Transcending Hierarchies Means Giving up on Soothing Father Figures
The Great Man complex take many forms. Whether it’s in the soothing oratory of a President Obama or the patriotic statesmanship of a John McCain, many people seek a father figure to calm them during trying times.
You won’t find this complex in the DSM series, or any social psychology textbook. As far as I know I made up the term, but the phenomenon is real.
Here’s John Pavlovitz, author and former pastor who, though perhaps justifiably horrified by President Trump’s lack of decorum, thinks we need someone special to tend the national flock:
When people of renown pass away and we mourn together, we will need a President.
When international conflict erupts and diplomacy is required, we will need a President.
When mass shootings occur and people are terrified and chaos ensues, we will need a President.
When complex legislation requires sustained intellectual attention, we will need a President.
When racism and injustice and hatred explode like a fireball, we will need a President.
When we are having our children’s futures crafted in real-time, we will need a President.
Basically Pavlovitz says we need a president to act like a national daddy — calm, reassuring and in possession of the answers.
But do we really need that?
The Great Man and the Blue Church
I’d like to think we can be more grown up. I’d like to think that we can and should look to each other more.
It’s true that people have been inured to the idea of a national father figure. But I’m not sure it’s an entirely healthy cultural response, even though it can feel good. We are so used to having our problems solved by someone else far away. We expect leaders to assuage our anxieties, as FDR did in fireside chats or George W. Bush did in the lead up to a multi-decadal quagmire. But the world is becoming increasingly complex — so much so that paternalism and technocracy just isn’t that effective for solving big problems anymore.
The Great Man complex is likely a feature of the “Blue Church.” The brilliant thinker and entrepreneur Jordan Greenhall puts matters thus:
As a mass, we transform from millions of diverse individuals into one, relatively simple, group. So long as we can be maintained in this coherence, we present something that can be managed.
This is the formal core of the Blue Church: it solves the problem of 20th Century social complexity through the use of mass media to generate manageable social coherence.
But this, of course, is the 21st Century. The need for simple coherence will go unmet.
Like many centralized systems, Blue Church politics requires us to outsource our sense of responsibility to one another. It causes us to indulge in symbolism and empty deference to power, as opposed to turning inward (soul searching) and then turning to each other (community), which is the hard, necessary work of growth — both as individuals and as a people.
The infantilization of people by politics works in reverse, too. We expect that politicians — those people who likely made all manner of ethical compromises to get where they are — should be super-beings. Or they should at least be able to play at being super-beings for the sake of social coherence.
But short of being great orators or soothing father figures, all presidents really have at their disposal is the coercive hierarchies they sit atop. And these are never super, much less great.
The need to hear stirring words from a national patriarch reflects a kind of weakness: a reinforced inability to reflect and act as sovereign individuals first, then to act in solidarity with one another later. Instead we sit and wait on presidents to do whatever it is presidents are supposed to do in our minds, such as to be Fixers-in-Chief.
The Rules that Shape Us
In my book, The Social Singularity, I argue that people can be a product of the rules they operate within, as well as the culture those rules create.
“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” said social thinker Marshall McLuhan. Moreover, we shape our rules and then our rules shape us, ceaselessly.
We are currently being shaped by the very idea of the presidency, in ways that are not suited to coming twenty-first century realities that technologies like cryptocurrencies and tokens will create.
None of this is to argue that presidents ought to be boorish, childish or both. It is rather to suggest we can be better people when we engage in the decidedly bottom-up business of local problem-solving. We are better people when we turn to each other in community, rather than outsourcing all our concerns, obsessing about all our outrages, or beating our breasts when presidents invariably fail.
Instead of questioning who gets to control all that central power, we should question the very nature of power. We should stop making politics our secular religion.
People like Pavlovitz are contributing to the cult of the presidency when they expect a certain kind of affect from leaders, because implicit in that demand is a yearning for mass hallucination.
That mass hallucination is created by politics, our secular religion. Presidents should be kindly leaders and the state should be our omniscient and omnipotent savior. But sending prayers up through the voting booth only goes so far. And dominance hierarchies are scarcely equipped to reckon with the 21st century’s complexity.
Of Moonshots and Mushrooms
These days one is likely to hear the term “moon shot” with respect to the big, audacious problem-solving projects so favored by technocrats. The term evokes Kennedy’s promise to put a “man on the moon,” which even today keeps most people enchanted with respect to what power can do if it has enough largesse. But we the people are far better off working within mycelial networks like the one that has given us bitcoin.
Our world is rapidly decentralizing and becoming increasingly complex. That means our collective (dispersed) intelligence is rapidly improving and our reliance on central authorities is diminishing. As this happens, it’s going to shape our culture, too, so that we have less psychological need for central saviors or father figures.
We might as well get out in front of that fact right now.
In the future, we will need to move a bit more in the direction of a different cultural archetype — from father figures perched atop great machines to the the kind of maternal wisdom that inheres in nature. We should come to view society more like an ecosystem that brings about the nourishment, plenty, and transformation one might associate with the feminine.
That problems must be solved through planning and that things must be controlled like machines is a trope that has outlived its usefulness. Sure, it worked for a while. But as yin balances with yang, the coming era will be marked by self-organization.
And self-organizing systems don’t need daddies.