Transform the System: A Work in Progress

2: Reinforcing the System

How do we, as individuals and with our organizations, reinforce the system?

Each day, with the items we buy, the taxes we pay, the way we treat other people, and countless other ways, we strengthen the System.

Egalitarian relationships are rooted in trust, mutual respect, and compassion. Everyone gives and receives more-or-less equally. We care about each other. We listen carefully and reveal ourselves. When we disagree, we try to understand the other. We want to learn from others and ask questions to increase our understanding of their perspective. One-on-one conversations are real dialogs. In group conversations, when we’ve been doing most of the talking, we give space to those who’ve been quieter.

In today’s America, those egalitarian patterns are not the norm. Most Americans often demonstrate kindness, but self-centeredness prevails. One or two individuals monopolize most group discussions. Conversations are typically a series of monologues: telling stories about the past, gossiping, lecturing. Active listening is rare.[1] “Yes, the same thing happened to me” followed by the respondent’s own story about himself seems to be the most frequent form of empathy. College students today are about forty percent less empathetic than twenty or thirty years ago.[2] Taller people are more likely to be dominant. Talking loudly, interrupting, and talking longer and faster are signs of dominance. Nonverbal messages such as leaning forward, using gestures, and touching others physically also indicate dominance.[3] Submissive people prefer to interact with dominant people, and dominant people prefer to interact with submissive people.[4] In my taxi, when I’d ask a male-female couple in the back seat a question, the male almost always answered. Without exception, every rented two-seat bicycle I’ve seen has been driven by the man, not the woman.

Rankism affects us at our core and shapes our identity. We constantly score ourselves on one scale or another and compare ourselves to others. We generally don’t treat others as individuals who are equal in the eyes of God, but rather assume someone will be King of the Hill. As Stanley declared in A Streetcar Named Desire, husbands have traditionally believed “I am the King around here, so don’t forget it!”[5] The title of the 1950s sitcom “Father Knows Best” has been a common message that persists. The New York Times reports:

The sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter find that the proportion of young people holding egalitarian views about gender relationships rose steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s but has fallen since. In 1994, only 42 percent of high school seniors agreed that the best family was one where the man was the main income earner and the woman took care of the home. But in 2014, 58 percent of seniors said they preferred that arrangement.[6]

Climbing a ladder of success is the focus of life for most Americans. When meeting someone new, one of the first questions asked is: “What work do you do?” The answer influences how people react — whether they feel equal, superior, or inferior.

The American Dream promises that hard work will lead to upward mobility, prosperity, and social status. Faith in that Dream fosters the belief that those who don't succeed are deficient in some fundamental way.[7]  Lack of success indicates moral failure. Those higher up look down on those below and are domineering when they interact with them. And those lower down tend to worship those higher up — unless they’re resentful and rebel.

To climb ladders, children, students, and workers traditionally submit to parents, teachers, and bosses. Those dominant-submissive relationships are often rational. It may be necessary to keep a job, for instance. When decisions must be made quickly, someone must have the authority to make it. One recent study found that most marriages included a dominant partner (24% of whom were women) and concluded that such arrangements are a practical way to minimize time-consuming conflict.[8]  All that can make sense for some partners. Power differences are often understandable.

But when dominate-or-submit becomes a habit that carries over throughout life it can be problematic, as reflected in the title of a large conference convened by the Esalen Institute, the fountainhead of the human potential movement, in the 1970s: “Spiritual and Therapeutic Tyranny: The Willingness to Submit.”[9]

      The dominate-or-submit habit leads to assumptions that:

● Someone must always be in charge.
● Leaders set the vision for organizations and define what can be discussed.
● Leadership is defined as the ability to mobilize followers.

But many social relationships are most fruitful when participants relate as equals. Given society’s conditioning and the fact that most people spend most of their time in dominant-submissive relationships, which becomes a habit, such equality can be difficult to sustain.

