Editor's Choice

Natural hierarchies and bullying

Chris Dillow makes a good point about ideology in this post, about UK press coverage of bullying as a social problem.

What makes a bully? Opportunity, that’s what. The overwhelming majority of cases of bullying arise from inequalities of power. It is bosses who bully underlings - rarely vice versa.... However, this answer is missing from the pop talk of bullying. Instead of attributing bullying to inequalities in power, it’s blamed upon personal traits.

This is generally how ideology works, by naturalizing things that are actually the product of inequality. Then we blame ourselves for failing to cope with "reality," or for not being "realistic," or for having some inherent defect, weakness, or failing. Dillow adds that this ideology masks the inherent tendencies of social hierarchies to be "dehumanizing and demoralizing." Also interesting is Dillow's assertion that cognitive biases are the expression of ideology in practice as opposed to being mere biological idiosyncrasies.

But is there a viable way to rid society of hierarchies? Or are they inevitable, built in to the basic distribution of ability across a population? Another way of posing the question: is competitiveness ideological? It seems to me that evolutionary psychology is often invoked to argue that competitiveness is inherent to the species and not the product of social relations. Perhaps that is so, but competitiveness need not yield power inequalities. In a different sort of society, power would not be the only reward worth playing for.

Internet sociality seems to prompt the development of more and more hierarchies, as it permits people to seek out the subsets and the criteria by which they can dominate. Everyone can seek a niche that they can master. So rather than let ideology mask hierarchy, we make hierarchy obvious because a different sort of ideology allows us to believe we dictate the terms, the principles of organization within our chosen sphere. Eventually, though, this collapses back into a question of power -- who can you force to acknowledge that they exist in a particular hierarchy that you dominate? At that point, a third sort of ideological mystification would have to be enlisted, one which lets us be blind to the fact that other people don't care where they fit in to our special hierarchy of our own devising. All the while, of course, the hierarchies that matter in the last analysis -- the ones that dictate social relations and apparently stem from the distribution of capital -- would still operate unquestioned. There is always a hierarchy of hierarchies.

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