Equality is both a personal experience and a social construct. Equality doesn’t take place solely on the societal level, and in my view, it’s more important on the personal level than in the abstract.
Toxic masculinity, relationship failures, victim-blaming, painful breakups, dramatic friends, dealing with a constant stream of disrespect, be it in person or our news feeds, all of these are staples of the contemporary age we live in. But why do they happen? Why do we often try so hard to remove problems from our lives and often times they find a way to seep back in? Why do we so seldom get the respect we deserve?
Much of the answer to these questions depends on what we look for in people. We often hang around people for various reasons, some shallow, some profound, but rarely do people take the time and analyze the communication styles of other people — or when they do, they think themselves an exception to another person’s ongoing pattern of interaction.
There are two different types of communication styles, and being able to understand this when going into every conversation we have can be a huge benefit to the conversationalist within us, but also to our attempts to maintain at least relatively drama-free lives. While I mean “relationship” in the broad sense of the term, meaning every ongoing interaction that we continually have with others, communication styles powerfully affect our romantic relationships, as well as our friendships and familial relationships.
You Can’t Make Someone Respect You — But You Can Demand It
Have you ever noticed certain people just seem more naturally inclined toward drama? I have, and I’m about as big of a fan of Greek Tragedy as you can get, but some people’s real lives seem to always resemble a Shakespearean play, complete with strife, feuds, grudges, self-esteem issues, deep existential questions, and misery. Personally, I don’t live like this and refuse to, ever.
Every statement from them is either laced with a complaint or fused with anger. Every action they take imbued with a sense of superiority and domination, or sometimes total submission and they worship the ground someone else walks on.
This happens because many people have learned to subscribe to the hierarchical model of human engagement, and the first question on their minds is usually, “Is this person better or worse than me?”
Why is it that so many people live their own personal drama, a very so-called “catty” existence that’s almost entirely spent in competition, frustration, and aggravation? Much of it has to do with how they value and more importantly, how we relate to other people. They simply haven’t yet learned to not see the world in terms of ones and zeroes, in terms of merit and demerit, and often times, the positive aspects of another person’s life are viewed by them to be a negative stain on their own existence.
These people are also much more likely to think in terms of material gain and social standing, because those are the cornerstones of the hierarchical worldview — in order to be better than someone else, even perceptively, you have to prove it, and little can do this as well as conspicuous consumption and displays of aggression, including passive aggression. In short, certain communication styles predispose people to normalizing abuse and using people for their own gain.
To answer the question of why we so seldom get the respect we deserve, I’ll say that it’s because we were incorrectly assuming that people who don’t value respecting others as equals would give us the respect we give them.
Usually, people who subscribe to the inferiority-superiority dynamic of human relationships will never learn to see others as true equals, but will always see people as better than or less than themselves on a human level.
Even if they do see some people as equal to themselves, they’re likely to see only a few people as their equals and the masses of other types of people, with different values and virtues, as less-than or greater-than.
Racism, sexism, religious grandiosity, pathological narcissism, and more, all stem from this one root cause, and while much of these behaviors are genetically dormant within us, etched into the fundamental building blocks of our DNA, they’re culturally reinforced and become activated in life when we adopt the hierarchical model of human beings.
Simply put, I do not believe that we can have a society of hierarchy that’s also a free society for all of its constituent members. Without recognizing the humanity of others, we simply cannot value their freedom, by definition.
Horizontal Vs Vertical Relationship Dynamics
In life, there are two different forms of communication style, there are horizontal communication styles which are when we communicate with others that we view as our peers and equals, and vertical communication styles which are when we communicate with others from within the framework of a social hierarchy. In the former, we see others as equal contributors in conversation and relationships, in the latter we see people as either a superior or subordinate, and there’s very little interplay in between.
My boss might see me as an equal some of the time, but most of the time, I’m the subordinate role, just as a racist may see some members of the race they despise as being okay, or even equals, but on the whole, they view members of the race with disdain or inferiority. Ever notice that usually racism, sexism, abuse, narcissism, etc., all usually go hand-in-hand in the same people?
It’s like, once you buy the, “Darker people are inferior,” package, the bonus add-on of, “Women are inferior,” is included free. That’s because both statements foster a sense of superiority in those who subscribe to them.
