Balance of Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

David Graeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archaeologist, have a theory about hunter-gatherer societies having cycled between egalitarianism and hierarchy. That is to say hierarchies were temporary and often seasonal. There was no permanent leadership or ruling caste, as seen in the fluid social order of still surviving hunter. This carried over into the early settlements that were initially transitory meeting places, likely for feasts and festivals.

There are two questions that need to be answered. First, why did humans permanently settle down? Second, why did civilization get stuck in hierarchy? These questions have to be answered separately. For millennia into civilization, the egalitarian impulse persisted within many permanent settlements. There was no linear development from egalitarianism to hierarchy, no fall from the Garden of Eden.

Julian Jaynes, in his theorizing about the bicameral mind, offered a possible explanation. A contributing factor for permanent settlements would be because the speaking idols had to be kept in a single location with agriculture developing as a later result. Then as societies became more populous, complex and expansive, hierarchies (as with moralizing gods) became more important to compensate for the communal limits of a voice-hearing social order.

That kind of hierarchy, though, was a much later development, especially in its extreme forms not seen until the Axial Age empires. The earlier bicameral societies had a more communal identity. That would’ve been true on the level of experience, as even the voices people heard were shared. There wasn’t an internal self separate from the communal identity and so no conflict between the individual member and larger society. One either fully belonged to and was immersed in that culture or not.

Large, complex hierarchies weren’t needed. Bicameralism began in small settlements that lacked police, court systems, standing armies, etc — all the traits of an oppressively authoritarian hierarchy that would later be seen, such as the simultaneous appearance of sexual moralizing and pornographic art. It wasn’t the threat of violent force by centralized authority and concentrated power that created and maintained the bicameral order but, as still seen with isolated indigenous tribes, shared identity and experience.

An example of this is that of early Egyptians. They were capable of impressive technological feats and yet they didn’t even have basic infrastructure like bridges. It appears they initially were a loose association of farmers organized around the bicameral culture of archaic authorization and, in the off-season, they built pyramids without coercion. Slavery was not required for this, as there is no evidence of forced labor.

In so many ways, this is alien to the conventional understanding of civilization. It is so radically strange that to many it seems impossible, especially when it gets described as ‘egalitarian’ in placing it in a framework of modern ideas. Mention primitive ‘communism’ or ‘anarchism’ and you’ll really lose most people. Nonetheless, however one wants to describe and label it, this is what the evidence points toward.

Here is another related thought. How societies went from bicameral mind to consciousness is well-trodden territory. But what about how bicameralism emerged from animism? They share enough similarities that I’ve referred to them as the animistic-bicameral complex. The bicameral mind seems like a variant or extension of the voice-hearing in animism.

Among hunter-gatherers, it was often costume and masks through which gods, spirits, and ancestors spoke. Any individual potentially could become the vessel of possession because, in the animistic view, all the world is alive with voices. So, how did this animistic voice-hearing become narrowed down to idol worship of corpses and statues?

I ask this because this is central to the question of why humans created permanent settlements. A god-king’s voice of authorization was so powerful that it persisted beyond his death. The corpse was turned into a mummy, as his voice was a living memory that kept speaking, and so god-houses were built. But how did the fluid practice of voice-hearing in animism become centralized in a god-king?

Did this begin with the rise of shamanism? Some hunter-gatherers don’t have shamans. But once the role of shaman becomes a permanent authority figure mediating with other realms, it’s not a large leap from a shaman-king to a god-king who could be fully deified in death. In that case, how did shamanism act as a transitional proto-bicameralism? In this, we might begin to discern the hitch upon which permanent hierarchy eventually got stuck.

I might point out that there is much disagreement in this area of scholarship, as expected. The position of Graeber and Wengrow is highly contested, even among those offering alternative interpretations of the evidence see Peter Turchin (An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution & A Feminist Perspective on Human Social Evolution) and Camilla Power (Gender egalitarianism made us human: patriarchy was too little, too late & Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’).

But I don’t see the disagreements as being significant for the purposes here. Here is a basic point that Turchin explains: “The reason we say that foragers were fiercely egalitarian is because they practiced reverse dominance hierarchy” (from first link directly above). That seems to go straight to the original argument. Many other primates have social hierarchy, although not all. Some of the difference appears to be cultural, in that humans early in evolution appear to have developed cultural methods of enforcing egalitarianism. This cultural pattern has existed long enough to have fundamentally altered human nature.

According to Graeber and Wengrow, these egalitarian habits weren’t lost easily, even as society became larger and more complex. Modern authoritarian hierarchies represent a late development, a fraction of a percentage of human existence. They are far outside the human norm. In social science experiments, we see how the egalitarian impulse persists. Consider two examples. Children will naturally help those in need, until someone pays them money to do so, shifting from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic. The other study showed how most people, both children an adults, will choose to punish wrongdoers even at personal cost.

