“Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world.” – Bunker Roy
How do you fit into your world? Do you have a place, a niche? Or are you still looking for one, looking for what you can do, where you can do it and how you can contribute to your society and community? Have we really moved that far, are our societies composed mainly of soldiers, laborers and clerks – and then those outside the mainstream?
The nature of hierarchy
A state of hierarchy implies that there is a set of relationships between elements and, in particular, there is one element that is at the top. This means you can have a very flat hierarchy, with a number of elements subordinate to one or a tall hierarchy, grouped into multiple levels, as you traditionally see in organizations or the military.
What matters in society and community is often where you fit into that structure. It’s also more important for us, on a day to day basis, on how we are doing compared with others who are at the same level than how we are doing compared to others at the levels above or below us. After all, you might be delighted with your bonus until you realize that your coworker got twice as much as you did. That will often rankle more than the Chief Executive getting one hundred times what you received.
So what is it that gets us into the hierarchy in the first place and then how do we position ourselves in there? And does it matter?
Claiming your place in social status
The psychologist Jordan Peterson has talked about dominance hierarchies as having a biological basis – animals fight for status and so, he argues, do we. His views have been criticized for not taking account of the diversity of human societies over time. He also suggested that what we should be looking at now is a competence hierarchy, where your status in modern industrial or post-industrial society is largely dictated by your competence. This is perhaps nicely summed up by the phrase “Be nice to nerds. You’ll probably end up working for one.”
On the other hand, life just isn’t that simple as the last decade or so of politics have shown us. The information society we live in has made dominance politics perhaps even more important as people rush to the safety of messages and leaders that promise both to protect them and help them dominate others. The messages of competence and community are drowned out as the animalistic, fight or flight parts of our brains crowd out the reasoning and rationality required for compromise and accommodation.
What this probably means is that there is no formula, no sure fire way of getting to where you want to be. The path you take depends on the destination you’re aiming for and you need to play the game the way that works best for you. You can be who you are, you can be what your audience wants and you can be something in between. But that’s something you need to decide. Your worth, however, will be determined by others and how they feel you are contributing to them and their way of life.
When it comes to society anyway. When it comes to things that have to work, then there is a difference force at play.
Operational or technical status
A different approach seems to matter when it comes to technical tasks, the things that require actual competence to complete. This is captured by a observations that come down to something on the lines of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t are promoted to management.” It’s very easy to stand around and talk about what needs to be done. But when it comes down to it, the people doing the doing are too busy getting on with that to also think about the management of the process. And this leads to predictable problematic situations.
Take the handling of the Covid pandemic, for example. The professionals know how to handle patients who present with symptoms, they know how to build hospitals, set up processes, and create safe working environments. Once someone enters a hospital they will go through an industrial process that gives them a better chance of living.
Politicians, on the other hand, have the power to make decisions. But they are uniquely unqualified to make decisions of a technical nature and so they make decisions based on what’s best for them because that’s all they know to do. For example, a politician will take action to lock down communities after it is clear that infection rates are rising and people are dying. If they locked down before people started to die they would be criticized for destroying livelihoods without proof that there was a problem. So, they have to wait until the problem is visible before they can take action. If you’re an airline pilot and you see a mountain looming ahead of you then the sensible thing to do is increase your altitude, fly over it. A politician is in the unenviable position of having to first bump into the mountain and then, when it’s clear that there is a problem, try and take evasive action.
Which then leads to the second challenge, which is that as they cannot do anything useful they have to set objective and targets for others like mandating a certain number of tests a day. So the professionals, in addition to trying to diagnose and cure patients have to record and report on what’s going on. So the objective of the individuals involved becomes to monitor and report rather than do. The intervention of management, then, reduces the effectiveness of the system as a whole.
Does this mean that the competence hierarchy theory does not hold, that dominance is actually what matters?
A fine specimen
I suppose when it comes down to it everything matters when it does. We were on a beach in Wales and a couple of young women walked by and I caught the phrase, “It must be great having a husband like that.” For an instant I thought they were talking about me but, alas, I then saw the object of their admiration, a sculpted Adonis strolling with his partner. We are, after all, biologically driven underneath it all. Above that we have a veneer of humanity, a thin one, one that we have evolved over time but that we are still figuring out how to work with. Evolution is too slow for us, our brains have created a way for us to adapt to our circumstances that go beyond mere biology but we have to remember that he biology still underpins it all and when things go wrong, we will revert to survival and savagery.
But community is not about that, it’s about that veneer of humanity in action. It’s about having the courage to be human and overcome the flight or flight circuitry that’s hardwired into our brains.
Let’s look at that in the next post.