Paternalism and how it works

This post first appeared at the Isaac Brock Society.

Bayaka pygmies in Central African Republic, photo by Peter W. Dunn

I have been reflecting over the last few days on the question of paternalism as a type of leadership. I talked this over with my next door neighbor from Burkina Faso with a PhD from Laval University (Quebec), as he has some experience in Africa with paternalistic leadership styles. His own country is a former colony of France and continues within a neocolonial, paternalistic relationship with France, and he also experiences paternalism in his church-missionary relationships. Here are the main points that he and I discussed (though I am entirely responsible for this write-up):

  1. A relationship of protection: In a paternal relationship, the superior party is more powerful than the inferior and is therefore able to provide protection, benefits or honors to the inferior party in exchange for obedience. However, in paternalism, the superior forces the inferior to accept this protection. The Canadian government forced the children of aboriginal people into residential schools. The inferior must accept this protection and usually has no choice in the matter, because with disobedience comes the withdrawal of protection, loss of privileges, or even violent punishment.
  2. Superiority/Inferority complex: In paternalism, the stronger party has a superiority complex, while the weaker party has an inferiority complex. In the relationship between Bayaka and their “tall black” overlords, the smaller, weaker Bayaka will often consider himself sub-human, and this makes it easier for his master to treat him as a pack animal or a slave to work his fields.
  3. Belittling. In a paternalistic relationship, the superior belittles the intellect, opinions and concerns of the inferior. The superiority complex in the paternalistic relationship often causes the stronger person to consider the opinions of the weaker to be nonsensical or foolish. The inferiors accept that they have a low level of competence and are in need of the greater intelligence of their superiors. The inferior will accept being treated as a child in need of guidance, unable to make decisions for himself. In the paternalistic relationship between slaves and masters, the master will often call a fully grown man, “Boy”. Also, the superior will often pretend to listen to the inferior only in an effort to trick the inferior into implementing the superior’s agenda. If the inferior party complains, the superior will begin to make accusations of disloyalty, ungratefulness, stupidity, lunacy or extremism. If that doesn’t work, the superior may use violent force to quell legitimate complaints.
  4. Divide in order to rule. In a paternalistic relationship, a portion of the inferior party will receive benefits and privileges that will make them willing enablers of the superiors. In colonial Rwanda and Burundi, for example, the Belgians divided the majority Hutus from the minority Tutsis who received privileges and power in order to rule over the Hutus.
  5. Control of the tools of communication. In paternalism, the superior will monopolize the tools of communication such as media, in order to control the flow of information. Furthermore, language competence is also a weapon. The paternalistic relationship may exist only in the language of the superior while the language of the inferior is ridiculed, punished and banned. Colonial governors in Africa never learned the local languages, but forced locals to learn their languages. Training is provided to bestow an adequate knowledge of the language of the superior so that the inferior will be able to understand and obey the orders of the superior. Meanwhile, any one person from the superior group can control large groups of inferiors through monopolizing the tools and the language of communication.

Conclusion: Eleanor Roosevelt apparently once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The first step in any amelioration of a paternalistic relationship is that the members of the inferior party must become aware that they are not inferior at all, but that they have universal human rights and dignity. They must find a means to rise up against their overlords, or at very least, to understand that being in a position of weakness does not make them morally or intellectually inferior to their overlords.

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