This in-built egalitarianism is an old habit that doesn’t die easily no matter how it is suppressed or perverted by systems of authoritarian power. It is the psychological basis of a culture of trust that permanent hierarchies take advantage of through manipulation of human nature. The egalitarian impulse gets redirected in undermining egalitarianism. This is why modern societies are so unstable, as compared to the ancient societies that lasted for millennia.

That said, there is nothing wrong with genuine authority, expertise, and leadership — as seen even in the most radically egalitarian societies like the Piraha. Hierarchies are also part of our natural repertoire and only problematic when they fall out of balance with egalitarianism and so become entrenched. One way or another, human societies cycle between hierarchy and egalitarianism, whether it cycles on a regular basis or necessitates collapse. That is the point Walter Scheidel makes in his book, The Great Leveler. High inequality destabilizes society and always brings its own downfall.

We need to relearn that balance, if we hope to avoid mass disaster. Egalitarianism is not a utopian ideal. It’s simply the other side of human nature that gets forgotten.

* * *

Archaeology, anarchy, hierarchy, and the growth of inequality
by Andre Costopoulos

In some ways, I agree with both Graeber and Wengrow, and with Turchin. Models of the growth of social inequality have indeed emphasized a one dimensional march, sometimes inevitable, from virtual equality and autonomy to strong inequality and centralization. I agree with Graeber and Wengrow that this is a mistaken view. Except I think humans have moved from strong inequality, to somewhat managed inequality, to strong inequality again.

The rise and fall of equality

Hierarchy, dominance, power, influence, politics, and violence are hallmarks not only of human social organization, but of that of our primate cousins. They are widespread among mammals. Inequality runs deep in our lineage, and our earliest identifiable human ancestors must have inherited it. But an amazing thing happened among Pleistocene humans. They developed strong social leveling mechanisms, which actively reduced inequality. Some of those mechanisms are still at work in our societies today: Ridicule at the expense of self-aggrandizers, carnival inversion as a reminder of the vulnerability of the powerful, ostracism of the controlling, or just walking away from conflict, for example.

Understanding the growth of equality in Pleistocene human communities is the big untackled project of Paleolithic archaeology, mostly because we assume they started from a state of egalitarianism and either degenerated or progressed from there, depending on your lens. Our broader evolutionary context argues they didn’t.

During the Holocene, under increasing sedentism and dependence on spatially bounded resources such as agricultural fields that represent significant energy investments, these mechanisms gradually failed to dampen the pressures for increasing centralization of power. However, even at the height of the Pleistocene egalitarian adaptation, there were elites if, using Turchin’s figure of the top one or two percent, we consider that the one or two most influential members in a network of a hundred are its elite. All the social leveling in the world could not contain influence. Influence, in the end, if wielded effectively, is power.

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities
by Bruce Bower

No signs of a centralized government, a ruling dynasty, or wealth or social class disparities appear in the ancient settlement, the researchers say. Houses were largely alike in size and design. Excavations yielded few prestige goods, such as copper items and shell ornaments. Many examples of painted pottery and clay figurines typical of Trypillia culture turned up, and more than 6,300 animal bones unearthed at the site suggest residents ate a lot of beef and lamb. Those clues suggest daily life was much the same across Nebelivka’s various neighborhoods and quarters. […]

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

How to change the course of human history
by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. there is a thing called ‘inequality,’ 2. that it is a problem, and 3. that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness.

Rethinking cities, from the ground up
by David Wengrow

Settlements inhabited by tens of thousands of people make their first appearance in human history around 6,000 years ago. In the earliest examples on each continent, we find the seedbed of our modern cities; but as those examples multiply, and our understanding grows, the possibility of fitting them all into some neat evolutionary scheme diminishes. It is not just that some early cities lack the expected features of class divisions, wealth monopolies, and hierarchies of administration. The emerging picture suggests not just variability, but conscious experimentation in urban form, from the very point of inception. Intriguingly, much of this evidence runs counter to the idea that cities marked a ‘great divide’ between rich and poor, shaped by the interests of governing elites.

In fact, surprisingly few early cities show signs of authoritarian rule. There is no evidence for the existence of monarchy in the first urban centres of the Middle East or South Asia, which date back to the fourth and early third millennia BCE; and even after the inception of kingship in Mesopotamia, written sources tell us that power in cities remained in the hands of self-governing councils and popular assemblies. In other parts of Eurasia we find persuasive evidence for collective strategies, which promoted egalitarian relations in key aspects of urban life, right from the beginning. At Mohenjo-daro, a city of perhaps 40,000 residents, founded on the banks of the Indus around 2600 BCE, material wealth was decoupled from religious and political authority, and much of the population lived in high quality housing. In Ukraine, a thousand years earlier, prehistoric settlements already existed on a similar scale, but with no associated evidence of monumental buildings, central administration, or marked differences of wealth. Instead we find circular arrangements of houses, each with its attached garden, forming neighbourhoods around assembly halls; an urban pattern of life, built and maintained from the bottom-up, which lasted in this form for over eight centuries.⁶

