“To be dominant means to a monkey
that it gets the best of everything. It
is easy to test the status of two macaques.
All one has to do is toss a desirable object between them and see which
one takes it.”
– Primates, Library of Nature, 1984
The American Declaration of Independence proclaims “All men
are created equal” as self-evident.
Equality is the cultural value we appear to value most highly. But the equality assertion creates a values
conflict when paired with our primate nature.
This nature is highly competitive, with asserting dominance the leading
The US Supreme Court cases dealing with affirmative action
in the college admissions process have been forced to deal with this paradox of
dominance versus group rights. Most
recently in the Harvard case in federal court last October, the outlines of the
way we value and consider hierarchy are starting to coalesce. The trial was the outcome of the 2014 suit
filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA),
who held that Harvard discriminates against highly qualified Asian students in
order to favor other (less qualified) ethnic minorities—along with athletes,
legacy students, and the wealthy. It offers
a showcase of reverse discrimination, one that Jews traditionally have faced as
well for being an achievement elite that appears to threaten diversity mandates.[i]
The federal court’s ruling is pending.
Why are hierarchy and equality so consistently on trial in
our public debates? Here is how a
cultural analysis would begin to study this question, starting with college
admissions as the “laboratory” for observing hierarchy dynamics at work. Because college has long been seen as the opening
channel to lifetime achievement, the admissions process for elite schools is
the focal point for understanding the involved issues.
So great has been the payoff of a college education in
guaranteeing upward mobility that schools have been raising tuition at rates far
outpacing general earnings. It has taken
the crisis of student debt across income levels to push parents past the
assumption of higher education at any price.
The result: the value of the college degree is now no longer
automatically assumed to lead to a decent career—or even job security.
Two and a half centuries since the Declaration’s equality
clause, we are caught up in the crucible of the American class paradox: the
self-made success (typically an entrepreneur) versus the level playing field to
attain that status. Nearly a century
after our country’s founding, it took the 1866 Civil Rights Act, part of
post-Civil War Reconstruction, to declare all persons born in the US to be
citizens. Two years later the 14th
Amendment endowed voting rights on those same citizens. In the past century since 1921, the Equal
Rights Amendment (ERA) has been an ongoing bone of contention for ratification because
of fears about how the general concept of sexual equality would be implemented,
as well as women subject to the draft and to losing protections at work. Ninety-eight years after it was first
introduced the ERA is still circulating as a proposed Constitutional amendment. More recently, The Employment
Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) has been in circulation for ratification since
1994, with its main barrier to ratification transgender issues.
The search for equality—racial, ethnic, sexual, gender,
religious, occupational, and age—are all part of an ongoing crusade using identity
politics as the medium and measure.
These efforts are now under fire as championing special rights rather
than equal rights[ii]. This
problem illustrates that dominance—“specialness,” or American Exceptionalism—is
woven deep into the fabric of universal ways of thinking about class dominance,
power, and privilege. The file folders
in the case are ancestry, gender, age, achievement, influence,
favoritism….every way in which people are either born or become who they are in
the social world of family, community, political alliance, colleagueship, and
In considering the role of social differences, we must think
simultaneously along two lines. First,
who we are as humans and how we got to be the way we are across cultures and
over time; and second, who we want or need to be as social primates, and how we
move along that trajectory from our common ancestry as Americans. For Americans, who celebrate success—a major differentiator
of people—balancing the achievement ethic against general social fairness is a
given cultural imperative.
Under affirmative action, well-meaning attempts at creating
equality by counterbalancing discrimination somehow equate to elevating
downgraded / denigrated groups to become chosen favorites. This act, intended as a needed palliative
measure, has become another kind of social leveling that results, again, in an
uneven playing field. As an example, savvy
commuters on the London Underground protested the new system that marked off in
green the spot where car doors would open, preventing congestion caused by the
clash of on-boarders with off-boarders.
