Recently, I’ve spent A LOT of time thinking, processing and trying to understand what I believe in: double questioning intentions, indoctrination and facts that are facts ‘just because’. However, only recently have I been struck with the biggest mind-boggle: social hierarchy. As soon as we are 5 years old, we are put into the education system: we are placed into a hierarchy. As our language, mind and body grows, our society conditions us to think and feel a certain way. Hierarchies are not just limited to kids; they are found in pretty much every element of life. Here are the questions that I have been contemplating over:
Do we really need it? Is it necessary to rank ourselves based on power, prestige and status? Who/what dictates who sits ‘at the top of the food chain’? Is this a capitalistic mindset? Is it a western mindset? Are there cultures/societies that don’t live with this structure? Because I can imagine a society without hierarchy, does it mean it can exist?
The key problem: we have very few communities that don’t live with hierarchies. Meaning that we don’t have any hard-proof about whether it could work. Because of most/all societies living in some sort of ranking system, many judges that hierarchy is intrinsic to our nature. However, as we evolve can we not evolve past such primitive notions? For Darwin, there is no doubt that it’s the ‘survival of the fittest’, therefore: aesthetics, success and competition is sure to be encouraged: meaning that hierarchies are essential. For Emile Durkheim (1893), hierarchies seem to form naturally out of divisions of labour in society. Meaning that hierarchies are born from cracks and segregation in society. So naturally, my brain returns to the question: if we weren’t divided can we live without hierarchies?
There are two ways that we could achieve a non-divisive way of life physically:
- Total Isolation: being solitary; focusing on your own goal/path; no interaction (as a linguist, this seems near-to-impossible due to our nature)
- Community: equal opportunity; non-judgemental – to prevent hierarchies; completely open (as someone who likes privacy, AHHH NO)
As you can see, there is a problem: to prevent society forming physical hierarchies, we have to become a hermit, or become overly open. Both are idealistic and horror shows in their own rights.
The next thing to consider is the mentality. We live in a society, but surely we can start by uninstalling this hierarchical and, closely interlinked, judgemental nature. Basically, the inherent nature of ranking for ‘power’ and ‘status’ will naturally cause judgement and arrogance. However, inspired by Buddhism, could this idea be totally eradicated. We are a community physically but mentally we actively strive for ‘oneness’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘inner peace’ all suggesting that society can be harmonious. The way of Buddhists (and this is the briefest account) involves ‘guidance’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘compassion’. They have self-assurance and belief and are interdependent on society (give-and-gain from society). The way our society is brought up, from my perspective, is of reliance and dependency. I’ve met a whole spectrum of people who are seeking a sense of belonging (in a way, myself included) and validation. What I’ve noticed is that, external things create internal worth.
Where I have deduced that from is by my own experiences: that really can be the only thing I draw upon. Being ‘good’ at something has always been an ambition of mine. When I picked up the numerous musical instruments as a child, I always thought to myself ‘this will be my thing’, ‘this is my calling’. In a way, I was wanting to be greater than I was: but more on ambition in a second. It wasn’t even being good, it was about being the best. It wasn’t until A level Religious Studies Ethics class did I realise that ‘good’ isn’t even a thing (well supposedly). Goodness is a mental abstract thought that we put onto absolutely anything that is slightly positive: ‘a good spade’ isn’t the same as saying ‘a good man’. Replying ‘good’ to someone who has agreed to something isn’t the same as saying ‘good’ to a child when they have done something correctly. Pretty much, it doesn’t exist. It’s a single word that has an infinite number of layers and representations. More simply, it’s a feeling. Up until my A level results, I didn’t feel ‘good at anything’: I felt that I was in the low-middle of the hierarchy. A level results came about, I’m there ready to be academically ranked, opening up my results and I am ecstatic at the results: A*A*A. I feel validated, loved and good. (quick note: parents validated me no matter the results, it was much more to do with self-validation). However, it was only from feeling that immense validation that I realised I was still the same person that I was before the grades were given. Sure, now I had a reason to celebrate, but that desperation for self-validation really was an internal programming system that needed to be changed. I had to be ranked into a hierarchy to feel worth: I had to move up the rank to feel more self-worth despite being the exact same person I was before I got the results.
