Monday, 5 May 2014

More about the Ladder of Authority

Much as we like think of ourselves as the greatest species to inhabit our planet, we are but mammals, viviparous, hairy and with breast-feeding females. Scrape away the veneer of civilisation, and we find we have much in common with our biological cousins, from three middle-ear bones per ear and a neo-cortex.

As within most mammal societies, we homo sapiens naturally order ourselves into a hierarchy, based on dominance and submission. In other mammals, there's a 'top dog' and an 'underdog'; an 'alpha male/female' and the runt of the litter. A leader, many followers, and outsiders.

We think of ourselves as a species that differs from animals by dint of our sophistication and intellect; and yet, much as we try to deny it, it is our mammalian nature that casts a natural hierarchy upon us. If tens of thousands of years of human evolution have adapted us to live, cooperate and collaborate together in society, we have still failed to cast off that instinct to dominate one another within a hierarchy. The gradations within that hierarchy may appear small when we cast our eyes around us, but taken across mankind as a whole, they are huge.

If we can at least be aware of this, we can to some degree consciously mitigate its effects on us and on our society.

Take a walk into the crowded city street, a busy shopping mall, a rush-hour train. Cast your eyes over your fellow human beings. The way they bear themselves, the way they dress, how they hold their head, where they direct their gaze – at the floor or towards your eye – these things tell you much about their place in the pecking order. It's a hierarchy that no one talks about yet everyone can see. We live in a hierarchy like any other social mammalian. There are cues, signals, behaviours, that determine our place.

“The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate”, runs a verse from Cecil Frances Alexander's Anglican hymn, now omitted. Then, during the 20th Century, along came social revolution – equality. Suddenly, we were ALL equal! Wealth is not just the preserve of the toff – who didn't earn it but inherited it. A happy conjugation of politics, economics and history that allow the hard-working and talented to earn and save, building up capital, allowed the Western world to enjoy the most successful period in history. The industrial revolution that required a new caste of engineers and accountants created a middle class that flourished from the late 18th Century onward, generating new wealth, passing it down to their offspring in the form of property.

Once upon a time there were tribes of us humans, roaming the savannah, gifted with huge brains (compared to other animals), able to communicate effectively, able to fashion tools, gifted with the ability to sing, and laugh, and to cooperate with one another. We were then hunter-gatherers; our tribes needed to be diverse to survive. Picking on the taciturn flint-napper because he was a bit lacking in social skills so he'd leave the tribe would be counterproductive. The same for the shaman, whose wild screams at the moon would lead us to a successful hunt. But as the tribes spread out over the earth, and adapted agriculture - driven by the planting, harvesting, storing and trading of grain - the leaders of the more effective societies gained in power, prestige and riches. They eventually evolved into the kings of nation-states and created a system of gathering tributes from their dukes and knights, who in turn collected tribute from their serfs. Feudalism was about having the biggest fists and setting those fists to hammer out a hierarchy from the top down. The onward march of civilisation is all about working out the antidote to might-is-right.

The story of civilisation is about the less-powerful tempering the instincts of those born with natural tendency to seize resources and power from those weaker than themselves. Religion – in particular Christianity – helped temper the powerful, although they used their bishops to turn the religion of Jesus to their advantage – the doctrine of the divine right of kings. "Think your king a brutal, rapacious thief? Turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5:38-42.)" Law also helped, as did the code of chivalry, which turned into everyday politeness. Politeness is a very important civilising force; the powerful put into place by a convention that frowned upon boorish behaviour. Christianity became co-opted by the elite to become a force for social order rather than a force for revolutionary social levelling.

And politeness – hat-tipping, opening doors for ladies, has evolved into political correctness – not wishing to hurt the feelings of those deemed to be disadvantaged by birth. To those of different race, ability, gender, there's also the original group of underdogs – the poor, the weak, the downtrodden.

How aware of this are we in our daily lives, as we seek to find order and security for ourselves? How much are we gaining at somebody else's expense, and how much are others gaining at our expense?

All things for further consideration...

This time last year:
By bike, south of Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Functionalist architecture in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
What's the Polish for 'to bully'?

This time five years ago:
Making plans

This time six years ago:
The setting sun stirs my soul

This time seven years ago:
Rain ends the drought


adthelad said...

Here's a little film which paints the picture of authority a little more bleakly and then purports to have the answer. Although somewhat simplistic it's not far off the mark :\

Michael Dembinski said...

Simplistic? I'll say! Who are the 'farmers'? How did they get the wealth and the power in the first place? The answer lies not in politics but in biology.

adthelad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adthelad said...

Wealth and Power is obtained by a variety of means, I would have imagined that was obvious, whilst the farmers are those who use the tactics described, be they political or social.
The answer lies in propaganda and in gullibility. Take the example if HIV. There's no conspiracy, unless you can call it a conspiracy of acquiescence and complacency, but the fact is there's no proof such a thing causes AIDS (let alone been isolated in people supposedly infected). Sadly, like with many things, people love sticking their heads in the sand.