They argued that creating this type of advantage worked against their
own hard-earned competitive advantage in learning the system on their own time
The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), long the top white
group based on bloodlines plus aggregated wealth, can now be seen as a
disadvantaged minority facing the end of legacy admissions with the ascension
of rival elites from Africa, Asia, and the subcontinent. There is already a rich legacy of WASP
villains throughout popular culture. The
standard character is the evil banker, or hypocritical minister, or
Machiavellian president. Any other ethnic
would have the basic right to protest this casting. Any other group so maligned
would be heartily encouraged to seek social justice against such hateful
portrayals (the Irish could qualify as well).
To follow the cultural picture along these lines, in the US,
status is weighted toward the bottom.
This is the reason there is no virtue in having a rich upbringing, and
why Humphrey Bogart, Alice Cooper, Edward Norton, Chevy Chase, and Spike Jonze
all kept their well-off backgrounds a dark secret. There simply is no dramatic interest in a
riches-to-riches biography. The idea is
that against all odds, like Andrew or Dale Carnegie, one realizes the
resilience, motivation, and character needed to make it to the top. This is the American salvation story.
So, should admissions (for example), be race-blind? Or,
perhaps better, class-blind? College admissions, like business, doesn’t like to
talk about class, because in this country, it’s a mobile system that
individuals can influence, and do all the time.
Logically, therefore, failing to make a success of oneself is clearly
down to the individual, not the system.
Surprisingly, though, even ad agencies don’t use the term,
even at in-house idea sessions. Although
advertising is designed to further the goal of aspiration to raise one’s class
through consumption and experiences, the industry doesn’t do this
straightforwardly but by talking more obliquely about income, education, and occupation
(as does the US Census) as a stand-in for privilege. A second paradox is the concept of “earned
privilege,” which fits the American cultural system and is in fact acknowledged
in the idea that class is a mobile structure which individuals move into and
around by their own genius--or fail to navigate as a lack of strategic
Still, this mobility would still appear to favor some groups
over others – making Martin Luther King’s exhortation problematic: to judge on the basis of character, not skin
color. Should colleges, the golden
tickets to success, follow this lead?
And how should we think about measuring character?
Perhaps we can measure race as a positive on some cultural
scale. But if race is considered
positively, rather than as a negative, does that also work to disadvantage
mainstream white groups in their efforts—aren’t Irish, Italian, French, Nordic,
Polish, et al. bona fide ethnic origins?
Despite all the press about Latino and Black demographic growth, German
remains, as it has been for decades, the largest single US ethnic group. Global conflict puts Arab and other
Middle-Eastern groups (non-Israeli) at multiple disadvantage as Muslim
believers. How are these groups to be weighted and assigned handicap values in
the game of educational one-upmanship?
And do we want to consider this a reasonable approach to a method of
fairness in assigning credits to be redeemed in building careers, professions, and
reputations as the basis for a successful personal future? As a species of entrepreneurship, higher
education is the coin to bid on all that wonderful potential we automatically
assign (a bit uncritically) to growing minds.
Origins of dominance: Class
Back to primatology. All
primates, particularly monkeys and humans, have an easily observed dominance
hierarchy that dictates every social relationship—including the exercise of
personal space. The measure of space an
individual can command is a clear physical sign of status – to feel free to
co-opt the best feeding and sleeping spaces, to move into others’ personal
territory and invade their personal space[iii].
Hierarchy assures order and enables the quick decisions at
the core of wild primate survival.
Baboons and macaques, aggressive by nature as part of their defense
against predators on the ground, can be depended on to generate in-group
conflicts that must be held in check by the alpha group—using symbolic threats
(the long stare, bared fangs), short of all-out repressive action. “The whole elaborate structure of dominance
and submissions, of threat and surrender, is surely terribly familiar. It is like a preview, a parody of status relationships
between humans” – the teacher enforcing, with a long stare, order in the
The power of cliques also provides the answer to the problem of succession when
the alpha dies or is incapacitated, a close parallel to human oligarchy. Survival insurance depends on rule by the top
groups, both against predators from the outside and inner turmoil and
insurrection. Males from outside or
lower orders are incorporated into the ruling class over time to assure ongoing
vitality and diversity[v].