How we communicate with others, and more importantly how others communicate with us, tell us a lot about how the communicator sees both us and interpersonal relationships.
These different relationship dynamics don’t just hint at our perceived or explicitly given social roles in our interactions, they also serve the function of reinforcing those presumed roles. Subscription to the hierarchical model of human relations is an obvious red flag for me because perceptions of superiority and inferiority usually have no basis in reality. One only needs to look at The Holocaust to see just how far beliefs of superiority can go, and go terribly wrong.
We can criticize behaviors, but behaviors aren’t a person’s humanity. Once we reject the behaviors for the human behind them, we’re in error. Same with social hierarchy. My story on Dehumanization in the Internet World discusses just this process, where people strip others of their humanity and view them on a hierarchical scale of value, usually based on some abstract concept like race, like creed, like sexuality, like nationality, like political affiliation, etc. This process also takes place on the individual level.
Through dehumanization, we see others as either allies or opponents, and there’s little humanity in that, just as in vertical communication structures, people who perceive themselves as superior will never view our needs as being equally as important as theirs. Philosophers have conceptualized this concept in various terms, and one of them is mutual recognition, something that’s been absolutely vital to my understanding of others as true equals.
With all of our modern advancements in today’s technological world, when we hear the word recognition, our minds quickly jump to physical features which are often visual. We may even say we recognize a melody or a song. These common types of recognition are primarily based on our sensory experiences of the world, the data we take in, as the physical and material substrate which fills our minds whenever we perceive jive with a part of us that considers a certain pattern, shape, form, or any other combination of material objects in motion as familiar.
But mutual recognition is a philosophical concept whereby one actual person recognizes the personhood of another — we recognize someone, often instinctually, as having the same thoughts, feelings, desires, wants, and rights as ourselves — this is the deepest kind of recognition, the recognition as the other person as a subject and not an object.
Dehumanization is the opposite of mutual recognition, where empathy is the feeling of mutually recognizing someone else, the cold, distant, uncaring, or even the active destruction of other people is dehumanization when we refuse to recognize other people as a person like ourselves for whatever reason.
The idea of mutual recognition was first penned by the great philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and is proposed to be the replacement of the authority of individual conscience, when we learn how to approach our relationships as voluntary exchanges and we recognize the free, conscious agency of other people we come into contact with, rather than seeing them as either a role in relation to us, or an instrument to an end.
The point, for Hegel, was to transcend this base nature, which actually isn’t innate in the human condition in any deterministic sense, the nature of viewing others as either superior or inferior, because, as Hegel argued, our self-consciousness as superior or inferior, which he called Master or Slave mentalities, can’t come into the picture without being bestowed upon us by another — a person in isolation is their own true equal. Controlling and dehumanizing behaviors lie in the heart of our genetics, coiled like a worm, like violent tendencies do, waiting to be let out to play, waiting for cultural conditions to become just so that they’re capable of flourishing — we need other people to put us into a Master-Slave framework in order for it to activate. To this, suggestions that our culture tends to inflame our innate-but-dormant desire to control other people is accurate.
Basically, Hegel was saying that people will put you in your place, they’ll assign you a value on the social ladder, and as I’m saying to you now, Hegel too said we need to reject people when they do this, always.
Writing long before our time, actually even proposed that all romantic relationships are an example Master-Slave relationships, interactions where people viewed things as hierarchical, but Hegel was also writing in the 19th-century, so I’d argue that this concept is obsolete, as we’ve come a long way in the world of equality between the sexes since then. He proposed that recognizing the other as a free person like ourselves was the cure for this.
As my story Polyamory and the Sexual Revolution of Women discuss, we’re only now some-few-hundred years later beginning to catch up to the idea that women are equals, and the backlash I discuss in My Polyamory Doesn’t Invalidate Your Monogamy, both of which explain how some people can’t fathom a relationship which is based on freedom and not control.
When people communicate, they either communicate on the pretense that other people are people like them, entitled to rights, civility, decency, and basic respect — or they don’t, and they communicate on the pretense of the superior or subordinate relationship. Typically, people will either choose to both value and apply one or the other; in every conversation, two people are either learning together or one (or both) is (are) attempting to scold the other.
