Basic tenets of Critical Hydra Theory

Posted on: February 23, 2023 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

[Updated 8-4-23]

‘…the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…’

-from the first sentence of the Preamble to the 1948  Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Critical Hydra Theory
‘Critical Hydra Theory’ (CHT) is similar to but broadly expands on ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT). It is more comprehensive, interrogating not just race and ethnicity but all of the privileging forces which have historically served to marginalize the majority of humans, both past and present. Perhaps the biggest difference is that CHT includes anthropocentrism, an ‘othering’ of non-human life on our Earth. CHT has a demonstratively global perspective and seeks to provide a framework of analysis interrogating all social forces which have contributed to systemic marginalization of non-privileged status groups throughout history.

Like Critical Race Theory, this new perspective has a heavy emphasis on history, the phenomena of intersectionality, and how each of the privileging forces are structured into cultural systems.

Hydra: a many-headed serpent or monster in Greek mythology that was slain by Hercules and each head of which when cut off was replaced by two others
(hydra) not capitalized : a multifarious evil not to be overcome by a single effort

The Hydra is a mythical beast with many heads, each potentially lethal, all harmful. Critical Hydra Theory is a powerful metaphor for engaging critically with intersectionality and reflexively with privilege; is a novel packaging of an old idea, namely that in many cases -perhaps most- those in power will seek to normalize and justify the marginalization of the ‘other’. These processes of normalization and justification serve to weave marginalization into the very fabric of each culture leading to various levels of ‘false consciousness.’

Both those being marginalized and those doing the marginalization may come to believe the falsehood that, for example, women are inferior to men or that ‘white’ people are superior to non-white people. More generally stated, this ‘false consciousness’ breeds an atmosphere where the acceptance of social inequalities and systemic marginalization of those not privileged is just ‘how things are’, to be accepted as normal. Our cultures teach us to never question the social construction of race, gender, class, sexuality, ‘normal’ ability, and also to accept the assumption that humans have dominion over all other life forms.

Critical Hydra Theory demands taking a very controversial stance, questioning how power has been misused in the formation of nearly all cultural institutions, but especially those of family, religion, politics, law, education, and the media. CHT is unequivocally against all forms of marginalization (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, hetero and cis normativity, and anthropocentrism). Embracing CHT means interrogating all cultural assumptions, norms, policies, laws, and structures which support toxic othering in any form. It is a radical theory both literally and figuratively. CRT examines and interrogates the root structures of cultures, thus questioning the very foundations of power and privilege.

An essential premise of critical Hydra theory (CHT) is intersectionality. This concept was presented to us by the founder of critical race theory (CRT) Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. She says,

“Intersectionality is just a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or whatever social justice advocacy structures we have. Intersectionality is not so much of a grand theory it’s a prism for understanding certain kinds of problems.”

In listing and discussing the historical trajectory all the privileging forces it is essential to keep in mind that
“…multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves”. For example, in a previous post I describe how racism, classism, and paternalism/colonialism are inextricably connected in their development and cannot be examined separately.

I am reminded -and cautioned by -the passage from Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha, “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.” Acting on lessons learned from CHT means being sober to the fact that cultures are integrated and complex fabrics, and that pulling on one string may unravel essential parts of the whole. Worlds can be changed without wholesale destruction, indeed most social change is slow and organic. The fact remains, though, hard questions must be asked regarding all forms of culturally entrenched marginalization, and this means questioning basic assumptions about each major social institution and, yes, including religion and politics. The emphasis should not be on ‘destroying a world’ but rather a systematic, measured, but at the same time radical -meaning at the root- cultural transformation. Not defeating or killing the Hydra but rather taming the beast.

