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Freedom from Hierarchies

We progressives have the advantage at this point in our history.

The national ideology and trends are in our favor. We can see hierarchies while conservatives stay isolated at the top and are therefore clueless. We can examine our own unintentional support of hierarchies and then create alternatives that build equality.
Millions have read George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant. We're ready for the next step—shifting our country to fit the values we express.

Lakoff states that our politics are organized around two opposite views: conservatives preserve hierarchies / progressives value equality.

We're at a crucial point in our country's history; it's an exciting time to be alive. The election of 2004 showed we are divided—we voted for or against hierarchies, especially those based on wealth, sexual orientation, religion, and global imperialism.

Because progressives want more equality and less hierarchy, it's tempting for progressives to demand that conservatives change. We point fingers at people who appear to be intent on building hierarchies—especially our current leaders.

But another way for progressives to decrease hierarchy—and therefore increase the relative amount of equality—is to focus on what we can directly control. We can examine our own unintentional support of hierarchies and then create alternatives that build equality.

Through thirteen years research on hierarchies throughout the United States, the two of us have found that even though hierarchies are powerful and pervasive, they are elusive in that most of us support them without knowing it.

A knowledge of hierarchies uncovers many treasures for progressives:
• Awareness of our country's legacy of hierarchies
• Broader perspectives of events and trends
• Common language to bring us together
• Skills to uncover hierarchies and create alternatives
• Strategies for disarming conservatives
• A lighter path—more smiles and hope, less stress and anger

In 1776, the revolutionaries wanted out of the "lower" levels of the British hierarchy. This particular hierarchy was painfully visible since the colonists were the ones being controlled and exploited. Hierarchies are easiest to see when viewed from "lower" levels.

When they came into power, however, the founders replaced one hierarchy with others because they did not change the attitudes and behaviors that build hierarchies. The only people who were allowed to vote were white males wealthy enough to own land—less than ten percent of adults. Hierarchies are difficult to see from the top.

The founders illustrate that even with a declaration of equality, removing hier-archies is easier said than done. Today, when progressives state a frame of equality and fairness—the best of traditional American values as Lakoff reminds us (p. 113)—there's still much work ahead.

The last 50 years have brought significant moves toward equality for workers, people of color, females, people with disabilities, and many others. Lakoff states, "We are proud of the victories for equality and against hierarchy."(p. 110)

Decades ago, conservatives felt their hierarchies slipping and began organizing. Their current actions are a response to the advancing tide of progress, not born out of their innate strength. As equality has taken a stronger hold, people who want to conserve hierarchies have resorted to more radical and drastic strategies to compensate.

These hierarchy-conservators serve a vital purpose in the new millennium. Similar to the British in 1776, current prominent conservatives in the US are doing an especially effective job of giving the country and the world an unprecedented opportunity to witness typical offensive top-of-the-hierarchy behaviors on a grand scale.
Many of their extreme policies and practices are illuminating hierarchies of the US, and hierarchies in general, to a diverse and far-reaching audience. Without their inspiration and motivation, the rest of us would be missing opportunities to join together to make incredible strides toward the founders' dream of equality for all.

George W. Bush is a poster boy for hierarchies. It's no wonder that he's clueless. In hierarchies, we get our information only from people above us and maybe our peers, but ignore those below us. Mr. Bush has lived his life on top of every major hierarchy in the US—he's white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, tall, Christian, educated in elite private schools, has hair on his head, and speaks Standard English.

Different from Mr. Bush, most of us have experiences in lower and higher groups. Here's an example:

David, who works as a landscaper on the grounds of a manufacturing plant, is lower in the company hierarchy than people who work on the production lines, but is higher than people who are custodians. David is male and Asian-American, so he is higher on the gender hierarchy than his female coworkers and is lower on the race hierarchy than white coworkers.

Since David is bald, tall and slender, he feels lower than men with thick heads of hair, but feels higher than men who are either shorter or heavier than society's interpretation of the desirable man. David has the use of ten fingers, so is higher on the body hierarchy than his cousin born with three fewer fingers on one hand.

David chose his apartment carefully, because he and his partner, Frank, are low on the sexual orientation hierarchy. Frank grew up in UK, so his accent places him higher on the immigrant hierarchy than their neighbor from Mexico. David participates in a religion in which he is lower than the clergy, but higher than people of other faiths.

Conservatives tend to favor perspectives learned from being in higher groups. We see this in their support of one man/one woman marriage, imperialism of the US as on top of their world hierarchy, and the one-way-to-heaven doctrine of fundamentalist Christians. Progressives tend to rely on wisdom gained from experiences in lower groups as we support same-sex couples, global community, and a diversity of spirituality and religions.

Our common experiences provide ground for conversation and hope. Lakoff says: Everyone has both worldviews, but people do not necessarily live by one worldview all the time. (p. 20)

For centuries, we have worked to alleviate one individual hierarchy at a time, concentrating on issues such as genocide, slavery, child labor, job safety, suffrage, poverty, or global imperialism. Tackling each hierarchy individually, however, takes enormous effort and expense. If we keep addressing them one by one, we can look forward to continuing these struggles indefinitely.

