work towards an acceptance of a term like Kyriarchy, as it addresses other peoples ‘I’m not in charge’ assumptions, and the fact that it is archaic and vague makes it harder for any group of people to use it to identify themselves as those ‘not in charge’, and challenges them to see how priviledge works for them. The challenge is to see how you are part of the Kyriarchy, rather than just assuming you don’t have a case to answer.

  18. ThePakistani.Heretical. Girl
    May 7, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Kyriarchy, this is a interesting idea maybe, cos what u got to know and many people can not understand is that when there is honor killings in Pakistan, both in UK and in Pakistan itself, there is a meeting and everyone sits down and thinks how to trap the girl, lure her and then, sorry, i got to be frank, murder her. Women oppress other women, females joined the SS and worked at Aushschwitz and were known for sadistic cruelty, women ape male attitudes to women and practice bdsm, something that totally offends and freaks me out and is not part of feminism, just aping repression- as the servants who feign their masters’ taste- then finally get to really like it. Then we got women, elected to murder their own daughters for family honor. In me own case, me mum was the only one who stood by me, but she is a small woman and at a time when only pyhsical power mattered, she could do nothing to help me. But there are women so sick with Islam that they commit the most shocking atrocities against their own daughters. They were once mothers who nurtured, who must have reared, loved, educated and then something vile in our culture turned them into butchers. Does kyriarchy explain why honor killings and Islam fuse together to turn even mothers into not just enforcers ofpatriarchy, but savage oppressors in their own right? Yet in their own right, i got a problem with that, cos none of what they are doing makes sense unless it is seen within the context of Islam, a male dominated religion fuelling male agression that is so powerful, even mothers can be co-opted into it.
    Are western feminists who adopt Islam agents of kyriarchy too, the reason why i called them in one of me other posts before i got strongly advise to hide me identity- little eichmans.

  19. fred
    May 11, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Hey Holly! I really don’t want to intrude, so please people just ignore me… When the shit hit the fan with bfp I think you were the one person who kept me around, just not in the feminist blogosphere but on the whole interthing as well. I don’t care whether you’re male, female or any other definition is more suitable to you, you’re someone whose insight I value a lot, as an individual from whom I could learn a lot, and am striving to do.
    I read some distressing stuff in other threads, on different levels, which brought me out of lurkdom. Don’t worry, I probably won’t ever post any comment ever again around here, but I do want you to know I appreciate what you do and your posts mean a lot to me; even though my personal gender issues may not have come on the same side as yours eventually, I think it’s too bad we should be deemed to be on opposite sides as I have the presumption to think we both came to think of this as less obvious as we should have thought in the first place.

  20. September 15, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I know I’m way late to the discussion but I just wanted to let you know that you older posts are still offering some insight. I’ve seen this word a few times but I hadn’t seen much deep discussion on it. Thanks.

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