white rooster and hen

“No one is immune from acting differently with someone positioned higher than himself than with someone situated lower. The whole world depends on this dynamic, and this hierarchy is deeply ingrained in men.”
—Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

When I was younger, I had a philosophy that I should treat everyone equally and assume that everyone was basically the same. This philosophy, popular in some circles at the time, got me into a lot of trouble. It was especially problematic for me at work. My coworkers who were more experienced than me expected me to show them deference. My coworkers who were less experienced than me, as well as my students, expected me to show leadership and to appreciate their deference. I ended up offending my superiors and disappointing my inferiors. What a mess!

I don’t want to throw away the entire philosophy, because I still believe that all people should be shown respect, no matter who they are. But I am much more aware than I used to be of the hierarchies in the social world around me. And I think that the above quote is correct: even if I thought I was treating people equally, I was certainly not doing this in every situation.

Now, if you want strong examples of hierarchical living, good grief, look at the greater animal kingdom. Chickens, for example, are highly hierarchical. The proverbial “pecking order” is real. In the flock I had, before they were tragically decimated by a fox, Kamala was on the top, Marie came next, Ottessa came next, Brene came next, and Leslie was on the bottom. The hens behaved accordingly, at all times.

We must never forget that, while we have certain unique qualities, humans are animals, too. Hierarchies are real. There is no rank-less utopia.

The question is, how can we treat all people (and all animals) with the respect, love, and compassion they deserve, from within hierarchies? And how can we work to make sure that hierarchies are as just as possible?