Things I Want To Say Again About Entrenched Social Stratification

Elle Beau ❇︎
Feb 23 · 9 min read

Without having to figure out new words to do so

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

This essay is comprised almost entirely of excerpts from other ones I have written in the past about various problems that arise in our social system — one that is founded in a traditional hierarchy that has been maintained throughout our nation’s history by both laws and custom. This dominance based hierarchy is also enforced by violence, coercion, and the threat of pain.

Although the laws that ordained different things for different people no longer exist, they’ve only been off the books for around 50 years, and the stratification that those laws supported is still upheld in other ways and is deeply believed in by many. In the case of homophobia and transphobia, there are still laws that uphold discrimination and artificial hierarchy.

I’ve said a lot about this already but to my mind, there are some things that bear saying again. After the excerpts, I’ve drawn up a new summary and conclusions.

We’ve built an entire culture around comparing ourselves to other people. Who has a better car or more expensive shoes? Who has a vacation home or a boat? Who has most ruthlessly climbed to the top of the pyramid of power? There is no arriving in this scenario. No amount of money is ever enough. No accolades are sufficient. Someone is always coming for your position, so you’d better keep striving. You can never rest, never trust, never have any real friends, and if anyone challenges you, you’d better put them down!

This passes for strength, but it isn’t really and it undermines relationships, community, and society as a whole.

The apex of the dominance hierarchy is not made up of strong, confident people who understand their own assets and challenges and are using them to lead in the positions they have earned through hard work and merit. It’s made up of people whose only self-worth comes from constantly evaluating how they rank in relation to those around them and quite often by the maintenance of traditional power conferred upon them by the dominance hierarchy.

They don’t know who they are or what they have to actually offer, because there is no room for self-reflection when you are constantly acting out a Clint Eastwood movie in your head. But they are darn well going to hold on to whatever trappings of power and prestige they can, by any means necessary.

Individualism is a core American value. It goes hand in hand with a belief in freedom and self-reliance. One of the most desirable things that anyone can be by these standards is a self-made millionaire. It speaks to the almost religious belief that the high calling of individualism will be justly rewarded if undertaken seriously enough.

The only problem with this is that hardly anyone in America is actually an individual. Most people have not done the intentional and laborious work to separate themselves out from their cultural programming and unexamined wounds; merely unconsciously acting out scripts that have been written for them by others. You think you are an individual, in part because that is a highly prized thing to be, but almost certainly, you are not. You are more than likely a meat-puppet driven from behind the scenes by narratives that you have never even given a second thought to.

Except for the most egregious cases, racism, sexism, and homophobia come largely out of unconscious biases; the things that a rather conformist society operating within the rigid rankings of a dominance hierarchy has dictated as being acceptable or not acceptable based on their designated place. Because a dominance hierarchy like the patriarchal one which exists in America is pyramid-shaped, only a small number of elites can reside at the apex. Everyone else is jousting for position hoping to get to higher rungs. Wealthy White males take up most of the spots at the top, with the stratification descending until you get the bottom occupied primarily by poor women of color.

When people from the lower rungs speak too loudly or take up too much space, attempts are made to police them back into their designated place.

Misogyny is a function of this as relates to gender roles but the explanation of how it works applies equally well to racism or homophobia — anything that is removed from the norm of stratified hierarchical expectations.

Misogyny is primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to patriarchal standards (i.e., tenets of patriarchal ideology that have some purchase in this environment). Because of this, misogynist hostilities will often target women quite selectively, rather than targeting women across the board. And individual agents may harbor these hostilities for numerous different reasons.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl (pp. 33–34). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Notice then that on my proposed analysis misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature. To its agents, misogyny need not have any distinctive “feel” or phenomenology from the inside. If it feels like anything at all, it will tend to be righteous: like standing up for oneself or for morality, or — often combining the two — for the “little guy.” It often feels to those in its grip like a moral crusade, not a witch hunt. And it may pursue its targets not in the spirit of hating women but, rather, of loving justice. It can also be a purely structural phenomenon, instantiated via norms, practices, institutions, and other social structures.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl (p. 20). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Misogynists don’t hate women in a broad sense. In fact, they may truly love their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and female friends as long as they maintain their perceived place in the social structure. Being too outspoken or too independent is one of the violations of this tacit social contract. And for this, one woman may be made to pay for the sins of others who are similar.