These concepts may seem remote and alien to us, but they’re essential in the building of drama-free relationships in our lives. For a little thought experiment, login to Facebook or another social media site and watch the conversations. See where each of these types of dynamics apply, and to help you with this, I’ll provide a list of examples below. The thing is, they usually don’t know political, social, and economic bonds, they’re simply two different ways that humans have communicated for thousands of years, two different narratives that people subscribe to.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me, “How do I expand my social circle so I can have more friends, but not invite drama into my life?”
The first step to building a quality social life is by making the commitment to only interact with people who bring value to your life — not monetary value, not someone pretty to look at, but really, the concrete value in their beliefs and behaviors — their character.
Then we need to vigorously police those who refuse to recognize our humanity because that’s almost always a recipe for disaster. We can’t punish ourselves for the miseries of others, and we can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. It’s better to stick around those who value us for the intangible, immaterial human being that we are, as minds and conscious creatures deserving of love, respect, and well-being.
What is Interpersonal Toxicity?
Toxic doesn’t always look like the toxic we think it does; it doesn’t always look like abuse, breaking things, and more, though it can and sometimes people overlook these glaring red flags and still proceed to engage with these people, usually to their later regret.
Obviously toxic behaviors include:
- Punching holes in walls
- Breaking things
- Physical abuse or threats which aren’t in self-defense of an equal threat
- Pathological codependency
There are more, but those are just some of the examples of what I refuse to overlook in my life, even if someone does them to someone other than me.
The less obvious examples include:
- A pervasive need to be right about things, which views others as subordinate
- Constantly putting other people down — people who put everyone down probably view you that way too and just haven’t started with you — yet
- Reactionary statements — “Well, if you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t need to do this!” which is a reclaiming of perceived superiority
- Conversations happen to establish hierarchy and dominance, rather than to mutually learn or experience
- “Negs” or other ways of “taking someone down a peg”
- Statements of disqualification — this is huge, they’re tiny little statements of rejection that people deliver when they want to make the insecure among us feel a bit of panic and sense of insecurity that will ultimately give them the upper hand in a conversation or relationship. “You’re kind of fat, you’re not really my type,” without being prompted is a perfect example
- Refusal to stay on topic. Which is like reactionary statements, but people do this not to justify their actions or sense of superiority, they do it to diminish what they perceive as a sense of superiority in others — if someone is being sensible, kind, and reasonable, they’ll divert the conversation to something negative, cynical, and unreasonable. People do this so their inner-negativity or perceived inferiority won’t be unmasked in isolation — there’s comfort in feelings of inferiority as long as we don’t feel inferior alone
Someone actually recently invited me to a joke/meme group on social media and I observed and paid attention to all the conversations. The goal of the group is basically a no-holds-barred attempt at mockery and ridicule. While I’m not saying that I’m better than the members of this group, I’m absolutely saying, without shame, here, that these are the types of toxic behaviors that I don’t want to be around or permit in my life.
The put-downs, the negativity — all of these conversations exhibit one or more of these problematic-but-less-obvious examples of verticle relationship dynamics. Certainly, some people can hold their own and defend themselves in a conversation against aggression and passive aggression, but why would they want to, especially on a consistent basis? This much alone tells me everything I need to know about a person.
So why is it that so many people subscribe to such a dynamic and then complain about being controlled or dehumanized? I’m trying to suggest here that these be the red flags that we look out for in our understandings of others and their understandings of how the world operates — and more importantly, how they think the world should operate.
The fact is, people, can either see me with the respect I deserve or not; people can either see you as an equal or a superior/inferior, but never both at the same time. Equality is more than just a social construct, a vague idea of legal justice, it begins with individuals, in personal interactions, and people will either view you as an equal human being or not. I’ll stick with the people who aren’t always looking for an angle to figure out if they’re better or worse than me.
If we want to live freely, our best bet is to refuse to subscribe to hierarchical models of human interaction, and our quest for equality starts at the individual level, by not only recognizing others as free conscious agents, but also demanding the same recognition from others, and refusing to even consider engaging them when they don't’ deliver that recognition of our humanity.
© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved