Editorial: Social Hierarchies                                                   2006, Archive


At a personal level, competing in social hierarchies have always been a no-no for me. It’s easy to see why. I’m not very good at them.


For most of civilization, the most obvious hierarchy is the nuclear or extended family. In many cultures, a parent has a guaranteed social reward and support for raising a family, and that social approbation becomes part of the person’s sense of reward and well-being (to say the least). Other hierarchies include the workplace, and the political system. If the importance of the family is maintained, then anyone is “guaranteed” an opportunity at least for family loyalty even if they are unable to progress in a workplace or political hierarchy. Most of the time society, through a psychological back door, has rewarded monogamous heterosexual performance and "competence," often at a cost to those who cannot perform this way and become "second class citizens." In the patriarchal Roman society, a father sometimes could make life and death decisions about his kids or even sell them!  In modern society, "heterosexism" (along with expected gender performance, especially competition among men) has become much less important, and that sets up a sharp moral debate. 


People progress in the workplace, obtaining power and direct reports, often through sales activities and repeating the words and hocking the work of others, in order to establish a sense of domain, and personal worthiness by proving that one can give one’s progeny more than can another competing parent. The same goes for politics, as political power is often linked to “the family.”


It’s easy to see the moral objection to this. “It’s unfair.” Of course it is. A hierarchy can be experienced as a pecking order, or elimination from a birthright. You can justify slavery with such a line of thinking. And certainly all kinds of racism and discrimination, and intellectual shallowness.


Modern society has offered many people an alternative, personal autonomy and individualism. One can achieve in personal pursuits, perhaps the arts, and, in a sufficiently supportive environment, pursue human relationships according to natural polarities, without the intervention of social approbation.


For this one needs a surplus. The basic society has to be stable in terms of meeting adaptive needs. One needs a stable community and infrastructure.


Of course, for most of history, adaptive stability has been missing for most people – they need to participate in social hierarchies just to help each other stay alive. The idea is demeaning but often necessary. And the easiest way to participate is, when a young adult, is to get married, stay monogamous, and have a family yourself for support. It sounds self-confirming, or demeaning, depending on how you look at things. Mutual solidarity becomes so important to survival that personal attention-getting and open dissent become to be seen as seditious or subversive. Peer group and blood loyalty become paramount social virtues.


Since the end of World War II, we have lived in relative stability, compared to what previous generations knew, and that helps account for the change in social values. We’ve survived energy shocks and AIDS. But today there is a new queasiness about our ability to keep our freeing infrastructure together from threats like pandemics, terrorism, super-storms and global warming. The fear of “purification” brings back calls for old fashioned family values.


We come back full circle. Some of us (like me) don’t like to be forced to learn “adaptive skills” that we won’t need in the kind of world we choose to live in. I was not good in gym, in shop, or manual labor skills with ordinary tools. Yet we insist that everyone “pay his dues” and develop minimal competence in all kinds of skills (turning that around, that’s academics for many kids) because you can never take your world for granted. And likewise, it is not necessarily wrong to expect everyone to show some skill at socialization and hierarchal competition, and to participate in sharing some family responsibility, regardless of one’s lifestyle choices. Anyone can face a “free market cultural revolution.” Some religious cultures (like the Amish) eschew all modern technology out of a desire to reinforce the value of basic renewable social skills.


Gay and lesbian issues seem particularly challenging here. “Gay psychology” may be constructively rooted in experiencing creative, polarized relationships for their own sakes. Or it can be based on an aversion to paying tribute to an oppressive or  personally offensive social value system, or on  a desire to demean people who compete in a conventional fashion in hierarchies but achieve their positions illegitimately from a moral perspective. One cannot have pride and still play someone else’s game and give credibility to it.


Loyalty to blood and "family first" thinking were unquestioned virtues in earlier times. Whatever the hardships and injustice imposed by the external world, lineage was presumed to be a "right" available to anyone, and those biologically unable to procreate at least had a psychological connection to lineage out of mandatory blood loyalty. Larger injustices among families or social classes (even issues like slavery and segregation) were not viewed as part of an individual's own moral span.  Intellectual discussion of family matters was considered a threatening distraction from the ability to function within the family. Having a family was not seen as a personal moral choice that affects moral outcomes (as it is today). Social cohesion was paramount, and even the Gospels in the New Testament recognized this. Social justice macro-problems were left for politicians and governments. Times have changed. In a modern, information-driven and even "search engine" driven culture, all of that has changed. Individuals are responsible for their own actions regardless of family motive. Individuals are responsible personally for ill-gotten gains inherited from family.


We come back to balancing the virtues that one needs in a free society. Family responsibility and the availability of stable, traditional families for children and the elderly, yet equal rights, freedom of expression and diversity, openness, and infrastructure stability. To some extent these ideas support each other, and sometimes they come into conflict. There is no perfect world solution. Something always has to give.


©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


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