Politicising Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-actualisation is a basic right

While it is easy to say that we must speak for the silenced, it is harder to digest that everyone has the basic right to belong, to be respected and to attain self-actualisation, says Kim Khaira.

An interpretation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom - Wikipedia
An interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom – Wikipedia

If you think you’re unique, you may be wrong. I’m not talking about the argument of universality versus diversity. Diversity and accepting and promoting diversity is by far the way to go.

But, when it comes to a class perspective, believing that we’re “unique” and “special”, as if some traits of ours are inborn and that it justifies our power and control over others far exceeds the existence of humanity (and diversity) in the first place.

Some may argue that human nature is evil, and some others may argue that human nature is good. Perhaps the premise is that we all have the potential to side with either one of the moralities (and that is if you look at it in a purely black-and-white manner), or perhaps in the deconstructionist and postmodernist thought, there is room for both within each of us, ever imbalance (or imbalance is balance) and ever relative, and evermore based on the ability of a person in practising both good and evil (and even entertaining the notion that there may be no moralities in this world after all).

Then again, what is ultimately “good” or “evil”? And what is fundamentally “justice” and “injustice”? Without dwelling too deep into the psychoanalysis and philosophical regards of these questions, it is to look at how the world is facing very “practical problems” –such as civil wars, state wars, hunger, food security, poverty, environmental degradation, and violence against women and children– impractically.

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While these problems are evils in many ways and while Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs is feasible in saying that we need to address our very basic needs (food, shelter, etc) before we even try to attain our Higher Self or “self-actualisation” (which is the highest attainable need), it is in light dehumanising and capitalising the so-called “less powerful” and so-called “less empowered”, to say that, “We will feed you, cloth you and keep you physically guarded, don’t think about what you’re eating, wearing, and living for, that can come later.”

And this is the root of how we look at political and social development – material and “basic” rights first; human rights later, not realising that human rights are basic needs. This is what our country has been facing, this is why the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has failed us.

It is unfortunate that we plan and foster with high hopes and in the spirit of democracy and good governance and accountability, but we silence those who are less experienced, less older, less of “one or the other” gender stereotype, less in every way, and place policies and programmes that cannot be easily questioned, critiqued and challenged by public opinion, or that have not even included public participation.

Maslow’s Theory may not be political upfront, but a political perspective reveals that segregating our needs and wants in a form of a single hierarchical process promotes the idea that human beings are only individualistic and rational beings, and those who can only attain their basic needs would not be expected to aspire for greater things. Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues came up with a critique on Maslow’s Theory, which views human needs as interconnected and interrelated and a complementary system rather than segregated in a series of actions.

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Rethinking how we solve (and create!) global problems starts from the very intrinsic and minute way of looking at our very own minds, personalities, behaviours and psyches in reflection of “the Other(s)”. While it is easy to say that we can, should and must speak for the silenced, it is harder to digest that everyone has the basic right to belong, to be respected and to attain self-actualisation; that perhaps it is for us – the loud and ferocious – to finally silence ourselves and listen.

Kim Khaira is an activist based in Penang.

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