With a common language of hierarchies, we have a powerful tool to work together to remove the root, the source of the problems that keep cropping up all around us. Lakoff says the goal of progressives is to unite our country behind our values (p. 119), He urges us to stop thinking issue by issue and to instead figure out what change we can enact that will have effects across many issues (p. 30), the larger issues at stake (p. 109).

One of the greatest threats to hierarchy-conservators is to have diverse groups stand together. When outsiders direct "divide and conquer" strategies toward us, our knowledge of hierarchies will help our diverse alliances to survive and flourish, and provide us with positive, non-judgmental communication to solve issues that surface within our groups.

Hearing a diversity of voices—in the media and in our personal conversations—is not just a "politically correct" liberal charity issue. It is critically important that we understand that our best resources are the people who can see hierarchies the clearest. If we are in a higher group, we have to relinquish airtime and listen closely. If we are speaking from experience in lower groups, we need to keep talking.

Uncovering Hierarchies and Creating Alternatives

Hierarchies are simple to uncover because they leave behind fingerprints—characteristic attitudes and behaviors (we call them clues), which we find once we know what we're looking for. Once we find one of the 32 clues, we create alternatives by thinking and acting in ways that are different from or opposite to the ones that support hierarchies. (For details, see our book, Clueless at the Top, www.cluelessat
thetop.com.)

We've developed six sleuthing tech-niques to expose hierarchies hidden in plain sight. Our favorite is role reversals. The lower and higher groups switch places, and usually the result seems ridiculous. Here are two examples:

The people of Cameroon hear about child obesity in the US and send over missionaries to convert schoolchildren to a traditional African religion that teaches the value of a healthy lifestyle.

All the presidents and vice-presidents of the US have been from one group—African American women.

Recently, at our county fair, we were sharing an author's booth with a man promoting conservative Christianity. After skimming Clueless at the Top, he asked us, "So you think that Christian leaders are going the wrong way?"

Charlotte's answer was, "No, I think they are building hierarchies." This simple response illustrates how speaking of hierarchies follows Lakoff suggestions: do not use their language (p. 3), play offense, not defense (p. 34), be calm (p, 114), and never answer a question framed from your opponent's point of view and stay away from set-ups (p. 116).

Had the conversation continued, a polite discussion of typical hierarchical behaviors would allow Charlotte to sidestep a right-or-wrong debate (Lakoff p. 7) and stay on a frame of fairness—a position that exemplifies a value everyone holds (Lakoff, p.116). Pertinent clues she could have mentioned are: Higher people assume that everyone wants and needs to be like them, Guilt and shame keep people engaged, or Hierarchical actions hide behind rhetoric and "noble causes."

When we spend our precious time and resources attacking the top, shooting arrows upward—picture it—we're still in the hierarchy and therefore supporting it. When we fight hierarchy-conservators frontally, progressives are at a competitive disadvan-tage because vicious attacks are part of a hierarchical mindset and thus conservatives will be more comfortable and practiced at using them.

Our more important job is to walk away from hierarchies and create alternatives. We say and show what we are for, not just what we're against (Lakoff, p.74).

When hierarchy-conservators obstruct us, instead of being shocked or outraged, our knowledge of hierarchies allows us to take advantage of their movement coming toward us, similar to responses learned in martial arts. We can then take Lakoff's advice: "use their weakness to our advantage" (p. 22) and "predict what they will do and say." (p.33)

For example, the clue, A nudge from below feels like a steamroller, guides us to discretely set up conservatives to act out obnoxious top-of-the-hierarchy behaviors on cue in front of the appropriate audience. Remembering that "just speaking truth to power doesn't work" (Lakoff, p.33), we arrange a situation for the conservatives to tell their story better than we can.

As we identify consistent and predictable patterns of hierarchies, our anger and stress are transformed into creative tools. Instead of dancing to the tune of constraining attitudes and behaviors, we use our knowledge of hierarchies to cut our puppet strings and free ourselves to build the lives, the country, the world we want.

We progressives have the advantage at this point in our history. The national ideology and trends are in our favor. We can see hierarchies while conservatives stay isolated at the top and are therefore clueless.

Like Dorothy and her friends facing the Wizard of Oz, now when we see huge smoke and flames, and hear a loud, authoritarian, all-knowing, demanding voice of power and authority, we'll know what to do. Just like Toto, we'll pull back the curtain, and—poof! —we'll reveal the simple truth behind the spectacles and shenanigans. And our country will be transformed forever.


Charlotte and Harriet Childress are identical twins. They lived apart for twenty-five years, most of the time on opposite coasts of the US. A decade ago, they moved to Oregon to finish their research and to live near one another. Harriet and Charlotte both teach at Lane Community College (chemistry and math) and also give diversity training workshops and consult on issues relating to hierarchies. Their book, Clueless at the Top (Cypress House, 2005) is available at local bookstores and online. Contact them at www.cluelessathetop.com. Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff's is available from Chlesea Green Publishing