A System Rank with Ranking

GradesA hierarchical social system by its nature is all about ranking (including the most basic and binary ranking of superiors and inferiors, winners and losers), which determines whether one is slotted in the upper of lower levels of the societal structure. If you look around the world today you can see the rigid ordering of human beings still thriving in some cultures, while in others, a transition to a more (I would venture to say more evolved) egalitarian circle of equals is well underway, at least in some societal institutions.

Since the time of ancient Greece (if not earlier), Western culture has had an ongoing historical thread of the emergence of more egalitarian trends (including Athenian democracy and the egalitarian philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth) attempting to break through an overlay of coercive authoritarian control (including Greek and Roman empires, and religious conformity under Constantine and later Roman Church popes).

Six-hundred years ago our Western society was still based on institutional governance models replete with rigid feudal, clerical and gender rankings (based on control of land and the pecking order of the Roman church), with male lords and bishops exercising full control over and responsibility for their “flocks”, with women mostly as chattel. A person’s position in the hierarchy was primarily determined by the rank of their parents, and secondarily by their success on the military battlefield and/or Church politics.

The so called “Modern Era” that followed marked notable transitions from these rigidly hierarchical to more egalitarian institutions and practices, including from…

* Feudal lords and serfdom to republics and citizenry
* Clerical intermediaries to a direct relationship with God
* State mercantilism to entrepreneurial capitalism
* White, male and Nordic supremacy to equality
* Children “seen and not heard” to outspoken youth

Some might argue on any of these five points, but I think most would agree on the overall trend from hierarchical power-over to egalitarian power-with (what I often describe as from “patriarchy towards partnership”).

That said (and long live the revolution!) our culture is still replete with remnants of the older more authoritarian order, in particular our continuing preoccupation (I would say even fetish) with ranking and ordering people. Even the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th Centuries (a hallmark of modernity) was infused with a mechanistic numeracy of “efficiency” where apples and oranges were reduced to supposedly comparable “metrics”.

Some examples of this ranking in contemporary practice include…

* Constant framing of “winners” and losers” (celebrating the former and denigrating the latter) including framing the necessary compromises of the democratic process as a battle “won” by one side and “lost” by the other

* Attention paid to relative status measured in designer clothing, expensive cars, grandiosity of housing, and ranking of universities granting one a degree

* Rigidly age-segregated school classrooms and youth pecking-order based on age (rather than a more natural mix of older and younger together)

* Constant ranking of students using letter grades and grade point averages (rather than simply noting which skills they have mastered and which they are still developing)

* Evaluating schools based on standardized test scores reduced to a single number (rather than through more robust multiple measures including peer review and outcome studies)

* An array of formal contests and informal evaluations ranking women on their beauty and poise

All this ranking leads to behavior usually judged as “natural” that often crosses a line into unseemliness, including…

* Status conscious “helicopter” parents determined to get “the best” for their kids relative to others

* Fixation on titles and salary in careers well beyond what is necessary for a comfortable life

* Fascination with the lives of celebrities, the rich and famous, and other of society’s “winners”

* “Grade grubbing” rather than “learning for learning’s sake”

In some cases one can make an argument for the continuing value of ranking, for example to identify and quantify expertise and facilitate meritocracy for the benefit of all. But in other instances, particularly our seemingly constant evaluation and subsequent judgment and ranking of our youth (often at great cost to their self-esteem and development of agency), I think that this sort of ordering is counterproductive.

Life, at least at its best, is not about comparing oneself with others, but rather expressing one’s unique gifts and insight. Given that, I do admit that there is plenty of ranking we submit ourselves to in order to make a living, gain acknowledgment, and for other pragmatic reasons.

So I would urge all of us to dial down the ranking and ordering of human beings to the minimum necessary to keep the adventure of one’s life moving forward. See the vestiges of an old 5000-year-old patriarchal order for the mostly spent and outmoded wisdom that it is. Don’t be rude and rank; instead try to give every person their unique due.

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