A similar picture of experimentation is emerging from the archaeology of the Americas. In the Valley of Mexico, despite decades of active searching, no evidence for monarchy has been found among the remains of Teotihuacan, which had its magnificent heyday around 400 CE. After an early phase of monumental construction, which raised up the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, most of the city’s resources were channelled into a prodigious programme of public housing, providing multi-family apartments for its residents. Laid out on a uniform grid, these stone-built villas — with their finely plastered floors and walls, integral drainage facilities, and central courtyards — were available to citizens regardless of wealth, status, or ethnicity. Archaeologists at first considered them to be palaces, until they realised virtually the entire population of the city (all 100,000 of them) were living in such ‘palatial’ conditions.⁷

A millennium later, when Europeans first came to Mesoamerica, they found an urban civilisation of striking diversity. Kingship was ubiquitous in cities, but moderated by the power of urban wards known as calpolli, which took turns to fulfil the obligations of municipal government, distributing the highest offices among a broad sector of the altepetl (or city-state). Some cities veered towards absolutism, but others experimented with collective governance. Tlaxcalan, in the Valley of Puebla, went impressively far in the latter direction. On arrival, Cortés described a commercial arcadia, where the ‘order of government so far observed among the people resembles very much the republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord.’ Archaeology confirms the existence here of an indigenous republic, where the most imposing structures were not palaces or pyramid-temples, but the residences of ordinary citizens, constructed around district plazas to uniformly high standards, and raised up on grand earthen terraces.⁸

Contemporary archaeology shows that the ecology of early cities was also far more diverse, and less centralised than once believed. Small-scale gardening and animal keeping were often central to their economies, as were the resources of rivers and seas, and indeed the ongoing hunting and collecting of wild seasonal foods in forests or in marshes, depending on where in the world we happen to be.⁹ What we are gradually learning about history’s first city-dwellers is that they did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other; and there is a contemporary message here too. When today’s urbanites take to the streets, calling for the establishment of citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of climate change, they are not going against the grain of history or social evolution, but with its flow. They are asking us to reclaim something of the spark of political creativity that first gave life to cities, in the hope of discerning a sustainable future for the planet we all share.

Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’
by Gyrus

[Robert] Lowie made similar arguments to [Pierre] Clastres, about conscious knowledge of hierarchies among hunter-gatherers. However, for reasons related to his concentration on Amazonian Indians, Clastres missed a crucial point in Lowie’s work. Lowie highlighted the fact that among many foragers, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic, egalitarianism and hierarchy exist within the same society at once, cycling from one to another through seasonal social gatherings and dispersals. Based on social responses to seasonal variations in the weather, and patterns in the migration of hunted animals, not to mention the very human urge to sometimes hang out with a lot of people and sometimes to get the hell away from them, foraging societies often create and then dismantle hierarchical arrangements on a year-by-year basis.

There seems to have been some confusion about exactly what the pattern was. Does hierarchy arise during gatherings? This would tally with sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous idea that ‘the gods’ were a kind of primitive hypothesis personifying the emergent forces that social complexity brought about. People sensed the dynamics changing as they lived more closely in greater numbers, and attributed these new ‘transcendent’ dynamics to organised supernatural forces that bound society together. Religion and cosmology thus function as naive mystifications of social forces. Graeber detailed ethnographic examples where some kind of ‘police force’ arises during tribal gatherings, enforcing the etiquette and social expectations of the event, but returning to being everyday people when it’s all over.

But sometimes, the gatherings are occasions for the subversion of social order — as is well known in civilised festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, the evidence seemed to be confusing, and the idea of seasonal variations in social order was neglected. After the ’60s, the dominant view became that ‘simple’ egalitarian hunter-gatherers were superseded by ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherers as a prelude to farming and civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the evidence isn’t confusing: it’s simply that hunter-gatherers are far more politically sophisticated and experimental than we’ve realised. Many different variations, and variations on variations, have been tried over the vast spans of time that hunter-gatherers have existed (over 200,000 years, compared to the 12,000 or so years we know agriculture has been around). Clastres was right: people were never naive, and resistance to the formation of hierarchies is a significant part of our heritage. However, seasonal variations in social structures mean that hierarchies may never have been a ghostly object of resistance. They have probably been at least a temporary factor throughout our long history.1 Sometimes they functioned, in this temporary guise, to facilitate socially positive events — though experience of their oppressive possibilities usually encouraged societies to keep them in check, and prevent them from becoming fixed.

How does this analysis change our sense of the human story? In its simplest form, it moves the debate from ‘how and when did hierarchy arise?’ to ‘how and when did we get stuck in the hierarchical mode?’. But this is merely the first stage in what Graeber and Wengrow promise is a larger project, which will include analysis of the persistence of egalitarianism among early civilisations, usually considered to be ‘after the fall’ into hierarchy.

 

Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post.

Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I didn’t intend to have a second part, but I wanted to add more context for the ideas in question… which led to further thoughts. Some of the context of my thoughts is personal and I originally decided to leave out the personal for various reasons. Sometimes I prefer discussing ideas on their own merit. Also, I’m usually a bit reluctant to bring up certain personal experiences and observations, especially when they involve others.