Basic tenets of Critical Hydra Theory
Embracing CHT means understanding it’s basic tenets including (but not limited to) the following:

  • CHT builds on and is inspired by Critical Race Theory (CRT) and as such it demands that an aggressive, unwavering, deep, and thorough interrogation of all marginalizing social structures is necessary.
  • Privileging statuses are socially created and as such can be socially deconstructed.
  • Listening to the voices of and taking the lead from those who are marginalized, and especially those who are marginalized by multiple privileging forces, is a primary tool for those using both CRT and CHT. This means taking to heart the aphorism, “Until the lion learns to speak, tales of hunting will always favor the hunter” and actively listening to the ‘lion.’
  • All humans see and interact with each other in terms of our various -mostly ascribed- statuses, at least in the initial stages of interaction.
  • ‘Normal othering’ will tend to degenerate into ‘toxic othering’ whenever there is an asymmetry of power between one status group and another.
  • ‘Toxic othering’ leads to the normalization of marginalization, entrenching itself deeply into cultural norms, rules, policies, laws, and religious and political dogma.
  • The normalization of marginalization may take years, decades, or even centuries and at times can be slowed or even reversed temporarily in some cases. That said, the long term trajectory tends toward more entrenched toxic othering.
  • Reversing toxic othering or ‘bending the moral arc toward justice’ can be done but is fundamentally a long term and multi-pronged effort.
  • All privileging forces are driven by ‘toxic othering’ and throughout history these forces have impacted the life chances of those marginalized across the globe.
  • The intersectionality inherent between all of the privileging forces must be recognized and addressed. Each privileging force can be seen separately, of course, but probing into how each force reinforces and amplifies the others is essential.
  • CHT recognizes that the Hydra may present itself very differently across time and cultural context from . The heads may change in salience and even take on different forms in different settings. The Hydra is not a static model but rather it is dynamically morphing, taking on different forms as power and privilege are wielded in ever more adaptive ways, always insuring the perpetuation of toxic othering and marginalization.
  • Critical to CHT is understanding that ‘false consciousness’ exists and that there can be a cultural blindness as to the existence of various privileging forces afflicting both the group in power and those being marginalized.
  • Central to CHT is the understanding that the economic force of capitalism and the political ideology of neoliberalism have both served to fuel the body of the Hydra and hence each head.
  • The desired end goal is for ‘toxic othering’ to be replaced by ‘normal othering’ where differences are recognized, honored, and respected by all. Restated, the goal is the denormalization of social marginalization. This social justice goal can be reached by addressing abuses of power and finding ways to emphasize the importance of using the positive forces of non-violence, love, and compassion to affect structural change.

The dangers of fighting for social justice
As a ‘boomer’ I feel there is a song lyric that merits mentioning.

“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down.”

Stephen Stills wrote these lyrics in reference to the killings at Kent State and Jackson State University in May of 1970, both involving students protesting the neo-colonial war in Viet Nam and domestic racial injustice, respectively. Those seeking justice have forever been caught in the literal crosshairs of those holding power, the harsh truth being that this seems unlikely to end any time soon. Recent events in Iran, China, and Myanmar provide stark examples.

Knowledge is power, and it is power that is needed in order to make change happen. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh the Rohingya social justice advocate Mohibullah was murdered by those threatened by his words and actions. By advocating that readers -especially those who are multiply marginalized- embrace and adopt CHT am I helping them to paint a target on their backs?

Fighting the process of oppression in all forms
In the words of American author Ijeoma Oluo,

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”

Using the tool of critical Hydra theory (CHT), it may be useful to expand Oluo’s statement to include all of the toxic othering ‘isms’ including (but not limited to) sexism, colorism, homo/transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, paternalism, colonialism, and so on. Consider replacing the word ‘anti-racism’ in Oluo’s statement with, for example, sexism or classism. Indeed, replace ‘anti-racism’ with any of the privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra.

The reality is that frequently we are both the oppressed and the oppressor, even in the same social situation. It is key to remember that we must fight oppression and marginalization as social forces and avoid focusing all our energies demonizing a specific ‘other’ who may be perpetuating a specific type of oppression. Our efforts should always be focused on addressing any false consciousness we may have (in other writing I refer to this as ‘baked in’ biases) and working to be anti-racist and ‘anti’ all of the other ‘isms’ mentioned above. One’s positionality fully considered always means understanding and addressing relevant forces of oppression at play in each social interaction, especially when asymmetries of power are a major factor.

