CLUES: Hierarchies 101


go Judging and ranking builds hierarchies

go In order for a hierarchy to survive, there must be higher and lower groups

go More valuables flow to the top; what's objectionable sinks to the bottom

go Our “problems” support hierarchies, so we’ll have “problems” as long as
we have hierarchies

go We can never have enough

go A person’s position in one hierarchy transfers to other hierarchies

go Harmful behaviors hold hierarchies together

imageJudging and ranking builds hierarchies

Our lives are filled with a rich diversity of options. We could accept and value people, animals, situations, and choices for what they are in their own right. We could accept that if two or more members of a group are different, that’s just what they are — different — and leave it at that.

Instead, since birth we have been conditioned to scrutinize the naturally diverse, interconnected complexities and options in our world in order to make a determination of worth according to various hierarchical criteria.

imageWe judge and rank ourselves, our friends, our coworkers, and our neighbors both near and far. We judge plants, animals, minerals, and everything else in nature. Without a second thought, we assign value to traits, deciding that some characteristics are more valuable or desirable than others. We are skilled at quickly viewing one option as right, better, more important, or exceptional while we assess the other option as wrong, worse, silly, naive, negligible, not realistic, insignificant, irrelevant, inconsequential, or invisible.

imageIn order for a hierarchy to survive, there must be higher and lower groups

Since the beginning of the colonization that eventually led to the creation of the United States, many millions have lived in hierarchies. While some might glorify the development of the United States, the country is actually built upon a legacy of 500 years of policies and practices established by those at the top of hierarchies.

Life for people on the bottom has been vastly different from life for those on the top. People have filled “high” and “low” roles as either takers or givers, conquerors or slaves, imperialists or plundered, exploiters or exploited, attackers or prey, chosen or rejected, saved or damned, controlling or controlled, wealthy or poor, powerful or powerless.


imageMore valuables flow to the top; what's objectionable sinks to the bottom.

The position a person holds in a hierarchy determines that person’s benefits and resources. Recognition does not have to be based on actual contributions to the work effort or to society, or on the difficulty or hazards of performing a job.

People who are on the higher levels of a hierarchy control and receive more of the rewards, opportunities, and incentives that are valued in that hierarchy. These resources can be wealth, prestige, safety, opportunity, jobs, recognition, power, compensation, security, support, protection, healthcare, respect, material goods, options, environmental quality, acceptance, and other assets.

When we are in lower levels of a hierarchy, we receive less of the rewards, opportunities, and incentives that are valued in that hierarchy. It’s our job to support and hold up a hierarchy, to send our power and resources up to higher levels. Often, lower people are expected to act grateful for whatever crumbs trickle down from above.

In addition, when we are ranked lower we receive more of whatever is not valued, or even objectionable, in society, such as blame, criticism, attacks, poverty, suspicion, scarcity, scrutiny, and pollution. We are expected to be satisfied with, even appreciative of, a lower quality of goods and services than higher people receive.

imageOur “problems” support hierarchies, so we’ll have “problems” as long as we have hierarchies

Many people believe their government exists to provide for the common safety and general welfare of all of its citizens. So, when we observe poverty, crime, and other situations that are not producing security and happiness for people, we say there are “problems. ”

When we admit, however, that we live in a hierarchical society, we realize that these situations aren’t “problems” at all! As a matter of fact, hierarchies are set up to create the inequities, conflicts, fear, greed, violence, scarcity, and dysfunction that many of us call “problems. ”

Our problems are the heartbeat and blood supply of our hierarchies. Without them, hierarchies could not survive. If our hierarchies could talk, they’d be saying, “Why do you call these situations ‘problems’? They’re not problems at all; they’re opportunities for us to remain strong and grow. We can’t exist without them.”

imageAfter all, if people on top of hierarchies were not benefiting from these problems, they would have solved them long ago. People at the top have the resources and power to solve the problems, but don’t have the incentive.

We can never have enough

In hierarchies, we are never satisfied. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder. When we are finished with or tired of one hierarchy, there are plenty more to pull us in.

We move and shuffle all the time. We watch the competition — looking up, down, and around. We jockey for position, push to move up, and defend ourselves from people trying to gain on us. Staying on top often requires more effort than the maneuvers we used to climb up.

We believe that the next step up will end our scarcity of happiness and security, so we just keep moving. We cannot enjoy what we have because we keep striving to climb higher in one hierarchy or another. We hope to arrive, someday in the foggy future, at a place where we can finally feel content.

A person’s position in one hierarchy transfers to other hierarchies

We transfer hierarchical status from one hierarchy to another, even if the criteria used to establish the hierarchies are unrelated.

If a person is higher on one hierarchy, we transfer that higher status and ranking when making other judgments, even if we know nothing about that person’s qualifications in the second area. Likewise, if we place a person low on one hierarchy, we tend to assess that person as less valuable or not as competent in other situations.

Harmful behaviors hold hierarchies together

For centuries, we have developed many tools to entice and/or force each other to participate in hierarchies. Many people call these tools “problems,” but actually, they are necessary to hold our unnatural hierarchical system together. Hierarchies can’t survive without control tactics. As long as we have hierarchies, we’ll have hierarchical behaviors, including some that appear to us as crazy, disgusting, or unconscionable. Some of the most common actions, strategies, and control tactics that we use to build and maintain hierarchies are:

• blocking access to resources
• bullying
• coercion
• conflict
• deception
• discrimination
• disruption
• divisiveness
• exploitation
• fear
• greed
• guilt and shame
• harassment
• hate crimes
• hoarding
• imperialism
• internment
• intimidation
• labeling as unpatriotic
• lying

• lynching
• manipulation
• militarism
• murder
• negative judgments and labels
• noble causes
• ostracism
• posturing
• poverty
• promise of tickets to heaven
• promise of wealth, power, or status
• punishment
• rape
• rhetoric and smoke screens
• scapegoating
• scarcity
• sexual harassment
• violence and destruction
• war (or threat of war)
• withholding benefits

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For additional CLUES on the website, see Clues - Top and CLUES - Lower groups.

For additional CLUES and more detailed explanations, see Clueless at the Top.

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