The personal context I’m going to discuss relates to various families I’ve known over the years. I’m not, for the most part, going to speak about the details of specific examples and I won’t name specific people (but if you know me well enough, you might be able to guess). I’m going to take these specific examples and combine them so as to characterize similarities and dissimilarities between two general categories of family. These two categories are essentially conservative vs liberal (in the social, not political, sense), but I’m not theoretically generalizing about all conservative families and all liberal families. The examples I’m drawing from are limited to my experience of growing up as a middle class white person and so the families I’m considering are also middle class white families. Another similarity is that all or most of the these families were Christian… which is typical for the US. The main difference is that some of the families are from the South and some from the Midwest (which isn’t what divides the conservative and liberal families).

The main inspiration of my thoughts here is my having read George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics. In it, Lakoff discusses the conservative Strict Father family model and the liberal Nurturant Parent family model. Lakoff extends these models into the political sphere, but I won’t be doing that. As Lakoff points out, some people might use one model for one area of their life and use the other model for another area of life. For my purpose here, it doesn’t matter how respective families may vote or how they may otherwise act outside of the family. In case you’re interested, one of the “liberal” families I’m referencing has lived in the South for generations and so I wouldn’t be surprised if they voted Republican. I consider them liberal in terms of their parenting style (i.e., Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent). If you feel confused by what is meant by Lakoff’s labels, there is plenty of info that can be found on the web describing these parenting models (including some videos of Lakoff explaining it). To give a simplistic explanation, conservative parents emphasize their own authority (and emphasize punishment when their authority isn’t respected/obeyed) and liberal parents emphasize a more informal, egalitarian relationship to their children (and emphasize explaining to a child what they did wrong).

I should add that the types I’m going to describe only indirectly relate to Lakoff’s model. In a sense, I’ll be describing two sub-types (hopefully not stereotypes) that I’m familiar with (which may or may not fit the experience of others). So, there is a definite limitation to my following analysis. Like everyone, I’m biased by my own family experiences (my parents mostly parented according to Strict Father morality but they had some Nurturant Parent tendencies) and my own socio-political preferences (moderate liberalism with leanings towards civil libertarianism, socialism, and anarchism). I’m not claiming to be perfectly objective, but I am striving to gain understanding beyond mere subjective opinion.

For certain, this isn’t a fair comparison, but the unfairness of my making these two specific categories is simply based on what I’ve observed. Life itself is unfair. The two types of family I’m considering are of parents who seem to have had very different experiences themselves growing up. The conservative examples I’m drawing from grew up in what I’d consider (as a liberal) to be marginally dysfunctional families, either severely Strict Father households (with strict punishments) or else broken families (such as divorce). This doesn’t, however, mean these parents considered their own upbringing as having been dysfunctional or that these parents would necessarily see this as the motivating factor of their having used the Strict Father model for their own children. As for my examples of liberal parents, I also can’t comment on their perceptions of how they were treated growing up by their own parents. All that I can say about these two types of parents is that the liberal parents seemed to have maintained a closer relationship with their own parents… which I think is a telling detail.

Let me give further details.

The liberal parents I speak of remained in the same town, community, or region they grew up in. So, extended family lived nearby and were seen regularly by the children of these liberal parents (informal visits, holiday gatherings, family reunions, etc). The liberal parents’ children grew up in a more stable environment. They lived in the same neighborhood their whole life or maybe moved some distance within the same community. They grew up with the same neighbors and the children of neighbors. They grew up in the same school system and knew the same kids their whole lives. They went to the same church from childhood to adulthood.

Once upon a time, almost all families would’ve fit the description of my liberal family examples. Our society, however, has become increasingly mobile. The conservative parents in my sample moved around more… maybe because they didn’t want to remain in the same area that their own parents (and extended families) lived… or maybe because the parents thought it was part of their responsibility to be successful in their careers. Obviously, this led the children of these parents to have a less stable upbringing. I think this is very important since for most of human civilization people didn’t move around much. A mobile society is quite the social experiment. For whatever reason, the conservative parents in my sample were more willing to embrace this social experiment. I really don’t know what to make of this. I don’t see any reason why Strict Father parents might on average be more likely to move around than Nurturant Parent families. I couldn’t say why this pattern exists in the families with which I’m personally familiar (and I understand that my sampling is hardly representative).

I could point out a few possible reasons. In the US, conservative family values are defined in terms of the nuclear family. I was reading something recently (I can’t recall the source) of how these nuclear family values seem to be an extension of American individualism. Conservatives, in particular, believe in individual responsibility and, from the conservative perspective, the nuclear family is an extension of the individual’s responsibility. This focus on the nuclear family has the unintended consequence of undermining the importance of extended family and of community in general. Another possibility is that conservatives are attracted to the ideal of fiscal responsibility (of course, related to individual responsibility) and conservatives seem to have more respect for those who are highly successful in the business world (a sign of individual success and hence moral fitness/superiority). Does this lead to at least a certain type of conservative to be more willing to sacrifice other aspects of their lives (such as extended family and community) for the sake of career? Or could it be that parents with less social stability caused by moving around (meaning less family, friends, and neighbors to rely upon) are more likely to emphasize a stricter parenting style in response? My intuitive sense leans toward the latter.

