I Could Change the World* (part 1)
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
language makes it possible--and I really think it makes itimperative
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).
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
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.
cooperatively with conflict
love and care
beyond survival via technical knowledge
For a species
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.)
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,
of others is an unavoidable characteristic of the hierarchical.
and the Hierarchical
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
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.
and the Cooperative
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.
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
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).
& the Hierarchical
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.
living solicitously--with genuine concern for the other's best interest--while
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.
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
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.
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.
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