Can we have hierarchy without oppression?

Illustration for article titled Can we have hierarchy without oppression?

Science fiction from the very literary to the very pulpy has pondered whether humans are doomed to oppress each other because we live in a hierarchical society. Can we ever change? Do we need to?


Here's what the experts think.

Confucian philosopher Steve Angle recently authored a paper about why some forms of deference and hierarchy do not have to be oppressive, especially if the hierarchy is always changing and evolving. He writes:

My main goal . . . is showing that deference and hierarchy need not be oppressive. The most important point to realize in this regard is that, on the basis of all that I have just said, relations of hierarchy and deference are properly understood as occurring between individuals, not groups. One person aptly defers to another on the basis of a fit between the latter's role, experiences, learning, or skills, and the particular circumstance in which the two find themselves. I defer to Elaine in the courtroom because she is the judge, but not in the grocery store-or at least, not for that reason . . . When people of one social group-identified by gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and so on-defer to members of another across situation-types, though, this smacks of oppression.


From Angle's perspective, hierarchy is a problem when it becomes structural (groups over groups) and when people don't play different hierarchical roles in different situations.

Science fiction author Octavia Butler, on the other hand, has a more pessimistic view. In her trilogy Lilith's Brood, aliens called the Oankali say that humans were pretty much doomed to destroy themselves because we are both intelligent and hierarchical. The implication is that hierarchy is always destructive.

Is it possible to build structure without domination? That would entail finding trustworthy leaders and teachers who can guide us without coercing us. But maybe humans need a little domination to make society function smoothly. That, at least, is the premise in Isaac Asimov's short story "The Evitable Conflict," where our perfectly rational robot overlords arrange for people to have wars and killing because we go crazy without having a few oppressive situations in our lives. A similar idea crops up in The Matrix, where the Machines admit that plugging humans into a paradise-like virtual world always failed - people only became completely immersed in the fantasy of the Matrix when it contained deprivation and oppression. And even in the environmentally friendly world of Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, the government mandates deadly wargames once in a while so that people can get their aggression out.

Maybe, as Iain M. Banks has suggested in regards to religion, humans will have to tweak our genomes before we emerge as fully rational creatures. Until then, will hierarchy always lead to one group taking power away from another?


Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Anekanta - spoon denier

Except that temporary deference isn't hierarchy. By definition, hierarchy is structural, and persistent, and therefore at least somewhat oppressive even under the best conditions.

But there are plenty of examples of non-hierarchical societies among hunter-gatherers, so I don't think it's necessarily something human beings are "doomed" to endure.

I think hierarchy is a method of adapting to hostile circumstances. It's a very efficient in terms of mobilizing a population to quick action, which is why military forces and ant colonies always have a chain of command. Life can often be hostile, so hierarchies are sometimes warranted, but in more favourable conditions, is they really necessary, or inevitable?


As for people going crazy without war, or rejecting a matrix that's too pleasant, that comes down to our basic psychology: we are finite, limited beings. That means we spend much of our lives suffering due to circumstances beyond our control, and our psychology is adapted to that.

So, if suddenly the pressure were off; if there was no challenge to life and we could always have what we want as soon as we want it... well, of course that'll seem unreal, and boring to the point of insanity.

As for the post-human solution that Iain M. Banks is talking about, I'm really not sure tweaking our genomes will really help. Maybe if we could be more focused / improve our processing speed, it might help. But in the end, no matter how rational we are, reality will always seem somewhat irrational to us. I don't mean scientific laws—those, presumably, will seem perfectly rational. But day to day reality won't, because it will frequently frustrate us and confuse us.

That's what religion is ultimately for (at least, when it's used properly)—it's the technology that is supposed to help us face the reality that we are finite beings in an effectively infinite universe. Check out the video for more info.