Let me briefly explain my why I suspect the latter.

I was recently having a discussion with a friend about Lakoff’s book. He reminded me of the book Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff which is a book I’m somewhat familiar with. Liedloff shares her observations of tribal child rearing and it’s very different than what one might expect. Despite all the dangers, tribal parents as described by Liedloff seem fairly tolerant and trusting. It makes sense once you understand. To a tribal child, there are always adults and older children around. Tribal people don’t have jobs to go to. If they have work to do, they either bring their kids with them or leave them with someone else. Children are raised by the entire tribe. There is no need for strict rules about everyday behavior when there are so many people around to supervise. This less strict (i.e., liberal) parenting style is most easily re-created in the modern world with families that have remained in the same community for multiple generations (especially if the community is small and close-knit and/or if extended family has remained nearby). It’s only natural that parents without others to offer daily support will feel a need to rely upon more strict parenting to ensure children behave even when no adults are around.

However, as Lakoff points out, there are many reasons for why parents choose a particular parenting style. Some of these reasons are purely ideological. Also, I definitely think ideological tendencies are based in psychological attitudes that may relate to inheritable genetic predispositions. As for my samples, I can’t know the specific causes and motivations. Anyways, the reasons behind all of this are secondary, for my original intent, to the results. The real measure of liberal vs conservative parenting are the families themselves, specifically in how they relate to each other.

Let me give a specific example.

In one of the conservative families, the parents are critical of those who have personal problems. Such things as poverty and addiction are seen as signs of potential moral inferiority (a typical conservative attitude). Lakoff describes this in terms of the conservative notion of moral essence. Outward behaviors or lifestyles are seen as manifestations of an inherent character that each person possesses (hence, the reason why some conservatives value career so highly). This is the judgment that was behind Reagan’s allegation of poor black women as being “Welfare Queens”. So, one of these conservative parents critcized some other parents (I believe they were part of the extended family) for having let their grown son live at home. This grown son was, as I recall, a schizophrenic and drug addict. From the conservative viewpoint, these other parents were contributing to and supporting the grown son’s immoral behavior. I doubt this conservative was blaming the person for having schizophrenia, but it would seem that this conservative didn’t think the schizophrenic was doing enough to improve his life. If he had been in a drug rehabilitation program, the conservative’s judgment probably would’ve been different. For many conservatives, drug addiction is one of the worst possible sins because it’s both immoral and illegal (meaning all around irresponsible).

Let me compare that to one of the liberal families who has a grown son living at home. This grown son is an alcoholic, but otherwise has no problems and holds down a job. He still lives at home because he often needs to be given rides. His dad worries that if he didn’t live at home he might get in trouble or hurt himself trying to get home after drinking. These liberal parents are very protective and the conservative parents would say that the liberal parents are simply protecting the grown son from the real world consequences of his actions.

This is the part that relates back to the previous post which I linked at the beginning of this post.

The essential difference here seems to be how social indebtedness is perceived. The liberal parents believe family is obligated to each other and that such obligation doesn’t need to be morally earned. The conservative parents believe in necessity of morally earning what are perceived as moral rewards. I pointed out in the other post, h0wever, that hierarchical nature of conservative views on authority translates as this moral earning only working in one direction: from child to parent and not from parent to child. The conservative view is that the child is obligated to the parent without the parent needing to have earned it. I find this odd. The child of conservative parents can’t be sure he can rely upon his own parents to be there if he has personal troubles, in particular if those personal troubles are perceived as somehow failing the parents’ moral standards. The conservative parents would be confused, though, if the grown child later on didn’t act obligingly in taking care of the parents when they need help (such as when they grow old).

The question I wonder is: How many conservative parents would actually follow through on their own ideological values? It’s easy for a conservative parent to criticize the moral failings of other parents. But would they refuse to help their own child even if they perceive their child as having caused his own problems? It’s a genuine conflict. If they did help their child despite their own moral values, their actions would be hypocritical. Or is this hypocritical? Maybe there is a greater value at stake that trumps the conservative’s normal mode of righteous judgment. Maybe some conservative parents could realize, at least in the moment of genuine need, that their own love for their child means more to them than the family values their minister has preached about at church. The significant point is that such a situation is a conflict in the first place for conservative parents. For liberal parents, there is far less sense of conflict between enforcing moral standards and loving their child because the liberal parents are less likely to have as strict of an attitude about morality.

