Dao Du Jour II, Day 39: Hierarchies Sacred and Profane

Chapter 39: Integrity

“The root of the noble is in the common,

the high stands on what’s below.

Princes and kings call themselves

‘orphans, widowers, beggars,’

to get themselves rooted in the dirt.

A multiplicity of riches

Is poverty.

Jade is praised as precious,

But its strength is being stone.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” what arises?

The first thing to notice is that something is arising. That is to say that beneath or behind or within your conscious mind, there is a storehouse of memories, beliefs, associations that can be summoned to the surface and sorted through by something else. There are, in other words, levels, parts, structures that constitute what you call your mind. In pondering the word “hierarchy,” a hierarchy is doing the pondering.

Among the chattering classes on the left, hierarchy has been a dirty word for decades, but over the last few years, it has attained the lowest status possible; it is to discourse as sulphurous coal is to energy. You will have noticed, again, that the very act of assigning a value to the concept depends on the concept.

The word literally means “sacred order.” Hence the stakes: if you’re trying to overthrow a hierarchy, you’re either defying God’s will by tearing it down, or doing God’s work by replacing it with a truly sacred order. Hence the meaning assigned to the tearing down of Confederate monuments and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or to the BLM protests and the associated riots, looting, and vandalism.

Our cultural confusion over hierarchy is a kind of decoder ring for understanding the culture wars. Hierarchies are not simply good or bad; their value is context dependent. The contexts that matter are the form they take and the content they contain.

The content has to do with ideology, which tells us that it means to be “noble and base,” higher and lower, on the top and on the bottom. In our culture, there are four ideologies.

The first is that of the Warrior, which cuts the world into predators and prey. This is the alt-right.

The second is that of the Traditionalist, which divides the world into saints and sinners. This is the social conservative right, which George Packer calls “Real America.”

The third is that of the Modernist, which sorts the world into winners and losers. This is the center-right and the center-left, which Packer dubs “Free America” and “Smart America.”

The fourth is that of the Postmodernist, which sorts the world into oppressors and oppressed. This the progressive left, which Packers calls “Just America.”

The form has to do with how each dyad is related. Ken Wilber draws a useful distinction between “growth hierarchies” and “dominator hierarchies.”

In the former, the higher enfolds the lower, includes it in a broader embrace, opens up new possibilities for it, nurtures it; the lower, in turn, supports and suffuses the higher. The higher is open to an even higher higher, and the lower is allowed the freedom to be a higher for an even lower lower. Its logic is nonzero sum and its lines of force are both top down and bottom up. It communicates with itself and what’s outside of it, constantly adjusting, correcting, adapting. A growth hierarchy, in other words, is alive, and life just is a growing hierarchy.

In a dominator hierarchy, the higher controls and represses the lower, sees it as a resource to be exploited and used up. It’s logic is zero sum and its line of force is one directional: top down. Its communication lines are down, and it doesn’t adapt to change, it just runs the same program ad infinitum. A dominator hierarchy, in other words, is either dying or dead.

The amount of resources—the “multiplicity or riches”—matters less than how those resources are deployed—whether the system has integrity. The system could be a polity, and economy, a company, a family, a psyche, or a cell.

Integrity is more than just a character trait. It is an organizing principle of the universe. This is the sense of the Stoic injunction to live in conformity with nature, and the Daoist idea of embodying the Way.

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” stop, notice what comes up, filter your intuitions through that 8-fold framework, and then respond accordingly.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?