If I Could Change the World* (part 1)
Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. |  Empowering People | October - December 2000
I want to live in a world that is genuinely caring, cooperative and safe. This doesn't seem like an unreasonable desire. Yet few people can deny that what abides in this world is a staggering amount of hunger, poverty, lack of concern for others, wars, rape of our environment and other violences. They exist despite the fact that we've had all of history to try to solve these problems and even though we know so much today about how to do so.
But I don't believe at all that they're inescapable consequences of a sordid human condition that can't be changed. I'm not convinced that we have to settle for the status quo. Moreover, I'm scared that if we don't act soon to change the path we've been on for so long, we'll damage the quality of human life so extensively that we'll render subsequent efforts to remedy things much more difficult than now. I'm also scared that we'll cause irreparable damage to our life support system (the ecosystem) if we don't act soon.
I'm convinced that we need to make very basic changes in the way we see and relate to ourselves, each other and the world; in the way we understand life and how to best serve ourselves, one another and it. Although the state of the world has disturbed me for a very long time, it's only recently that I've even imagined I could meaningfully grapple with the problem and have begun to address it in earnest. I may not come up with any useful ideas here, but I'm hopeful. I certainly won't know unless I try. I also want to begin sharing my thinking with you in the hope of sparking a dialogue with like-minded souls.*
I want to approach this as a "design problem." My aim is to take an unjaundiced look at how things are now and how they got to be this way; to describe the structure of a world that is truly caring; and to try to describe effective ways to get from "here" to "there."
I've heard lots of people suggest that it's a simple matter to fix things: "Just plant more crops, hire more teachers or police, train more doctors, put all the violent people in jail. . ." But these deal only with the symptoms, not the root causes. I'm certain that there's much more to it than this.
Among other things, such solutions seem viable only when considered one at a time. In the "real" world everything is intimately intertwined with everything else; changing one thing ultimately requires that everything else change at the same time. I became acutely aware of this when I was teaxhing at a "Summerhill" style school: students, parents, teachers and colleges all had to change:
The students had to learn how to deal with a school environment that didn't force them to attend classes and didn't coerce them to study by testing them. And they had to learn how to deal with each other in an environment that didn't force them to compete with one another.
In turn, the teachers had to learn how to relate to students who didn't have to be there and who addressed them by their first names. And both had to discover that young people have an innate thirst to know and a nascent ability to care that gets stunted when demanded.
The parents, as well, had to learn how to relate to children who were free to choose. And colleges had to agree to change their entrance requirements to permit consideration of our graduates.
There are myriad other obstacles to change, as well: conflicting religious and other value systems, misunderstandings, ignorance, fear of change, unhealed psychological wounds, interpersonal incompetence, etc.
I can't help but conclude from all this that finding ways to carry out effective change--even after we have a clear picture of the world we want to live in--will prove to be very difficult. Nevertheless, I think we owe it to both our forebears and our descendants to genuinely and energetically seek real solutions to the many, many problems that beset us.
It seems to me that if we're to grasp why we continue to support such disturbing ways of relating to one another we need to understand where it comes from:

