Download PDF: humansphere.org/dominanceparadigm
The dominance paradigm is definitely the elephant in the room. We think it is outside of us and it is, but it is also inside of us, every one of us, and it is there that we have to start combating it.
The pecking order or Dominance Paradigm is not merely an explanatory concept; it is part of our evolutionary heritage. Programmed into our genes, wired into our reptilian brain, more than an emotion, it is a state of consciousness. It is real, as real as an adrenaline reaction, as real as the fight or flight state, as real as anger and as real as love. Whether it takes the form of submission or dominance or someplace in between, we are all susceptible to it. It is a universal potential that affects not only humans but all vertebrates. But in humanity it is an affliction.
The dominance paradigm is the elephant in the room. Unremarked upon, largely unseen, it is the foremost ordering principle in human society. It governs most relationships, whether between individuals, families, sports teams, religions or even nations.
It is why, no matter what utopia we envision, what scheme of governance we try, no matter whether it is brought about by evolution or revolution, some semblance of the “same old shit” gradually emerges. It is why power corrupts. It is why passive individuals become aggressive when behind the wheel of a car, and why meek individuals can coalesce into lynch gangs. It is the submission which you are fighting when you give yourself a pep talk, it is that which the football coach is combating when he arouses the adrenaline and testosterone in his losing team.
It explains depression, but it also explains mania. Because just as it accounts for the universal potential for submissiveness, it also accounts for the universal potential for dominance. The general, the president, the dictator, the King, the world champion, the celebrity, the famous author, musician, artist, they are as much in the thralls of the dominance paradigm as are the world’s losers, the homeless, the addicts and drunks, the legions of wage slaves, the oppressed citizens of poor countries, even the oppressed citizens of rich and powerful countries.
Nothing to lose
Actually the most comfortable place to be is in the middle. Those of us in the middle, neither the oppressor nor the oppressed, just part of the machinery that transmits power, feel safest and suffer from the least amount of stress. But we are equally caught in the dominance hierarchy, and perhaps more unfree than those at the top or the bottom. Because those at the top have almost infinite power, and to an extent power is freedom. While those at the bottom have little or nothing to lose, and as the Kris Kristofferson song goes “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The mistake that most top dogs make, sooner or later, is greediness. They take too much and leave too many people with little or nothing to lose, and that – more than high sounding principles or a sense of injustice – is what really enables revolutions.
Prosperous societies seldom revolt, no matter how dictatorial the government is that gives them prosperity. They have too much to lose and too little to gain to take a chance on rebellion, besides they are more likely to foresee that any change, sooner or later, is likely to degenerate into the same old thing.
Real revolution is rebellion against the dominance hierarchy itself.
Real revolution starts with rebellion against the dominance hierarchy itself. In order to have a revolution or even an evolution that works, in order to change things and keep them changed, we have to free ourselves, both individually and collectively, from the tentacles of the dominance hierarchy – in all of its guises.
Almost all of us, playing the different roles in our lives, are in different places in the dominance hierarchy; sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom, but more frequently between the two. Perhaps you dominate your children (at least for a time), or your spouse, or your employees, or at least your dog. Perhaps you’re submissive to your spouse, or your teacher, or your boss, or to a state trooper. But in the dominance hierarchies that really count, you’re someplace between the two – neither the top dog nor the absolute underdog, having a voice but not being free to voice your opinion. Of course you are free to voice your opinion about how you want your Starbucks coffee, whether you want to go to the beach or the mountains for your two week vacation, or your favorite color. But you are not free to voice your opinion where it matters, and particularly, not loud enough to be heard, to really make a difference. If you do that the top dogs, either with their own fists or by the fists that they employ, will try to dissuade you, fine you, excommunicate you, imprison you, and at last resort buy you. If even that fails to silence you, they will kill you.
The process of disentanglement from the dominance paradigm has to proceed from the inside out. It starts, by necessity, with facing the fact that you are in it. It is not enough to see it intellectually, you actually have to feel it in your gut. You have to notice how it changes not only your thinking but your feeling. You have to taste the hormones and neurotransmitters that course through your system and then taste their change when you move up or down in the hierarchy. Then and only then will you be motivated to free yourself from its clutches. Then and only then will your struggle begin – and even then only if you’re a certain kind of person.
It is only after you recognize the dominance hierarchy in yourself and are at least partially free of it (it’s probably impossible to be completely free of it) that you can take it into account and thus realistically envision alternative socioeconomic structures and forms of governance that are themselves free of it, do not encourage it in people, and do not have a tendency to deteriorate into it.