The Dangers of Hierarchical Thinking
“The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.”
— T.C. McLuhan, “Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence”
Weary of discouraging news, I headed out to walk by the Bay. A flotilla of common eiders caught and held my attention, several mothers shepherding a dozen or so downy ducklings. The water was iridescent as day slid into dusk, and the eiders – like the water – appeared unruffled.
That could change in an instant, I knew. I once witnessed a different crèche of eiders when a great black-backed gull happened by, lifting off an unsuspecting chick before the mothers could corral a once-leisurely line into a secure knot.
Seeing predation at work can be unsettling, confronting us with the inescapable truth that life feeds on life. That hard realization is part of what underlies moral systems that assign differing weight to the value of other beings, observes David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at University of New England and author of “Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.” In a recent conversation, he explained the human tendency to “modestly place” our own kind at the pinnacle of a moral ranking, assigning highest value to those of our own species, race, religion or ideology and successively less value to others.
The seamy underside of this hierarchical mindset surfaces when people assert their dominance, labeling fellow humans as a “lower” life form – “animals” or, worse still, an “infestation” of dangerous vermin. Such language abounds in wartime (as the Nazis demonstrated in reference to Jews) and in criminal defense cases. It serves – Smith says – to “create moral distance,” diminishing the intrinsic value of an individual or group so it can appear that they “deserve to be enslaved/imprisoned/exterminated (depending on the period of history).”
Now the United States, once held up as a beacon of democracy, has a president wielding this degrading language like a blunt instrument, eager to inflame racial tensions for what he perceives as political gain. As dangerous and offensive as his epithets are, it’s important to see the Twitter taunts as evidence of a larger, more entrenched problem: the all-too-human hubris that exacerbates countless societal and environmental problems.
Our species’ conviction of superiority places “lesser” species and the physical world literally “at our disposal,” creating a world of throwaway people and resources. It lets us discount destruction wrought downstream – whether that harm occurs in local waters, to distant workers or to generations not yet born.
Scientific insights from ecology, quantum physics and evolutionary biology should long ago have toppled this pyramidal perspective, but it has – in Smith’s words – “amazing staying power.”
He does not minimize the challenge of moving beyond this reflexive moral ranking. It’s all too easy, as we’ve seen lately in responses to the imprisonment of refugees, to distance and disassociate ourselves from those we perceive as lower on the pyramid. Even if we don’t succumb to debasing language, we may slip into the Orwellian parlance that is becoming commonplace, calling prison warehouses “detention centers” run by “compliance directors.”
American exceptionalism is a dangerous myth to hold, Smith cautions. It prevents us from acknowledging – and teaching – about historical atrocities this country’s citizens have perpetrated. And it makes it harder to face up to real-time atrocities as they happen. Confronted with widespread abuse of refugee families in search of asylum, Americans are prone to repeat “we are better than this.” That deflection just digs us deeper into denial.
Clearly, we are not better than this – whether “this” represents the caging of children, the gutting of environmental protections or the willful neglect of our Constitution.
We won’t get better, or more aptly be better, until we acknowledge how damaging a hierarchical mindset is – to fellow humans (victims of racism, sexism and other oppression) and to the beleaguered natural world. There’s evidence aplenty of this damage, even in a nation once known for high ideals and in a state legendary for its “unspoiled” environment.
More critical still, Smith argues, is that we each acknowledge that exploitation is not the work of “monstrous” others but something we all sanction. It’s a painful process of confrontation, he acknowledges; “the loss of illusions is always hard but ultimately beneficial.”
Once we drop dreams of dominion over others and the natural world, where do we stand? Ecology reminds us of the infinite interconnections that weave us into natural systems – linking us to fellow humans, to each adorable eider chick and – yes – to every hungry gull. We are, in Wendell Berry’s words, “the belongings of the world, not the owners.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.