As in our own elites, qualifying for membership in the inner
circle or white-shoe law firm is a matter of style and the achievements made
possible by a clear, confident, self-possessed manner all primates recognize
(the blue-chip college degree being one symbol of this style of belonging at
the top), as well as birthright in having the right mother and/or father. This styling goes beyond the social justice
concept of fairness into identity based on a deeply embedded and reinforced class
intelligence. Such style intelligence
explains why we grow up within homogenous subgroups—homophilly—that persist far
beyond childhood into adulthood. This is
the reason for the avid pursuit of the “right” schools beginning with preschool—not
for knowledge of subjects, but for the social networking.
But in the American version, such intelligence doesn’t have
to be taught, although aspiring parents try through many channels like sports,
the arts, dance, travel, and museum-going – to cultivate it in their offspring. Class cues can just as well be picked up by
the intuitive striver (like the artist Jack Dawson in “Titanic”) to create the
self-made alpha identity—within or outside existing organizations and social
structures. We move our identities
around the social board as a natural act, and expect others to do the
same. During the lifelong aspirational
process, we draw upon the concept of equality as the means to mobilize our
talents and ambitions with as little friction as possible by using social
leverage to overcome blocks to progress.
But equality isn’t the goal. It’s
simply the means to the end objective: using the equality lever to climb or
create the personal top of the mountain.
This dream of developing social capital into fame, status, and
economic capital creates the microculture of the super wealthy, but at the same
time is also the thinking and behavioral guideline for the most modest of
households. The difference that always hangs between wealth extremes is the
Matthew Effect, coined by Robert Merton in 1968 after the Parable of the
Talents: the tendency of the rich to become super-rich and poor to remain poor
or grow poorer (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have
abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” –
Matthew 25:29, RSV). Starting advantages
of the class network accumulate quickly from birth to maintain and expand a
“best of everything” lifestyle, which is the whole point of upper-to
upper-middle-class attainment in a mobile class system like ours. These
advantages, once earned, then become the legacy capital for children, grandchildren,
and beyond—though many a fortune is squandered through bad management, a spendthrift
ethic, and subdivision among many offspring.
Celebrities, top athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals
are self-generating systems of wealth, reputation, and power that are
purposefully unequal (that is to say, exceptional, excellent, and successful through
competitive advantage). But getting to
those heights is part of the pursuit of happiness endowed as an inalienable
right. Although any two people can be
clearly unequal in their talents, or in the hard work they are willing to apply
to develop them, Americans see social equity as expandable, a commodity that
underlies the achievements available to be exploited as success breeds success.
Not at the expense of others, but as available to all as a public good.
The American dream is not equality. The goal is constantly working to develop one’s
unique competitive advantage. This
project is assumed to be the shared goal of the work ethic, social relations,
and striving. Equality tests are just
the baseline designed to prevent anyone from being barred from the race. The rest is the test of mettle that wins our
place in the fast-moving hierarchy.
Action on Trial,” Insight into Diversity, Dec. 2018, p. 28
Rauch, “Don’t Call Me LGBTQ,” Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2019, p. 16
[iii] "Primates," Illustrated Library of Nature (Vol. 1),
1984. Westport, CT: H.S. Stuttman, pp. 107-8
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
- Second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence
“This system [hierarchy], endemic to all primate groups, largely goes unquestioned.”
- Primates, Library of Nature
Senator Lyman Trumbull, the man who authored the Thirteenth
Amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery, called the phrase,
"All men are created equal" the "immortal declaration." It
is certainly one of the most enduring concepts of the Revolutionary period.
Americans learn the phrase as children and accept it as part of the natural
order of things.
Yet—think about it—no two humans have ever been born equal.
Humans are a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and they
will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes. It is a hierarchy that emerges only in that
room at that time but, during that period, everyone in the room subconsciously internalizes
and conforms to it. Hierarchy has a
clear reason for existing, as primate studies of social baboons, macaques, and
our closest primate relations, chimpanzees, have consistently found.