Relating Hierarchically

I watch a lot of those television documentaries about animals. The most common way that members of the group seem to relate to one another is "hierarchically." In one pattern, common to predators, one male is responsible for guiding and protecting the group. To determine which male will take charge, they periodically engage in various forms of posturing, sparring and fighting to determine which male is the most powerful. The one that beats out the others (the alpha male) thereby asserts itself as the leader, has the most influence in the group and, in many species, gets the exclusive sexual favors of the fertile females.
The other males of the group also challenge each other and thereby arrange themselves in a "pecking order" from the most to the least powerful, each tending to submit to those more powerful and exercising domination over those less powerful. This is not a permanent arrangement. They will continue to challenge each other and from time to time, the leader will be deposed.
Since care of the young is typically the primary function of the adult females, they are largely excluded from this macho function and behavior. Nevertheless, they too typically submit to the alpha male and relate hierarchically to the other males and females.
By hierarchical, then, I mean relationships characterized by competing, winning and losing, attacking and defending, attempting to gain--and having--advantage and power over others, andlack of concern for those who are thereby disadvantaged.
Hierarchical structures are "pyramidal." Most members of the group exercise little power, have few choices and are at the bottom of the pyramid. The higher up we look on the pyramid, the fewer members there are and the more power each has until, at the top, the leader--the "top dog"--exercises the greatest power.
In this "dog-eat-dog" world, survival is a nearly constant concern. (Or, perhaps more precisely, survival is a nearly constant concern because it is a dog-eat-dog world). This demands, first and foremost, that the greatest strength and resourcefulness be available at every moment, and the hierarchical structure helps accomplish this.
What may be less obvious is how much the hierarchical permeates our lives, as well. We observe it when we watch a John Wayne western, Star Trek, or a war film. We participate in it when we talk about "fighting the good fight," or about political "races" or political candidates being "locked in battle" or when we use such expressions as "big boss," "bigwig," "battle of the sexes," "the good guys and the bad guys," "he scratched his way to the top," "he took on the world," "he wanted to have his way with her," "underdog," "following orders," "peon," "get rich quick schemes," "wealth and power" or we call someone a "sucker"or demand that someone "say uncle!" And we are being trained in it when we take part in any of the innumerable forms of competition that fill up our lives.
I find it hard to imagine that we have not been relating to one another this way from the very beginning. It seems evident to me that we "pass" this structure on from generation to generation: It's what our children are taught from the earliest age, when they are taught the Bible or when their parents read them nursery rhymes, fables and fairy tales that tell about kings and their "subjects" ("subject" meaning subject to the will of the king).
It's clear to me now that when I was young, my playmates and I endeavored to establish a pecking order, complete with alpha male. We did this, for instance, by wrestling to solve disputes, using deprecating humor (it's now called "capping") and playing such games as "Cops and Robbers" and "Cowboys and Indians." We did it all this with no insight into what we were up to.
We also engaged in various sports--competitions--the aim of which was to establish winners and losers. Even in the Boy Scouts, we vied for status. The most successful contenders for alpha-male earned numerous merit badges and gained acceptance into the elite fraternity of Explorer Scouts.
Throughout school I was compelled to take numerous exams. These, too, established and maintained us--male and female, alike--in a pecking order. When it was time to apply for admission to college, I had to take a battery of tests in order to compete againstmany other applicants for a limited number of spaces.
When I reached dating age, I competed against other males for the affections of the young women I was interested in. I even developed competitive strategies which I imagined would help me succeed.
Then, when I entered the work "force," I competed with fellow workers for promotion up the "ranks." When I went to buy a house, I competed against other potential buyers and even competed with the seller in determining the price we both agreed on. These days, I compete with numerous other investors each time I buy or sell a stock or mutual fund. I'd even have had to compete to buy a ticket to a World Series game.
In other words, the hierarchical prevails almost everywhere: in the family (where "father knows best"); in school, where superintendents direct principals, teachers and students; in religious organizations where, for example popes oversee cardinals, bishops, priests and parishioners; in corporations, with CEOs overseeing boards of directors, management and workers (all of the above in descending order of power, prestige and perks).
I have belabored the point here in order to demonstrate just how deeply immersed in the hierarchical we are. ( I hasten to add that none of this suggests that we are doomed to be so, nor does it deny that we may also have an inborn tendency in this direction.)
I submit that it's precisely this hierarchical way of relating to one another that renders us so violent, disturbed and diseased---and destroys our habitat in the bargain. But I don't think we can understand why this is so if we don't take into account that there was a time before which Homo sapiens was without language--its members unable to express themselves in words and sentences. I think this is of central importance in understanding why things in our world are so disturbing and in determining where we need to go from here.

