Defining the Circle of Equals

For most of recorded history (with some notable exceptions) human societies and the institutions within those societies – political, economic, religious, educational, family, etc. – have been structured on a hierarchical model of governance and control with men ranked above women in status, a structure I refer to often as “patriarchy”. But in the last five centuries of the “Modern Era”, with its focus on the emancipation of the individual, there has been a clear historic trend away from these hierarchical structures toward more egalitarian ones (see “The Long Road to Agency”). These egalitarian structures I like to call “circles of equals”.

In previous pieces I have described the nature of the hierarchical structures (see “Defining Patriarchy”, “Perpetuating Patriarchy” and “Challenging Patriarchy”) but I have yet to do the same for their egalitarian counterparts. So here goes… I’ll take a shot at breaking it down into what I see as the basic key principles.

The first principle of a circle of equals is that everyone participates without coercion, with comparable status and with an equal opportunity to speak and otherwise contribute. At a societal level this is exemplified by freedom of association and speech. In a work environment it might be regular meetings where all workers are encouraged to speak freely on any aspect of the work environment and process, and have those views listened to and thoughtfully considered. In an educational setting, this might involve classrooms and other learning venues where students freely choose rather than are compelled to attend and opportunities for students as well as adult staff to give feedback on the educational process. Within a family, it includes children being able to speak freely, rather than the traditional protocols of speaking only when directed to do so by adults or being “seen and not heard”.

The second principle is that everyone is a full partner in the decision making process. In the political process this is the principle of one person one vote and elected representative government. In a work environment this is the fully implemented “team-based” management concept (not just in name only) including managers being reviewed by the people they manage. In an educational environment this involves teachers (and even students) deciding on the rules and processes in the learning environment and participating in the larger governance of the school. In a family this could be making important decisions in “family meetings” where parents expect their kids to participate in those decisions.

The third principle is that leadership is normally exercised for facilitation of rather than control over participants and that the final authority resides in the group rather than the leaders. In democratic political process, all political leaders are ultimately accountable to the citizenry by regularly standing for reelection. In a workplace this is the expectation that workers know their jobs and how best to perform them and that managers focus on providing the people they manage with the environment, resources and other support to do so, rather than focusing on directing the work. In an educational setting, this involves the expectation that the student will direct their own learning process with teachers and other adults more in the role of mentors and resources than directing the learning process. In a family, it is a parenting style based on a strong relationship with kids toward seeking out and identifying their developmental needs rather than a preponderance of rules, rewards and punishments.

Fourth is that all participants are given due process and peer review when their behavior does not meet the agreed expectations. In the legal process this includes trial by a jury of ones peers and prohibitions against unlawful detention, search and seizure. In a workplace or educational venue, it involves workers or students (not just managers, administrators and teachers) participating in developing and adjudicating disciplinary processes. In a family, it is the calling out of behavior issues and discussion of ramifications rather than being all about rules, rewards and punishments doled out by parents without discussion.

In trying to briefly give examples of these four principles in various societal institutions, I understand that the idea of a circle of equals and egalitarian process though perhaps more straightforward in political, economic and legal arenas, gets into a gray area when it comes to schools and families which involve adults working with or raising kids. It is a strongly held convention by most people that adults need to “control” kids to some degree and not just provide a facilitative type of leadership that is a hallmark of truly egalitarian institutions. I can think of a number of scenarios where adults need to exercise a more directive control of kids (particularly young ones) including keeping them from walking in front of a moving vehicle, drinking poisonous liquids, not taking direction from strangers, and other threats to their life and limb that they might not yet be cognizant of. Parents and adult school staff are generally legally responsible, at least to some degree, for the actions of the minors under their supervision, which tends to push the needle more toward directive control.

But given all that, I think that family life in America has moved a long way toward more of a circle of equals in the past 150 years. I recall reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books to my young kids, which give an extensive portrait of family life (at least on the frontier and on a farm in Upstate New York) in the second half of the 19th Century. The general parental wisdom of that age was that kids should be “seen and not heard”, “speak when spoken to”, and that children were amoral creatures until they were instructed in moral principles with the caution, “spare the rod and spoil the child”. From virtually every family I have been involved with or interacted with in my own life (or seen fictionally portrayed on TV), these hierarchical control principles are no longer applied.

Schools and other educational institutions seem to be more of a mixed bag in this transition from hierarchy to a circle of equals. Certainly the days of corporal punishment in public and most other schools are long past. And that traditional image of the sternly authoritarian teacher or head master/mistress has been replaced by the friendlier stereotype of mainly female K-12 teachers. But as to students being able to voice their opinions and even participate in school decision making or direct their own education, we don’t seem to have gone very far in that direction, and certainly many still feel this would be an inappropriate degree of “license” for youth vis a vis their adult “superiors”.

I acknowledge that many people still feel it is inappropriate to apply egalitarian principles to the relationships between youth and adults, and in this piece am calling out some very brief examples of what that might look like. But since I often rail against hierarchical “patriarchal” institutions, I felt it was important to lay out what I (and many others) see as a viable alternative.

Ours is a society that people (at least most progressive people) see as continuing to develop towards a more “highly-evolved” state with comparably evolved institutions. I think it was Gandhi that said something about judging a human society by how it treats its animals. How about judging a human society by the status it give to its youth?

See my follow-up piece, “Moving Towards a Circle of Equals”, for more on this thread!

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