My personal assessment, of course, is that I side with the attitude of the liberal parents. The liberal families I’m thinking of are much closer and they seem more forgiving of each other’s imperfections. Also, they seem more willing to help eachother out on a regular basis. In conservative families, on the other hand, there is more conflict and more grudges. Among these, who wouldn’t want to belong to the liberal families? It’s not that the liberals are perfect, but that the imperfections become less of an issue. One factor that might relate to this is the general attitude towards ideology. The liberal families seem to be less overtly ideological in the sense that they don’t discuss or argue about ideology much. The liberal families spend time together simply enjoying each other’s company: cooking and eating, drinking, playing games, light conversation, etc.

I’m sure that there exists examples of happy and loving conservative families, but I just don’t personally know of them. Even so, I wouldn’t try to separate these families on the basis of measuring which parents are the most loving. I imagine that most parents perceive themselves as loving. There is some factor here, though, that does relate to love or rather the child’s experience of being loved. The conservative parents seem more formal in general. I know that one of the conservative families sat down to eat and pray together which none of the liberal families did. One of the liberal families had such an informal household that it was often chaotic. There usually was no sitting down together except to watch tv. As I recall, all of the liberal parents mostly let their kids do their own thing without a lot of rules and chores. None of the liberal parents were the type to ground their kids for breaking rules as the conservative parents did. I will say that the children of one set of conservative parents were maybe better behaved in some ways, but I can’t say they were overall better and I can’t say they necessarily turned out better when they grew up. The children of the liberal parents all went to college and all have jobs. Generally speaking, the liberal families just seem closer even to this day (more than a decade after their children graduated from high school). I can’t say that means they love each other more, but closeness certainly does seem like a necessary element of familial love.

As I come to my concluding comments, let me point out one of my other biases which isn’t mine alone.

I’m a member of Generation X and I suppose I’m typical in my cynicism about my elders and about my own parents. GenXers are known for having been raised in broken families with absentee parents (but none of the parents in my sample were divorced). In general, the parents of GenXers (Silents and Boomers) have been known for their relaxed parenting style (by which I mean absentee parenting and not necessarilly liberal). GenXers have been called latchkey kids because our parents weren’t around much. The 70s and 80s were not kid-friendly times, but more important was the fact that many parents were, unlike previous generations, strongly focused on their careers to the detriment of family. Many GenX children had both parents working. It was normal for GenX children to come home to empty houses and parents typically didn’t know where their kids were after school. Parents in a two job household are busy and distracted parents. My own parents weren’t horrible parents, but they fit much of the pattern of the parents of my generation. I’m trying to sift through my generation’s childhood and separate the good from the bad.

Interestingly, the liberal families I’ve been discussing only had one parent working (or at least only one parent working a normal job that took them outside of the home). In one of these liberal families, the stay-at-home parent was the complete opposite of strict and also he had some psychological issues which caused him to not be as responsible as he otherwise might have been, but nonetheless he was always around and he spent a lot of time with his children. So, that is a big difference. The children of all these liberal parents grew up with a parent who was usually around and available. This is where I speculate that the conservative families that had two working parents felt a need to be more strict about rules for the very reason they were around less. The question is why did they choose to both work. The liberal families I’m speaking of most definitely weren’t wealthy and I have no doubt they could’ve used a second income. Maybe it’s easier to have only one parent working if you never move from the community (of family, friends, and neighbors) that you were raised in. So, the question then is: Why did the conservative parents choose to leave their childhood communities in order to seek careers that forced them to travel or else why did they choose a lifestyle of moving that required particular types of careers?

I’m of the opinion that Generation X has been more impacted by a less stable upbringing than any generation before. I’d say this impacted the children of both conservative and liberal families, but in the examples I’m familiar with this social instability had greater impact on the children of the conservative parents. Even though society itself was less kid-friendly when GenXers were growing up, the children of these liberal parents maybe had relatively more stability than most GenX children (it helped that none of the families in my sample lived below the poverty line). It’s understandable to an extent that young parents starting out in life don’t realize they are experimenting on their children. When the parents of GenXers themselves were children, they grew up at a time when stable communities were still intact to a large degreee. In the 50s and 60s, many communities were still very healthy and the downtowns were still economically viable. At that time, factories were being put up all over the place. Times were good and society was optimistic. So, these parents can’t easily understand the very different world that GenXers grew up in. This is equally true for conservative as well as liberal parents.

I’m not necessarily arguing that one group is inherently superior in all ways. Neither type of parent could possibly guess the long term results of their lifestyles and their parenting styles. Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter. Results are results. As I see it, the liberal parents I know of seem to have had better results. I can’t base any final conclusions on such limited observations, but I do think the comparisons I’ve made do illuminate important differences. In understanding Lakoff’s theory in the context of my personal observations, I feel confident that at least some of these perceived differences are directly correlated to the parenting styles.