Relating Cooperatively

For a species without language the hierarchical is a very compelling structure. It's not surprising that we find it in so many forms throughout the animal kingdom. I suggest, though, that the advent of language has profoundly changed everything, and that it's very likely that we are in the midst of an unprecedented evolutionary transition. This is because language brings with it extraordinarily enhanced possibilities for:
Most significantly, language makes it possible--and I really think it makes itimperative at this point in our history--for us to deal with one another and our ecosphere in a way that'sradically different from the hierarchical: cooperatively. As a way of relating to one another, the cooperative makes it possible for us to transform from Homo sapiens to human, from sordid existence to ethical being.
But language is a relatively recent acquisition.  Our species is still very torn between the two. We're extraordinarily good at being competitive, but haven't yet grasped how to cooperate very well (and, alas, there's no guarantee that we ever will).
The cooperative is already present throughout nature of course--virtually all animals cooperate at times. We even find cooperation between species. But the absence of language severely limits the possibilities for cooperating.
I suggest, moreover, that the hierarchical and the cooperative are mutually exclusive: I can't engage you hierarchically and cooperatively at the same time. And competing fairly is an oxymoron, possible to contemplate only in the abstract. Therefore, so long as they are interposed--e.g., the boss as boss and as fellow human--there will always be a disturbed and disturbing relationship between the hierarchical and the cooperative.
In Homo sapiens, as elsewhere in the animal kingdom, we find cooperation primarily within families or clans. But even there, it typically exists only in limited ways, uneasily interspersed with the hierarchical ("brotherly love" with "sibling rivalry," for example). In addition, we are just not very competent when we try to expand the cooperative to other areas of endeavor, such as love, community, school, work, commerce or governing.

Homo Sapiens and the Hierarchical

For a species with language--which radically enables cooperation--the price of the hierarchical is very high. Those lower and lower on the pyramid have to surrender more and more of their power to choose what they want; and they are more and more at the mercy of those with greater and greater power.
Even those at the top of the pyramid are restricted in their power to choose. (This quandary was depicted, e.g., in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. King Edward had to give up his throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson; Princess Margaret had to give up marrying Captain Peter Townsend in order to remain in England; and Prince Charles cannot marry the woman he loves without significant penalty; neither Queen Elizabeth nor Elizabeth Taylor can easily or comfortably go shopping at Costco or attend a public lecture.)
Furthermore, just as in the rest of the animal kingdom, an inherent characteristic of the hierarchical is the instability of the relationships between those with power and those less powerful; those higher up are always in jeopardy of being "overthrown" by those lower down (common, for example, in love, politics and business).
And those at all levels of power must even look nervously over their shoulders at their peers, lest one try to use the other to gain advantage. In other words, distrust of others is an unavoidable characteristic of the hierarchical.

Homo Sapiens and the Cooperative

On the other hand, the cooperative is an exquisitely democratic structure, wherein no one has power over anyone else. Each person is valued for his or her unique passions, skills and knowledge; and each has a genuine sense that "we are allin this together" and that, in general, maximum choice is thereby achieved for all.
Inherent in the cooperative structure is a very different way to understand who we are and how we are related to one another. It brings a new set of rules and a new set of possibilities. >From the cooperative perspective, for example, parties in conflict consider it essential to conscientiously and respectfully strive to resolve their conflict by seeking a solution that satisfies them both. They trust that they will almost always be successful in finding a mutually satisfying solution. They also trust that on those few occasions that they don't succeed, it will be safe for just one of them to be satisfied or for them to compromise.
From the hierarchical perspective, by contrast, the vast majority of conflicts are settled by one party exercising power over another (or by a third party--often a jury or judge--choosing the solution which both parties must accept). Since one party almost always wins at the other's expense, it's nearly inescapable that at least one of them will be dissatisfied with the solution and will end up being angry and resentful. Here, compromises are universally resented.
From the cooperative perspective, "disturbances take precedence." For example, if a student interrupts a class, it is normally considered more important to deal concernfully and compassionately with the disturbing student--to cooperate in searching for a mutually satisfying resolution--than to try to continue with the lesson. (Therefore, the class schedule would generally be structured to accommodate such exigencies.) By contrast, from our hierarchical perspective, such a student would most likely be pleaded with, publicly scolded, sent to the vice-principal's office, and punished.

Hierarchical to Cooperative?