Women who resist or flout gendered norms and expectations may subsequently garner suspicion and consternation, which has less to do with their challenging gendered norms per se, and more to do with their challenging entrenched norms simpliciter. And for some people, feminism in particular has profoundly disrupted their sense of the social order. The hostility they display to women who disrupt or pose a threat to gendered social hierarchies, say, is compatible with their being egalitarians in the abstract. They may nevertheless perceive powerful women who do not wield their power in service of men’s interests as abrasive and threatening. For that reason among others, a misogynist social environment may be partly the result of more or less well-intentioned people acting out of disavowed emotions, or exhibiting flashes of aggression that are not consciously experienced. And indeed, such aggression may be acted out partly as a substitute for feeling it: the expression “acting out” is suggestive in this context.

Manne, Kate. Down Girl (p. 61). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The folk theory of the natural order is often used to determine authority in a might makes right context. Examples of the natural order are as follows:

  • God is naturally more powerful than people.
  • People are naturally more powerful than animals and plants and natural objects.
  • Adults are naturally more powerful than children.
  • Men are naturally more powerful than women.

This legitimizes the patriarchal dominance hierarchy as being natural and therefore moral. It makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order. It legitimatizes the view of nature as a resource for human use and, correspondingly, man as a steward over nature. It also stimulates theories of so-called natural superiority as discussed in books like The Bell Curve, which purports connections between race and intelligence. Homosexuality also violates this natural order.

Many liberal voters still have vestiges of this worldview buried deep in their subconscious as well. Unconscious bias is not the sole purview of conservatives. As Kate Manne pointed out about misogyny, unconsciously feeling that the way things “ought to be” has been disrupted can still co-exist with a conscious belief in equality.

We all have implicit associations deep within our subconscious minds and as much as we would like to think of ourselves as rational, ruled by logic, and in control of ourselves, that is a centuries-old theory of rationality. Modern cognitive science and things like the Implicit Awareness Test demonstrate that this is really not the case. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist says,

All thought is physical, carried out by neural circuitry. No thought just floats in midair. Research over the past four decades has provided insight into how neural circuitry carries out thought that is below the level of consciousness.

Only a tiny amount of our thought is conscious. A typical estimate is about 2 percent, with about 98 percent of thought unconscious.”

The unconscious places are influenced not by logic but by embodied primitives, frames, conceptual metaphor, and conceptual integration. All of our deepest ways of making sense of the world are unconscious and they are heavily influenced by what they have been exposed to, particularly in childhood, although current influences also come from things like the media and who we spend time with. People who talk about their parents being “brainwashed” by Fox News are describing this phenomenon.

What I learned today taking the IAT and doing further research is that although different people may have different levels of implicit bias around discrete subject areas, we all have some unconscious biases. This doesn’t make us reprehensible, it makes us human, although I believe we do have the responsibility to try to better understand and work with our biases because they can cause other people a lot of harm.

In summary

  • We’ve all grown up in a culture that has always supported and normalized stratification, and it’s hard to transcend that even if we have conscious beliefs about equality.
  • However, rather than making us a nation of strong people, it instead has made us a culture of insecure bullies who fear other people having access to any advantages or power that we might have.
  • Some people are so afraid of losing something if the playing field gets leveled that they are willing to go to great lengths to justify the continuation of the stratified system, including violence.
  • To them, it feels only right, even though maintaining this system includes keeping some people forever at a disadvantage. They justify this by telling themselves that those people deserve disadvantages because if they just worked hard enough, they could transcend them. Besides, the hierarchy is inevitable and therefore moral (even though it’s artificial).
  • Analysis of how misogyny functions in our society can also be used to describe how racism, homophobia, and other types of entrenched discrimination also work in our culture as a deep-seated system of beliefs.
  • Because the social hierarchy is so deeply entrenched, and was largely considered to be only right a mere 50 years ago, any disruption to the hierarchy feels destabilizing to many people.
  • This may or may not be a function of overt feelings of racism or other types of hatred, but none-the-less, continuing to defend a social hierarchy that is primarily based on immutable traits such as gender, sexuality, and race is harmful to society as a whole, not just to those who are marginalized or oppressed.

Saying that this dominance-based hierarchy is traditional does not justify it. Until 100 years ago it was traditional for women to not be allowed to vote or to be considered full citizens and there are many other old traditions that we now recognize as harmful, such as child labor or slavery. No matter how inadvertently absorbed or how unconsciously held, beliefs that Whites have an inherent right to be dominant, that men are superior to women, or that heterosexuality is the only moral thing are not acceptable.

It’s not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of human rights, and if you keep looking for ways to not have to accept that as fact rather than opinion, you are a bigot, no matter how nice you are in other ways.

© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.

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Elle Beau ❇︎

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Inside of Elle Beau
Elle Beau ❇︎

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Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

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