HUMANS, HIERARCHY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Professor of Law at Howard University and director of the Law
School’s Master of Laws (LL.M) program, which focuses on
enabling young lawyers to redirect their careers toward social
justice. This following is a synopsis of a longer article that
first appeared in the National
Lawyers Guild Review,
Vol. 73, No. 3, Fall 2017.
born with empathic soft-wiring — ‘mirror neurons’
that cause us to experience the plight of our fellow humans as
our own, and even to empathize with plants and animals. These
mirror neurons encourage a natural solidarity and cooperativeness
among us that is the central aspiration of most of the world’s
religions, and orients us to preserve our environment as well
as to respect one another.
we are not designed to empathize with groups of humans any larger
than the hunting and gathering band, about 20 people, and only
the plants and animals we directly encounter. Paul Shepard, in
Coming Home to the Pleistocene, shows that our own species,
Homo sapiens, has lived in small groups — nomadic, hunting
and gathering — since our emergence 200,000 years ago. It
was only 15,000 years ago that things began to change. As agriculture
developed and humans began a sedentary lifestyle based on the
domestication of plants and animals rather than roaming and foraging,
groupings got larger.
Diamond points out, this transition from hunting and gathering
to food production required the managing of these large groups.
Yuval Harari shows that “imagined realities” were
invented to knit large groupings together and manage them. An
imagined reality creates the illusion that we are connected to
a larger group, creating a kind of ‘virtual’ empathic
connection which has an inter-subjective rather than a biological
imagined realities changed the basis for human cooperation and
interaction, from what they knew of their environment and their
kinship mates to what they believed, and what they were told.
An imagined reality coalesces as a set of beliefs, discourses,
institutions and practices that explain and support the social
order and cause it to cohere, providing human beings with an inter-subjective
understanding of their objective conditions of existence. The
imagined reality tells its subjects what exists, what is good,
and what is possible. (see Paul Costello’s work on ideology
for more on this).
function of an imagined reality is to orient individuals and classes
to the social structures of society so that they can act in appropriate”
ways. Such an orientation allows the subjects of the imagined
reality to be managed, from a distance, by leaders, elites, in
a hierarchical arrangement.
is introduced as various social relations, social institutions
and social practices inform the subject that there is inherent
inequality between groups; that the hegemony of the dominant group
is right; and that equality between superior and inferior groupings
is impossible. Thus, a hierarchical imagined reality works to
‘constitute’ subjects at all levels of the hierarchy,
to create personalities that think and act as they are directed.
hierarchies are sustained by what Rifkin calls “utilitarian
ideologies.” Utilitarian ideologies are imagined realities
that suppress the empathic impulses that would draw us back from
the exploitation of nature and humanity necessary for “bigger
and better.” To be successful, these ideologies must be
ingrained deep in our family life and in all the social constructs
in which we live and have our being.
use utilitarian ideologies to suppress and redirect the empathic
impulses of their subjects, facilitating their subordination and
control, enabling the elites to maintain the social order and
their privileges within it. The suppression, distortion, and misdirection
of our empathic instincts involved in imagined realities has fomented
alienation, violence and aggression since the emergence of the
first states and empires. The bullying, physical punishment, threats,
incentives granted and withheld that humans developed in order
to train and control animals, were now turned on other humans.
solidarity among subjects, and teach them to submit to hierarchy,
subordination and control, utilitarian ideologies depend upon
an ‘other’ with whom the subject does not empathize.
to Marilyn French, the first group “othered” were
human females, who were subordinated to men in the new social
order that developed along with sedentary agriculture. Women and
children came to be viewed as men’s property. Women were
expected to show deference to men at every turn. With the emergence
of larger kingdoms and structured religions, women’s subordination
became more expansive and complex.
laws establishing female subordination appeared in the state of
Sumer. These early patriarchal structures gave all men power over
women of their class and rank. It is very important to note, however,
that these structures also gave an elite class of men power over
everyone. French links the rise of the state to men’s jockeying
for position seeking permanent alpha male status within the imagined
reality of the male fraternity. States and empires became grounded
in the idea that some men were inherently superior to others,
“according to divine will,” and were therefore “entitled
to more status, resources, and power than others.” These
betters have the authority to direct others, suppress dissent,
make war, and even take the lives of their own subjects.
in imagined realties has allowed us to cooperate in larger numbers
than we could before. But the larger the group, the further empathy
must be stretched, the more virtual it becomes, and the more selective.