On a more personal note, I must admit I feel less forgiving toward the conservative parents. Doing this comparison, I can see failings in all of the parents, whether conservative or liberal. Nonetheless, there is a difference that matters and this difference goes beyond even results. The conservative parents seem more righteous in their family values and more judgmental of the parenting style of others. Because of this, I think that their righteous judgment should be turned back towards their own failings. Even if the results (and failings) were equal, liberal parents invite forgiveness in their having a more forgiving attitude towards others and the conservative parents invite judgment in having a more judgmental attitude towards others. So, if the liberal parents taught their children anything worthy it is this attitude of acceptance and understanding. Even if the conservative parents were somehow absolutely right, how would their righteousness serve their children well and serve society in general well?

My criticisms here are partly self-criticisms. I’m not a parent and I don’t want to be. I can be quite righteously judgmental at times. This tendency in me doesn’t encourage a happy outlook nor happy relationships. For this reason (among others), I’m glad I’m not a parent. I wouldn’t want to pass on to my (hypothetical) children my own failings.

Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I had a thought about Lakoff’s idea of conservative Strict Father morality and how it’s related to hierarchical social organization.

A parent or a church has the responsibility to raise a child well according to the values of the model. That makes perfect sense.

However, once raised, that child is considered wholly responsible to himself. And, so, the parents or church are no longer responsible to the child who has become an adult. But the grown child is forever responsible to the parent or church that raised him. It’s a debt the adult can never pay.

It’s the latter part that confuses me. Why doesn’t in particular the parent forever owe the child that the parent forced into the world? Why are all the failings of the raised individual considered entirely to be blamed on the child? And why do conservatives have a tendency to say people they deem as good as having been raised well and hence giving the credit to the parents or church?

It seems that in the hierarchical worldview there is a permanent inequality among social roles. The child’s only hope in gaining the upperhand is to one day take on a position further up in the hierarchy (such as becoming a parent or minister). But the child, even once a parent himself, will never have ultimate hierarchical position until his own parents die. Power is automatically deferred to those high up in social status and those lower in social status have little to no right to challenge that power.

The whole hierarchy is built on an inherent indebtedness. Just by being low on the totem pole, you owe everything to those above. In terms of fundamentalism: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, (and, in Catholicism, the Pope is the head of the Church), man is head of the woman, and parents are the head of the child. Those above owe nothing to those below, but everyone ultimately owes everything to God who is at the very top.

What is strange about this is that those on top don’t have to earn the indebtedness that those below owe to them. They inherit the indebtedness simply by taking on a particular social role. Those in positions of authority (parent, husband, minister, etc) deserve unquestioning respect.

Of course, there are less extreme conservatives who moderate this slightly. They might see authority as being more complex in that it includes other social systems such as government and capitalism. They might justify this hierarchy through a rationalization of meritocracy. Those in positions of authority are assumed to have earned their position… and therefore those with less socio-economic status are by definition less deserving. Those with power and wealth have no obligation to help those without power and wealth. In fact, it would be perceived as morally wrong and so would be perceived as undermining the moral order for any exception to be made to this hierarchy of indebtedness.

To someone that lives in this worldview, it boggles their mind that someone of inferior status (child, wife, etc) wouldn’t automatically defer to the authority of their superior status. It just seems wrong that the inferior status person wouldn’t act obligingly. As such, it is automatically assumed the child will take care of his parents when they grow old. The parents morally deserve being taken care of simply by right of having superior status. The parent doesn’t have to earn being taken care of. It doesn’t even matter if the parent didn’t take as good of care of the child as they could have. In the extreme forms of this worldview, the parent is always right.

I find this perplexing. As an individual (whether in my role as child, citizen or whatever else), I’m only willing to do anything for someone who I believe is willing to do anything for me. I don’t feel I automatically owe anyone anything. Those in positions of authority or who otherwise have higher status have to earn my respect. Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t respect be either mutally given or mutally earned?

 – – –

 * As a side note, there does seem something inherent (genetically or culturally) to this different attitude towards power and authority. I remember a study that showed liberals state more willingness to hit their fathers. I would assume this would be even true if the father hit the child first. Bob Altemeyer has done research that shows those with high Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) have more fear about the world. So, would the conservative (especially the extreme conservative that most strongly correlates with RWA) not challenge authority simply out of fear? As a liberal, I’d say respect isn’t worthy if it’s based on fear.

Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age

Profit, greed, selfishness… are these the primary motivations of human nature?

I’ve always thought that humans aren’t primarily selfish. Going by my studies of psychology, humans seem to be primarily social animals. However, modern society forces people into a self-centered mentality. The problem is that this isn’t natural. It worked well enough in the past when society was hierarchical and when the central ideal of society was merely that of success. Using this mindset, many people became filthy rich and very powerful. But we no longer live in the times of the Robber Barons.

The Industrial Age attitude of individualism is being replaced by the very different view which is encouraged by this new Technological Age. All you have to do is look at the Millennials who grew up on technology. They have much more of a group mentality. They’re more interested in cooperation than competition. It’s not that they don’t want to succeed, but they just are less likely to define success as being the result of the isolated actions of an individual. The technological Age is slowly creating a less hierarchical society. Out of this, a creative class is arising.