Stated differently, using critical Hydra theory demands that we interrogate our past learning which has taught us how to be oppressed and also to oppress others. This is not an easy step, but it is one which might be facilitated by reading the words of Paulo Freire in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In summarizing perhaps the main point of Freire’s cannonical book, researcher and activist Anton Treuer says,

“Essentially what Freire has to say is that all forms of oppression have a pedagogy, a way by which we are all instructed and enculturated to accept and participate in dealing out the oppression and then receiving it, and often both. And he says because there’s actually a pedagogy for oppression there needs to be a pedagogy for the oppressed, a way to bring us into liberation.”

He goes on to add,

“So here are a couple of the really important things that I learned from Paulo Freire’s work. One is that oppression in all of its forms is complex and insidious and all of us– no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged we think we are– we all participate in the oppression.” (emphasis added)

Listen to Friere himself,

Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressor and those whom they oppress, it it the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, page 47)

That one can be both oppressed and an oppressor makes having self-awareness of one’s status array and positionality all the more critical. We must tap into the parts of us which have been or are oppressed1 when we are fighting oppression. The complicated and sometime treacherous journey toward social justice begins with greater self-awareness and has the ultimate goal of humanity’s liberation from all forms of oppression.

A point of departure, not as an ossified given
The image of the Hydra is flat, two dimensional, and static but in reality, using critical hydra theory is it just the opposite: multi layered, multi dimension, and absolutely dynamic. The size of the heads in any social context will change and morph as some become more relevant in one context, and less relevant in another. In the lived reality of BIPOC in the US, for example, the head of racism is much more impactful than perhaps and colonialism/paternalism, and this privileging force impacting more the peoples in sub-Saharan Africa. In a refugee camp, the largest head of the hydra would be a privileging force not clearly seen on this model. The ascribed status ‘refugee’ is the product of a type of racism (i.e., deep ethnic and religious bigotry) that has caused them to be put into a refugee camp as in the case of the Rohingya now exiled to Bangladesh. The Rohingya had the status of refugee thrust upon them because of the overt racism of the Burmese military and the Burmese ruling people.

The Hydra model with each head being equal is best seen as a starting point for discussion and analysis, challenging the user to reimagine how the various privileging forces vary in salience from context to context, culture to culture, and from one historical period to the next. As with the refugee example, the heads of the Hydra may take on different names and forms, new heads emerging and old one’s taking on new forms. Key to employing CHT, the Hydra model must be seen a flexible tool, a point of departure, not as an ossified given.

An unclear future
As humanity goes deeper into the 21st-century, the idea of most people having virtual identities and hence virtual status arrays has become a reality. We face a very uncertain future in terms of how the coming ‘metaverse’ will impact all of us regarding the various privileging forces and the process of toxic othering. One’s online presence is clearly a sophisticated product of impression management where an individual highlights typically or situationally positive aspects and dimensions of their status set and downplays others. This is an attempt to get a favorable relative positionality in whatever virtual social setting in which this person’s particular avatar exists. Of important note, and certainly relevant to my field of sociology, is that people can and do fabricate identities that may be quite unlike their real face to face identities they present in the ‘real’ world of social interaction.

In any case, my hope for the future is that technology and specifically online personalities and identities can serve as a force to mitigate toxic othering and not to enhance it. Only those with an accurate crystal ball can know for sure what the future holds in terms of how technology may impact social interaction and hence the forces which perpetuate oppression and marginalization. Being aware of one’s status array and how privileging forces are everywhere and impacting every human is difficult but important work. It is the work of those fighting for social justice and this work will become even harder in the future.

My journey in using critical Hydra theory (CHT) and understanding toxic othering began with the observation that no human is inherently better than any other human. Working for a more just world where we all contribute to social conditions which preserve “…the inherent dignity … [and]  the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family…” is my goal and I hope that it is yours as well.

1Elsewhere I detail my status array in a positionality statement. I lived in abject poverty all during my formative years and felt constant marginalization from peers, teachers, and society in general. It is from these memories comes the genesis of my quest for social justice, a relief from toxic othering.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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