We empathize with those inside the group, but our empathy with
those outside it must be suppressed if the project is to succeed.
Rifkin observes as an aside, that when empathy is suppressed,
narcissistic and violent tendencies emerge. Even our empathy for
those in our group can lose its balance.
every subordination in a hierarchy involves a ranking of the subordinators
as well as of those subordinated. Just as patriarchy also ranks
men within the patriarchy, subordinating some to others in a pecking
order, so also with later subordinations using categories of race,
class, and religion. Indeed, the whole point of subordination
of a scapegoat caste, an other, is to allow leaders to subordinate
and dominate their own followers.
arrangements were the first of many that drained the empathy reservoirs
of human beings. They were solidified and rendered more complex
as social structures and hierarchies expanded. As states and empires
grew more powerful, “othering” grew more extensive,
managing the primary group’s relations with an ever-widening
array of new subjects.
such extensive internal subordination and social control, a group’s
leaders can easily appropriate the wealth and power of the entire
group to their own ends, a theft ingrained in all hierarchical
societies, making them “kleptocracies” in the words
of anthropologist Jared Diamond. In these emerging societies,
the higher-ups used their positions to enhance their own quality
of life, typically at the expense of those lower down the food
chain. We see those kleptocratic tendencies repeated and amplified
throughout human history.
of one human being by, or to another continues to stain human
society, and, until they are discredited, power cliques will always
emerge, insisting that some people are better than others. Such
false claims are regularly challenged but countered with propaganda
aimed at convincing subjects that these lies are the ‘real’
truth. This propaganda is resisted in turn, in a never-ending
cycle, eroding empathic connections even further.
are inherently unstable because members must rely on the tolerance
of those above, and the obedience of those below. From top to
bottom, hierarchies are riven by “discontent, subversion
and rebellion” from below and by fear and paranoia from
consolidate their positions with “propaganda, bribery and
force,” and subvert rebellions with “massacre, dispersal,
or co-optation.” But resistance renews. There have been
revolts and uprisings by women, slaves, serfs, nobles, industrial
workers, colonial elites and later by minority groups and colonized
peoples. These have all usually failed, at best wresting some
concessions, at worst replicating or even reinforcing the existing
there is a central, human, anthropological reason for this. We
are still engineered to operate in small groups. To challenge
a larger, established order, insurgents have always attempted
to create another imagined reality to replace the one of which
they complain, or more modestly, to tweak the one in place. They
begin the project in a small group, or cell, where they experience
camaraderie, energy, and solidarity. But when they try to expand
their numbers using an imagined reality, even a modified one,
they can only sustain themselves by using a top-down, command
and control, hierarchical approach.
we live in a global, neoliberal empire that still manifests the
hierarchy and stratification that has bedeviled us since our fall
from Paradise. Progressive forces today face a worldwide counterrevolutionary
movement. A right-wing party controls all three branches of government
in the United States. Capitalism in China and Russia, and fundamentalism
in the Middle East, threaten human rights in those regions as
well. Human Rights Watch, in its 2017 World Report, warns us of
the rise of populist leaders exploiting “rising public discontent
over the status quo,” and sees a grave danger to the future
of democracy in these developments.
the human rights project must nurture a set of social conditions
conducive to the beliefs it seeks to engender. It must promote
a set of customs and patterns of practice, as well as a network
of organizations to reinforce those practices. There is not much
and politicians must join to defend democracy, but Human Rights
Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth calls on ordinary citizens
to step up, cautioning that rights by their nature are indivisible.
“We should never underestimate the tendency of demagogues
who sacrifice the rights of others in our name today to jettison
our rights tomorrow when their real priority — retaining
power — is in jeopardy,” he writes.
may not like your neighbors,” he says, “but if you
sacrifice their rights today, you weaken your own tomorrow, because
ultimately rights are grounded on the reciprocal duty to treat
others as you would want to be treated yourself.” That advice
is as old, and perhaps older, than civilization itself. A poster
on view in the United Nations main lobby presents a picture of
more than a dozen religions, including all the major ones, each
articulating this same Golden Rule.
do not believe the human rights movement can succeed as an imagined
reality, even when expressed as simply as this, unless it is communicated
and implemented through a structure that transcends hierarchy
in execution as well as in conception. Instead, I believe human
rights must be based in small groups of humans intimately connected
with one another, such groups in turn linked to one another by
personal contact, dialogue and exchange.