Historically, there have been many attempts to somehow merge the hierarchical and the cooperative. I suggest, for example, that religions, benevolent monarchies and republican governments are all attempts to straddle this divide. I suggest, as well, that the political struggles between the Left and the Right, Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans are really (hierarchical) struggles between those who want to change from the hierarchical to the cooperative and those who are resisting such change. Similarly, many of the social movements throughout history, such as the civil rights movements in the '60s, have been efforts to move from the hierarchical to the cooperative.
I think that today, with a hierarchical past and--I suggest--a cooperative imperative due to language, we are "half-in and half-out," engaged in the unavoidably disturbing struggle to find ways to make the cooperative either coexist with the hierarchical or replace it.
Someone once told me that there has never been a successful revolution. Since revolutions are hierarchical efforts, I think that's true. What I'm suggesting is that even when they purport to be attempting to do so, hierarchical strategies cannot achieve cooperative goals. On the other hand, cooperative gains are achieved through cooperative (that is, non-violent, respecting, mutually concernful) means. The movement and achievements inspired by Martin Luther King is an example.
It seems to me that a great many of our ills are an inevitable result of the hierarchical structure through which we relate to one another as well as of the many fundamental, but unquestioned misunderstandings about life and about how to deal with one another that issue from it. Consider, for example, two commonly accepted old saws. The first, "spare the rod and spoil the child," is actually a form of violence which inevitably wounds and victimizes children and, in turn, makes "disturbers" of them. The second, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is no less than a basis for our legal system. Yet, as Judge Joe Brown insightfully instructs us, it "will leave us...[all] blind and toothless." Ideas like these have done immeasurable harm through the ages. Unfortunately, they remain very much alive, still oft stated and put into action.

Unhealed Woundedness & the Hierarchical

I imagine that those of you who have never "primalled" will have some difficulty with this assertion, but in my view those who are trying to improve things--to create a cooperative world--will do nothing but continue to go around in circles, until they seriously consider the role that our unhealed woundedness has played, and continues to play in our misunderstandings and our violent acting out at every level: intrapersonal, interpersonal, commercial, political, etc. By violent acting out, I'm referring to a whole gamut of acts, such as cheating and other deceits, punishing, ignoring and shunning, teasing and making fun of, satire, sarcasm and other deprecating humor, "tantrumming," name-calling, racism and gender discrimination, competition, crime and war. (I'm suggesting that from the cooperative perspective, all acting out is violent)
In other words, our unhealed woundedness, and the misunderstandings that issue from it and from our consequent immersion in the hierarchical perspective, tend to blind us to what it means to be human and leads us, among other things, to stand by without apparent concern, as we witness horrible acts (such as the mass exterminations in Cambodia or Rwanda); or to respond to violence with more violence (as, for example, the way we deal in our own society with those who commit crimes).

Relating Cooperatively: Caring, Dialogue

In my view, caring is the means by which human--cooperative--being is successfully carried on. None of us would have survived to read this without sufficient ongoing care. I suggest that caring is the basis for the survival of our species and that the quality of human existence is directly related to the degree of caring that is manifest.
Caring involves living solicitously--with genuine concern for the other's best interest--while also manifesting genuine concern for one's own best interest; it is my valuing your being who you are while also valuing my being who I am. In a cooperative world, too, we are genuinely concerned about the welfare of future generations as well as our own; and we are concerned about the ecosphere, as well.
The essential means through which caring is made manifest is dialogue; it is the fundamental character of caring. In dialoguing, I am engaged in "real-talk." I am speaking and living my truth and am true to my word. I am thereby trustworthy. By contrast, the basic means for maintaining the hierarchical is competition, which presses participants towards deceit and concealment, thereby diminishing the possibility of trust.
In a cooperatively structured world, children learn to dialogue informally through modeling the cooperative adults in their world. They learn it formally in school where they are regularly taught dialoguing skills. They learn to express their concerns, frustrations and pleasures in ways that don't attack the character or value of others. They use their words to reveal, rather than conceal. And they learn that it is empowering, not shameful, to articulate what they want and how they feel.
I've barely cracked the surface so far. In future "installments," I intend to explore such basic issues as capitalism, anarchy, communism and socialism; producing, distributing and consuming (for example, how do we and how might we better decide who produces what, how is what's produced priced, sold, and marketed); ownership, loving, parenting, educating, health care, governing, dealing with disturbing people, etc. I also expect to continue exploring the cooperative structure and its contrast with the hierarchical.
(to be continued)
*A small group of us have been meeting once a month to explore this issue. If you're interested, please join us. The next discussion is scheduled for Monday evening, evening, October 30, 6:30-9:30. The fee is $5.

© 2000 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. | Empowering People