Now, as aforementioned, ambition. I am never going to decry the idea of ‘ambition’ because I have too much of it myself: I am no hypocrite. But, this idea of ambition has made me rock back-and-forth metaphorically. By having ambition, we are reaching for the top: and thereby the top of the ladder. I know that I have been programmed with always reaching for the ‘best’ and the ‘top.’ To be the superlative not just the comparative: be the best, not just better. The key problem, this is entirely my own self-configuration. My dyslexia, competitiveness and initial struggle to grasp topics has pushed me towards perfectionism. Now what I have realised is that perfectionism is intertwined with a combination of anxiety, pressure, and self-worth-dependencies. Think back to the A level story. In terms of approaching ambition, I don’t want to stop people from being ambitious, determined and strong-willed: I myself have these characteristics. Now, since A levels, I have been focusing on pushing myself but validating and accepting each step. There’s no looming power and structure that I belong to: if people view me lesser or greater (thanks) that’s up to them.
A hiccup in my argument? Some people are logically going to be better at something than someone else. An example, someone who plays the piano is going to be better than someone who has never touched a piano. In this sense, it is almost inescapable to remove hierarchies because we will constantly notice our ‘strengths’ which we derive off other peoples’ ‘weaknesses’.
It goes back to understanding that we are interdependent. Someone has mathematical skills, where I have English skills. Yes, fine, in terms of material things people can have variant skill levels. In terms of abstract immaterial things, we can’t really judge, rank and place people above/below us. As a society, we ought to share our experiences and value the different traits in others. Whilst I was at university, my best friend was getting engineering skills: neither is better than the other, both have valued skills. We are living on checklists, scriptures and viewpoints that no longer align with our generation’s perspectives. We need to re-evaluate our way of life and think about systemic problems ingrained (deliberately or accidentally) into us as a child. As an activist on all fronts, I am seriously using some of my day, every day, for reflective thought to process and ask ‘why’ to even the basics in life.
I know that some may be dissatisfied with the lack of conclusions, science and debating with scholars: but, this for me is a journey that I wanted to express. Something so important and yet so burrowed that I don’t think I can one day tell myself ‘Ah Lizzie, I have all the answers and I am ready to spread my philosophies’. I believe my perspectives will change, as I change. When my external situations change, my internal thoughts will adapt and unlock further thoughts.
In terms of a sort-of conclusion, I will say this: I believe that we are born with genetic predisposed personalities and tendencies. However, I believe that there is a large proportion of us that get moulded (or operant conditioned for you nerds) into how to view the world and ourselves. I obviously speak from my own experiences, but the fact that I can view a thing with so many perspectives, yet the thing is unchanged shows the power of perspective conditioning/enlightenment. With that being said, I believe that personality fundamentals (think the Myer-Briggs ENFJ tests) won’t change (or are incredibly slow in changing): If we are born with these ‘fundamentals’, then I don’t see why hierarchies have to exist. Why can we not work in an interlocking and budding community that grows on each other? I guess, like many of my articles, it comes down to mindset. We need to seek out our own mindset and why we think the way we do and ‘debunk’ any judgemental thoughts towards things. Overall, hierarchies are so ingrained into Western culture that we need to confront the reasons behind this ‘necessity’. Is it because we do it for a sense of belonging? To install some self-worth? To gain power? To survive? I believe we need to evaluate how we view ourselves, then how we view other people. It does come back to realising that in society we need to start appreciating diversity and contributing towards what our society is. We most certainly need to rethink the entire education system which is exceptionally outdated and grossly unlike the rest of the 21st-century. We need to work out if our power struggles in the workplace can be rectified by re-evaluating how we treat our colleagues. Within our work environments, are we all on a level playing field? All respecting and working to the same work ethics? Of course, with a capitalist society you are never going to rid hierarchies altogether: but the attitude and validation within the office can be altered. I’ll leave it on one last question, does your current situation match up to your capabilities and goals, or is this situation that you find yourself in due to society constrictions? For me, like Henry D. Thoreau, the world is wider than we can ever imagine and so, therefore, our capabilities.