Friday, November 25, 2011

Humanity: Casualty of hierarchy

Living in a world where income inequality is expanding, I cannot help but reflecting on two seemingly unrelated works: one article by William Deresiewicz published in the American Scholar with the title "Solitude and Leadership", the other is the book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett with the title "The Spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger".

After reading these two thought provoking works, I develop a proposition that hierarchy (being hierarchy in an organization or social hierarchy based on income and status) is detrimental to humanity progress.

In Solitude and Leadership, Deresiewicz argues that higher educational institutions produce graduates who are obsessed about themselves and how they can climb up a hierarchy to achieve individual success:

"That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to."

Another observation about hierarchy is that people who are "leaders" in bureaucracies are ordinary people:

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going."

Bureaucracies reward those who are conformists. Some of these conformists with the aspiration to get to a higher status in a hierarchy are willing to sacrifice humanity's moral values to get to the high ground.

Now the Spirit level book argues that people who live in a high social inequality environment develop a sensitivity towards social comparison. They have anxiety about their status in a society. As a result, they develop a false sense of confidence to protect themselves against social evaluation threat:

"... people in many developed countries have experienced substantial rises in anxiety and depression" (p. 35)

"People with insecure high self-esteem tend to be insensitive to others and to show an excessive preoccupation with themselves, with success, and with their image and appearance in the eyes of others." (p. 37)

"As greater inequality increases status competition and social evaluative threat, egos have to be propped up by self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies. Modesty easily becomes a casualty of inequality: we become outwardly tougher and harder in the face of greater exposure to social evaluation anxieties, but inwardly -- as the literature on narcissism suggests -- probably more vulnerable, less able to take criticism, less good at personal relationships and less able to recognize our own faults." (p. 45)

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