Dominate-or-submit habits also carry over into how people treat members of other groups. Messages from early childhood produce subconscious bias that favors ingroups and discriminates against outgroups.[10] As a result, we see:

● Lighter-skinned people of color are treated differently than those who are darker-skinned.[11]
● Coastal elites are condescending toward “flyover country.”[12]
● Rural residents blame “city slickers” for their problems.[13]
● To protect their job or advance their career, women have submitted to sexual harassment.[14]
● With their paternalism, social service organizations disempower clients.[15]
● People who hold the power to punish, such as police, prison guards, and military personnel, often abuse their power, especially if it conforms to expectations from above.[16]
● America assumes it must “lead” the world.[17]

Some of those patterns of interpersonal and intergroup domination are changing. Many families are more egalitarian. The movement against sexual harassment is encouraging women to be less submissive and teaching men to be less domineering. Many businesses are more horizontal.[18] And racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression may be slowly diminishing, somewhat.

But schools are becoming more authoritarian.[19] Our politics are becoming more judgmental. And at school, work, and home Americans generally still either dominate or submit more often than they engage in equal relationships.

The rhetoric of meritocracy — the claim that individuals are rewarded based on ability rather than class privilege — is used to justify these patterns. But in fact, wealth, status, and power are largely inherited; families pass on their advantages to their children. Most adults are roughly in the same socioeconomic class as their parents. The social inheritance of wealth and power has replaced biological inheritance.[20]

The System has seduced almost everyone into pursuing upward mobility. Even non-materialistic social workers and political activists engage in ego-driven power games. The personal identities of individuals depend on their rank. Mutual respect among collaborators who treat one another as equals takes a back seat to gaining status and power.


The System rationalizes oppression by promoting individualism — the doctrine that the interests of the individual are most important. The mantra of the modern age is “What’s in it for me?” The ego is king. Even children become extensions of their parents’ ego, to be molded in their parents’ image. The result is growing personal isolation.

 One recent study asked participants to list the names of people with whom they had discussed "important matters" over the previous six months. About fifty percent listed only one name. The average number of such confidantes had decreased from three to two over the previous twenty-five years.[21] The number of people who report feeling lonely has increased from twenty to forty percent since the 1980s.[22] Almost half of all meals are eaten alone.[23] The average American now spends less than four minutes a day — twenty-four hours a year — participating in organized social events.[24] Social isolation greatly increases the odds for getting sick, suffering cognitive deficits, or dying prematurely.[25] And as isolation undermines the habit of collaborating with neighbors to solve problems, that social environment, as Sam Quinones wrote, creates “the natural habitat not just of heroin but of that next young killer now planning to roam a school corridor.”[26]

This pattern is aggravated by mobile phones. The Internet helps people connect in certain ways, but it also encourages us to drift apart into silos. People spend more time writing messages than reading messages from others. That pattern carries over into real life, where it nudges people to withdraw from others. They spend so much time looking at screens they lose the satisfaction of simultaneous shared experience and fail to develop the social skills needed to resolve conflict.[27] Soulful, mutual dialogue — speaking spontaneously from the heart with one’s whole being — is becoming rarer. People get stuck on a superficial level of self-awareness and self-interest.

When I asked Rhonda Magee about the price we must pay to trust each other, as Baldwin envisioned, and suggested it involves dissolving our identity as a “superior” person who should dominate, she commented:

Yes. So true. I think another trap is thinking that all of the work is personal, to be seen through an individualism lens. Our fears are shaped in part by environments in which we live, by systemic vulnerabilities that reinforce separation and the sense of needing to live in a defended way. This kind of vulnerability is easier to write about that to live. Being in connected community helps, but so often these are grounded in identity.... hence the enormity of the challenges we face.[28]

A common form of individualism is scapegoating, which operates in relationships, families, the workplace, and society at large. Looking for someone to blame is widespread. But blaming any one factor in a system is a diversion, a simplification, a way to avoid confronting complexity. In any system, causes are interwoven and influence one another. With social systems, the problem is the system — not any one individual or any one group. 

We can hold specific individuals accountable for specific actions. We might even punish them. But it’s wrong to exaggerate their responsibility. To do so neglects the importance of other factors, including our own individual responsibility for helping to perpetuate the System. Everyone’s a pawn. Even top-level administrators are easily replaced.

When it’s fueled by anger, scapegoating leads to demonizing. Opponents become enemies. Judgments become judgmental. We project onto them weaknesses that we hold within ourselves but fail to face. Rather than acknowledge our own responsibility, we criticize others harshly and place excessive blame on their shoulders.

The scapegoat becomes a devil we must defeat by any means necessary. Winning becomes everything. The end justifies the means. An enemy of our enemy is a friend. We divide the world into good guys and bad guys. We fail to be the change we seek.  

