Hierarchies in Modern Society

I’m preparing to return to the university at the heart of Cambridge, MA tomorrow to meet with an amazing scholar who has defined the processes of bigotry that are pervasive in human and other hominid clades. Immersing  myself in this research I am engrossed, but I am horrified. I want to understand and to meet the challenges of this scholar directly, but in reading about racism, sexism, and other institutionalized forms of bigotry it is impossible for me not to feel angry and frustrated.

The specific challenge  of this research, and that posed directly by the research (to be revealed tomorrow), is that this person directly faced suppression and bigotry. This person was subjected to unnecessary and unjust brutality by the police force and felt it necessary to first protest (and when that became frustratingly untenable to surmount real change) to leave the country in the hopes of finding a more egalitarian space of the world.  This person traveled across many nations and cultures and, while the bigotry was more muted in many places outside of the United States , the bigotry was seemingly ubiquitous. For this person, there was no place to engage with social groups and be free of social hierarchies that enforced various kinds of bigotries. I’ll need to get this scholar to fill in the details, but borne of these challenging experiences was the development of a fairly powerful and sufficient theory: Social Dominance Theory.

The idea is that one group that is elevated relative to others will take steps to maintain that dominance. That group will build institutions, develop policies, and engage in actions that maintain their resources and status. This applies to age: Adults are dominant over children. Adults guide and support children, but also limit their access to certain resources and enact highly restrictive measures for their safety.  This is a form of suppression, but it really isn’t a controversial one.  Our society values its children and views the restrictions as appropriate to healthy development — allowing children to ascend to the dominant class as they age into adulthood.

In human  societies there is also an institutional hierarchy of sex, a patriarchy, evidenced in so many ways (salary differences, widespread sexual harassment, come to mind as obvious examples). This is not the only model — some other species such macaques and hyenas have matriarchies and the females are larger and more dominant.  And  then there are all kinds of between group conflicts that are rooted in institutional hierarchies. These are related to race, ethnicity, religious sects, and any number of other social and political divisions.

As any one non-dominant group calls for equality and equal representation, the group in power tends to enforce its hierarchy using the institutions and rules it has created. This is what is described in Social Dominance Theory. Resources are treated as a part of a zero-sum game and the hierarchy of a particular controls access to that which is available.

As I read and thought about this I can’t help but see the resource argument echoed over and over. The United States has one of the larger wealth disparities in the Western world, while at the same time a political creed written from the perspective of colonists who were a persecuted outgroup relative to British rule. Hence,  at least in part, we seem to have  written laws in an attempt to suppress social dominance of our British rule, while at the same time working quickly to construct a new social dominance during the struggle for independence (and later in forging a new, unified union between northern and southern states).  We can express our yearning for freedom and equality as a part of this system, but in doing  so face newly constructed institutional forces to establish and maintain control of the social hierarchy.

We are rich in resources, but we also see the zero sum game. The gain of my neighbor is potentially either the rise of our community, or my individual loss at the resources they’ve obtained.  More and more we seem to be of the social belief that my neighbor’s gain is my loss.

Drawing directly from what I’ve been reading I’ll leave you with this fable. God appeared to Vladimir  and offered him anything he wanted. Vladimir was delighted, but God added that anything that Vladimir requested would also be given twofold to his neighbor. Vladimir thought much about this.  He said, “If that is the case then I request that you take one of my eyes.”

I’m   excited for tomorrow and sharing with all of you more from this research, but I also am frustrated at how well we can understand institutional bigotry and remain so clearly entrenched within it.

(Photo shows Mueller’s original horoptor device on display at Harvard, a device to clarify the angles at which we see — but that vision only does so much for our social blindness).

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