Knowing our place in the social hierarchy – albeit
subconsciously -- enables us to function as a social unit. Unlike our more hirsute primate cousins, we don’t
live in a small troop managing social relations only with the same familiar
few. We live in a large social mesh of overlapping groups – family, work,
friendships, colleagues, organizations, etc. – each with its own hierarchy. We are constantly managing our standing in
groups, because those groups shift constantly.
Marshall McLuhan was wrong. We don’t live in a Global Village[i]
. We live on a globe of villages.
Humans are very adroit at maneuvering their way through this
web of shifting hierarchies on the local level. We do it unconsciously. We have
worked out social mechanisms for filling in the gaps. That’s why business
executives, educators, academics, and others of the professional class have
titles. In America, social rank is not tied to birth but to accomplishment.
That’s why the second question[ii]
you ask a stranger at a party is “What do you do?” It is the reason theme parks
feature switchback lines – the accomplishment, in this case, being the act of
getting there in an orderly sequence. Everyone knows who is in front of them
and who is behind. Cutting in front of this hierarchy will bring down the wrath
of the group because it violates another uniquely American concept:
Yet, on a larger scale, hierarchy is in direct contrast to
the equality we look for in political life. This is where the battle for
dominance plays out. The search for equality as an inalienable right is the
cultural value we seem to value most in every pursuit. This assertion creates a paradox when paired
with our primate nature. In our striving
society (and worldwide), humans are constantly asserting dominance over others:
in promoting our values, our careers, our associations, even in religious
context. Americans in particular have
chosen to battle out this war of ideas: competitive advantage, or
equality? Sounding like a dilemma, this
is not a straight-out contradiction, as a search into our evolutionary history
can show. A subtle accommodation is
being made, operational across our history.
Let us take a trip to glimpse inside the history of
dominance in primate evolution by taking historical note of our closest cousins
– our fellow primates, featuring monkeys (baboons and macaques) and apes.
Originally, as today, primates lived in groups—some highly social, others (like
gorillas) less so. Within these groups
there are alphas and betas, with the rules of supremacy well understood and
followed by all members. As in human
society, there are leaders and supporters inside an elite circle at the top who
lead making decisions and keeping the peace.
Primatologists have reported that the higher the social index/activity
of the species—baboons and macaques especially—the more pronounced are rank and
dominance among these aggressive species—aggression and sociability being
highly correlated. Sociability is the
main fact in predicting the group’s behavior and the social graph (the map of
Primates practice dominance across the board, as group
animals must to survive –to find food and practice defense. But there is also the need for inner harmony
within any group of any size, so members can coexist without the leading caste
exercising ruthless oppression on everyone.
Someone must lead and thus enjoy the privileges of the alpha life, but
tyrants live in constant fear of rebellion and resistance, even the disbanding
of their supporters. So some sense of equality
must also be active. Americans consider this a fairness test in all situations,
from the Electoral College to playgrounds to prisons.
It is worth noting here that fairness is almost exclusively
an American concept (in contrast to the British meaning, which is closer to
justice) and that we hold it out as the ultimate test of social virtue. The Declaration’s equality cry is built into
the fairness concept, and it underlies—at a gut level—discussions of social
justice, which go far beyond the technical meaning of justice as a legal
concept to express an American-branded ideal.
But that ideal must always play against the dominance-hierarchy reality
of social relations, and that is our paradox to deal with. Fairness must constantly be parsed, defined,
and understood within our primate nature of highly social, striving opportunism
under hierarchic hard-wiring.
Fairness is the American answer to a strict hierarchy. The
reality is that while all may be created equal, no one is expected to stay
equal for long. We live in a very American classless society. It’s not that we
don’t have classes; we do, though we don’t talk about them much. When Europeans
speak of a classless society the proposed solution is to create a biological
impossibility - one big egalitarian class. To Americans, a classless society
means not being restricted to the class you were born into. In fact, Americans
expect to move up from whatever level they were born into. That’s where fairness
enters, by determining whether you are being treated in a way that might wall
off your opportunities to do so. This is
also the core of political correctness.
In the next few posts, we will examine specific examples of
how our dichotomy of fairness ethic and inborn hierarchical nature play out in
real life, from our family, social life, to business, education, and
entertainment (remember the switchback line?).
