Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Ladder of Authority

A comment on a recent post (on RRBI) from Adthelad included a link to a thought-provoking BBC documentary, The Trap - Whatever Happened to our Dream of Freedom by Adam Curtis. The documentary linked Cold War game theory, psychiatry, monetarism and New Labour, with an over-arching theme of social control. I thoroughly recommend it.

Watching it has prompted me to write (at last) about how I see humans cooperating and competing with one another. Man is a mammal, a social animal; a pack animal. As man is a mammal, mammalian rules of hierarchy apply within human society too. A pecking order clearly applies. There are alpha males and females. Leaders and followers. Top dogs and runts. Dominant individuals and submissive individuals. The rules of the hierarchy are sometimes clearly visible (in an army), sometimes less so (within a family), the hierarchy is always there, present in every social exchange. The Ladder of Authority. The same real hiererchy exists in tribes, in gangs, in schools, in the workplace.

At the basic level, the alpha individual will be taller and larger, will show external signs of above-average testosterone levels (larger jaw, deeper voice). And age, too, has a part in determining authority. Yet in complex modern society, these physical attributes in themselves are not enough to place an individual higher up the Ladder. There's something else required - a will to dominate.

Even when 'society' is reduced to two people, there will be one individual who tends to be the leader, the other who tends to be the follower.

In a large society, there are innumerable ladders (family, school, workplace, church, state), with rungs, one above the other; in some, people know their place and are content in the knowledge that there are those above them, and those below. In other cases, there's a constant struggle going on, to be top dog - or at least to be higher up the ladder than someone else. This is largely innate. You can be taught to behave in a way that demonstrates your authority. "From Harrow School/ To rise and rule". You can be sufficiently aware of what's going on around you to consciously adopt the effective verbal and non-verbal commands of those above you on the ladder. You can be sent on a management training course. Yet you will need to be brave enough to use them! Those you wish to see below you will see right through such attempts.

Among pack animals, homo sapiens, is a species unique in being able to externalise individual consciousness through verbal communication. And as such, humans have evolved complex stratagems and ruses to camouflage the simple biological truth of social hierarchy.

Politeness, courtesy, etiquette; all these conventions have arisen for smoothing over external signs of the Ladder. The more civilised the country, the less externally visible is it as to who's a rung above you. It becomes coded. (Much of my thinking in this area has been formed by observing the contrasts between social exchanges in the UK and in Poland. In this respect, Britain is more civilised, Poland less hypocritical.)

Over the millennia, human evolution has provided those with brains to overtake those with brawn when it comes to giving orders. A big bold man with large fists will not lead today's corporate giants because of those attributes. Bawling commands and insulting subordinates is a sign of insecurity, not strength. The evolution from agriculture (brawn necessary for following the plough) to industry (brawn necessary for hammering the iron) to information technology (brain now necessary to manage systems integration projects) upsets the pecking order, but does not dismantle the Ladder. It is still there.

The question that Curtis's documentary unravels is to what extent is man a genetic robot, driven and determined by genetic predisposition. In the second part, he questions Richard Dawkin's Selfish Gene theory, that we are but vessels through which our genes survive and reproduce.

So again I come to what I see as the core of the issue - what it is to be human, what it is to rise beyond the Ladder of Authority, beyond the constraints of genetic destiny, and to fulfil our potential, not just a biological creatures, but as spiritual beings.

This time last year:
St Pancras, what a wonderful place

Two years ago:
Ar y Ffordd i Pwyll Rhydd

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