I’ve always found it strange that conservatives are so embracing of Social Darwinism. This is particularly strange with Christian fundamentalists who believe their culture is superior and often this is identified with “white culture” or “Western culture”. It’s the idea that we genocidally destroyed the Native American cultures and so our culture is superior. We deserve our superior position because our culture is superior (i.e., stronger, more dominant, more forceful, more successful). We won. You lost. The same for the African-Americans. Conservatives whites love to complain about the black culture being dysfunctional which is rather convenient since the black culture was destroyed by whites.

I wonder how much this has to do with Christianity. Not all Christians have this superior attitude, but it has been a far from uncommon attitude throughout the history of Christianity. Christians have always been about “spreading the Good Word”. Unlike the views of many Eastern religions, not everyone is guaranteed of being saved in Christianity. In fact, there is the idea of an elect few who will be saved and this idea has been popular since the beginning of Christianity. There were other views within the Christian tradition. Universalism (i.e., everyone is saved) has also been a part of Christianity from the beginning, but unlike Buddhism or Hinduism it never gained much traction within mainstream Christianity.

It’s interesting that “white culture” Christian fundamentalism is on the decline at the very same time that the creative class is on the rise. But it isn’t surprising. My guess is that the creative class tends to be liberal and open to alternative lifestyles such as atheism and agnosticism. Buddhism, or certain traditions of Buddhism, have become very popular as well in the creative class, the educated class, the liberals. The greatest spokesperson for this new attitude is probably the Dalai Lama who is of course a Buddhist.

At the same time, the developing world is simultaneously embracing both the model of materialistic success and the modern attitude of religious fundamentalism. I’ve always thought that Karen Armstrong was correct when she identified religious fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon, a reaction to Industrialization and demographic shifts forcing the mixing of cultures. In the US (along with Europe and countries such as Japan), we’ve assimilated this change and it has become a part of our identity. Particularly, the US demographics are shifting so quickly that the newest generation is already past much of the old racial/cultural conflicts.

The Industrialized West is entering terra incognito. There are some people (*ahem* conservatives *cough cough*) who don’t want their world to change, but like it or not the world is changing and there is no going back. As a liberal, I’m very curious where it’s all heading. I don’t see Western Culture as a static artifact or a set of laws set in stone. The entire history of the West has been of progress. The very idea and ideal, the very narrative of progress is at the heart of the Western Culture.

I should add that this doesn’t mean that Christianity is simply being left in the dust of the 21st century. If there is one thing that Christianity has proven itself to be, it is that it’s an evolving tradition which is very flexible and adaptable (the grand ideal of cultural mixing of the Greco-Romans). Christianity is shifting partly because the culture wars are shifting. It used to be the God-fearing Americans versus the Godless Commies. However, we no longer have a great enemy like the Soviet Union and the enemy we are focused on is even more religiously fundamentalist. The atheists and agnostics have gained a foothold and are growing, but more importantly even religious Americans think about religion differently. When Christianity was politicized by conservatives it became a competition of values where one side had to win at the cost of the other side. The young generations no longer see it that way and they don’t like the way religion has become politicized.

Why has Christianity been shifting so dramatically in recent decades? The most obvious explanation is that biblical studies itself has changed as it became free of church control and as new texts were discovered.

What is taking place of politicized Christianity? That is easy to figure out. Just listen to what the religious right is complaining about. Presently, the most vocal defender of the religious right is Glenn Beck. So, what is Glenn Beck complaining about? Social Justice Christians. What is different about these liberal Christians? For one, they tend towards the ideas of Unitarianism and Universalism. Many Christians have been fighting for these ideals for centuries, but only in this last century have they had great impact on US culture (although there was a Universalist European country in the past). My basic point is that this is a less competitive and more inclusive view of religion. It’s what Martin Luther King, jr was speaking about when he said he had a Dream. The Social Justice Christians argue that this was the very message that Jesus spoke of.

Of course, this Dream is older than Christianity. To speak of it broadly, this is the vision and ideal of human rights.

Many people have spoken of a world that wasn’t or shouldn’t be just dog eat dog. There is an ancient idea that humans, all humans have inherent worth.

One thing I’d is that of the Axial Age. Many cultures around the world developed along similar lines at about the same time. It wasn’t that the idea of human rights simply spread out from a single point. There was something inherent to human culture that hits a tipping point where human rights become a collective ideal and aspiration.

It’s been more than a couple of millennia since the beginning of the Axial Age. We Westerners like to think we’re so advanced and yet we’re still processing the radical change, the cultural shift that happened so long ago. Some argue that we’re in a Second Axial Age.

I’m not exactly optimistic. I do feel that something is trying to be born, but the birth pangs are going to be painful.

I can’t speak of certainties in the context of global society and what it may become. My point is simply that culture itself is shifting, attitudes are changing. It’s something that is happening on the level of relationships and communities, on the level of everyday communication and interactions. More important than anything else, people are changing on a fundamental level. It’s not about what is happening in politics, not about what leaders are deciding, not about what the plans and agendas international corporations project into the future. 

No one knows what is coming. There is no one at the top who is in control.