But in the meantime, here’s something to think about, right out of the
primate hierarchy playbook. Consider the
When the alpha leader of a troop of primates is impulsive,
erratic, or unstable, rather than protective and value-driven, the troop grows
anxious, restless, and prone to infighting to try to establish dominance to
transcend or disrupt the leader’s headstrong ego. This kind of flagrant leadership upsets the
order of things, disturbing relations between groups without confidence in the
leader’s ability to protect and promote the body of the group. Understand that, and you can understand the
why behind what you see on the evening news.
term “Global Village” was coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan,
and popularized in his books The
Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man (1962) University of
Toronto Press ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9 and Understanding
Media (1964) McGraw-Hill, ISBN 81-14-67535-7.
[ii] The first question, of course, is “What is
last place on earth people would think about hierarchy is a theme park. In
fact, most people don’t think about hierarchy at all unless it is violated.
It’s a biological constant. Everyone was born with the rules hard-wired into
their brain. No human consciously developed those rules. They are the result of
an evolutionary process that – if you include our first mammalian ancestor -
took about six million years. The modern form of humans only evolved about
200,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old,
and the industrialized world didn’t exist until the 1800s.
rules must have evolved early, because without them, we would never have
are social beings. We depend on each other and have become the dominant species
on the planet because we can cooperate to achieve a goal. Hierarchy is the mechanism
that makes that possible. Put ten strangers in a room and they will sort out an
informal hierarchy within ten minutes.
It’s a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time. But
knowing where we stand in the group—any group—enables us to function most
efficiently. We are constantly managing our
standing in groups, because that standing shifts constantly.
people visit theme parks alone. It is a social experience. In theme parks,
every family or friendship group contains its own hierarchy, and each group
operates surrounded by other group hierarchies.
Throughout a day in the park, in moving around the park, the positioning
of each group member shifts to best cope with new circumstances.
and fathers usually make the logistical decisions, whereas wives and mothers have
veto power. Mothers tend to be the financial, relationship, and health monitors
for the group. Always children are
influencers. We do this intuitively as something we rarely think about unless
forced to. That’s most often when the
unspoken norms have been violated.
Disney was testing one of their first GPS-based devices for navigating Walt
Disney World parks, they offered select guest families the opportunity to test
the device. While ridiculously large by today’s standards, these were the
latest technology of the era. In order to participate, guests were asked to put a
refundable $25 charge on their credit card. The Imagineers didn’t want the
money, they just wanted to ensure they got the device back so they could
interpret the data.
surprised the Imagineers was while the father and the children were the most
interested in the device, it was the mother who carried it. She would show the
screen to the husband and children, but never let it out of her hand. This went
against all their expectations. Focus groups had found it was males who were
the most interested in the new technology. Female interest was near zero. So why were the mothers the ones carrying and
using the device?
answer was simple – Disney had 25 dollars of their money on hold. Mom wasn’t
about to let a careless child break it -- and “child” included Dad! For the
family finances, she ruled at the top of the hierarchy.
comes with a set of norms that are never stated but understood intuitively by
the group. In the GPS survey, Mom was the responsible party and Dad and the
kids simply accepted this without discussion. Unless you understand what the
norms are, you will experience surprise pushback. Theme parks create scores of temporary
hierarchies throughout the park—we just aren’t used to thinking about them in that
queue—either straight or switchback—creates an instant hierarchy. Your group holds
a physical position in that queue. Other groups are ahead of you, and others
behind. It is understood that the people ahead get to go on the ride first, while
you get to go before the people behind you.
brings us to a cultural concept called Fairness. This is a peculiarly American belief.
In our daily lives, Americans are not
interested as much in justice (a legal construct) as in being treated fairly.
