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Vol. 17, No. 5, 2018
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Harold McDougall is 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.


We are 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.

However, 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.

As Jared 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 underpinning.

These 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).

The 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.

Hierarchy 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.

These 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.

Elites 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.

To foment 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.

According 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.

The first 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.

Believing 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.

Further, 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.

Patriarchal 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.

With 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.

Subordination 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.


Hierarchies 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 above.

Elites 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 kleptocratic order.

I believe 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.

Today, 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.

To succeed, 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 time.


Media 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.

“You 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.

But I 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.


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