Guests in theme parks will endure a ridiculously long wait only because
everyone else in the line is treated to the same wait length. That may be
uncomfortable, but it is fair as equal discomfort under the law of fairness for
that sense of fairness disappears when the line – and the guest’s place in the
hierarchy – is disrupted. Once you build a switchback (that long folded-over
holding snake line), that sequence hierarchy must hold right up to the
often it doesn’t. Sometimes it holds up but just until it feeds into a large
holding area, particularly for theater attractions. The anteroom holds the
number of audience members the theater was designed for, and it usually features
some preshow attractions to engage guest interest as the inevitable countdown
clock signals the approaching minutes until the theater doors open. This system
seems logical until you create a serious violation of the fairness ethic. In this case, it is this: once within the wide-open
pre-show lobby, where the line formation breaks apart, guests from behind can
and will move past you to position themselves by the theater door, symbolically
claiming the first seating. That’s a line system designed to violate the social
fact, there may not actually be any seating at all in the attraction. You may enter
a standup theater where all the viewing positions are pretty much equal – but
the guest standing in line doesn’t necessarily realize that.
doesn’t even matter that you may supply plenty of signage informing them of
what’s ahead; most people don’t read such advisories, nor absorb the
information even if they do. There are only a few places in any attraction
where people are primed to receive and accept information as they progress
through. The remainder just doesn’t get noticed or absorbed.
the guest knows is that the park just violated the social contract—that tacit
understanding established with the guest—made when you funneled them into the initial
feel cheated, because they know they have been treated unfairly. You forced
them into a choice they did not expect to be making—either view the preshow or
make a dash for the theater door. Either
choice means taking a loss—and human beings hate even the idea of loss.
are not risk averse - they are loss averse. Loss aversion is a cognitive
default common to all human beings. In fact, our decisions are driven more
often to avoid loss than to achieve gain. The only thing we hate more than loss
is uncertainty. We try to avoid that at all costs.
only the guests’ best interests at heart, the attraction designers just forced them
into a situation of both loss and uncertainty.
won’t matter that when they actually enter the theater they then realize they
haven’t really lost anything. That unfairness emotion will dominate and color
the memory of the entire experience.
the solution is so simple. Park guests are perfectly happy to get out of the
elements into a climate-controlled lobby… so design the pre-show in a way that
it can be seen and enjoyed from the emotional safety of the switchback line and
just continue that line the full distance up to the loading door. Minimize transitions that introduce status
is a simple but unfortunately common occurrence. There are a number of other transactions
where establishing a hierarchy comes with an implicit operational understanding
by the guest--an understanding that gets violated further along in the process.
FastPass systems, developed after the timed-ticket approach created by museums
for their blockbuster exhibits. Insert your park ticket into the slot; out
comes a timed ticket for the attraction. Go on your way and stop back at the
FastPass express lane when the ticket is due.
all works fine—unless the fast lane loads right beside the regular lane. It
doesn’t matter that the people in the “slow” lane had the very same opportunity
to get their own FastPass. Emotionally,
they are responding with social envy and resentment to the fairness equation, to
the very visible fact that those “fast” folks are boarding the boat in front of
them. It looks and feels unfair. Americans are acutely sensitive to such
“class” distinctions, because we aren’t a fixed-class society—that is, you are
not destined to remain in the class you are born into.
this logical? No. Emotionally, however,
it makes perfect sense. There is not nearly the same envy reaction if you were
to load the FastPass crowd at an out-of-sight location, which could be just
steps away or around the bend-- so long as the slower crowd doesn’t have to see
it happening. Use the discreet measure
of keeping the class difference out of sight.
parallel problem emerged when the handicapped were loaded first – not just
solo, but accompanied by their extended family.
Grandma would be wheeled up to the gate in the company of a dozen clearly
able-bodied family members, who would all be loaded before other in-line guests.
didn’t have a problem with grandma. But they did have a real problem with her entire
entourage becoming instantly advantaged because of family ties.
new rule—fairer to the guest— now seems to be to park grandma with a family
member at the handicapped gate. The rest of the family joins in the normal line,
and at the point when the group reaches the attraction, grandma and handler
join them. What could be fairer than that?
the interplay of hierarchy and fairness is essential knowledge as you build new
hierarchies within the park with options like Magic Bands, team games, special
tours, priority passes, and new attractions with new timing, spacing, and
also makes life outside the parks easier to understand.