Political activists are prone to blame the President, the other political party, Wall Street, “liberal elites,” “irredeemable deplorables,” “Washington,” or other handy targets. People who are frustrated take out their anger on handy punching bags, inflame threats, and amplify fears.

Judgmental personal attacks reinforce the System. They neglect the social context, overlook the fact that everyone is a victim, and exaggerate the responsibility of individuals. Scapegoating diverts energy from the pursuit of meaningful structural reforms and undermines the unity needed for positive, proactive change. Crushing individuals will not transform the System.


      Following the fall of the Soviet Union, in his 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture Octavio Paz warned:

...The collapse of Utopian schemes has left a great void... For the first time in history mankind lives in a sort of spiritual wilderness… It is a dangerous experience…. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.[29]

His fears have been realized. The world is fragmenting. Brutal civil wars, ethnic cleansing, anti-immigrant hysteria, racism, and military skirmishes are worsening. One is led to ask: In struggles like those between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and Palestine, why does the United States so often take sides in ways that worsen the situation? Why can’t the U.S. adopt a neutral stance and try to mediate reconciliation? An “America First” foreign policy, which echoes America’s “Me First” culture, aggravates fragmentation, undermines cooperation between nations, and inflames the “fanatical nationalism” Paz warned about.

It seems likely that at least one reason why elected officials have chosen this course is that foreign crises distract attention from problems at home. The “war on terror,” which is greatly disproportionate to the threat that terrorism poses to the United States, may be the perfect war to distract attention from domestic problems. There’s nothing like a war to strengthen the standing of a President. And it’s never-ending because it creates more terrorists than it kills. When will the United States stop being so influenced by domestic political calculations and stop acting like the world’s policeman?

Fragmentation is happening within the United States as well. After World War Two, corporations, labor unions, and the federal government agreed on a “Social Contract.” Businesses accepted unions and increased wages, which boosted the economy. For twenty-five years, incomes at every level increased at about the same rate. In addition, activists gained regulations to protect consumers and the environment by imposing limits on businesses. And Democrats and Republicans often compromised on legislation. Most Republicans, for example, voted for civil rights legislation in the 1960s. To a considerable degree, America was united.

Then, in the early 1970s, many corporate elites appeared to get nervous about the future. One source of concern was that in the 694 days between January 11, 1973 and December 6, 1974, stocks lost over forty-five percent of their value. Faced with numerous threats like that, many wealthy elites apparently decided to tear up the Social Contract and make as much money as they could as quickly as they could.[30] As a result, the share of the nation’s net personal wealth owned by the richest 0.1 percent increased from seven percent in 1979 to twenty-two percent in 2012.[31]

During those years, the Democratic Party largely helped the Republicans establish those new economic policies. The Republicans would stake out an extreme position, and the Democrats would show they were different by adopting a somewhat less extreme position. But the Republicans, who became increasingly radical, had the momentum.

As the country becomes ever more polarized, rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans now tend to support almost anything their leaders advocate. Rabid Republicans, rabid Democrats, religious and political sects, ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, and other “tribes” have all become firmly rooted in their dogmas.

Powerful forces are reducing human lives to disposable tools. People are competing more fiercely in an unpredictable world. Though our world is increasingly interdependent, “rugged individuals” deny their dependence on others. Driven in large part by economic insecurities and resentments, and an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, those forces threaten to tear the world apart.

NEXT: A New Mission



[1] "Tuning In: Improving Your Listening Skills," Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2014.

[2] "Empathy: College students don't have as much as they used to," Michigan News, May 27, 2010.

[3] Wikipedia, "Expressions of dominance," Retrieved from

[4] Stulp, Gert, Abraham P. Buunk, Simon Verhulst, and Thomas V. Pollet, "Human Height Is Positively Related to Interpersonal Dominance in Dyadic Interactions," PLOS,Retrieved from

[5] Retrieved from

[6] "Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?", The New York Times, March 31, 2017.

[7] Frank, Robert H., Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Also see "Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think," The Atlantic, May 2016 and "Why the myth of a perfect meritocracy is so pernicious," Vox, Dec 15, 2017.

[8] "Are marriages stronger when one spouse is dominant?", The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2015.

[9] Kripal, Jeffrey J., Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, 286-7.

[10] Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, "Implicit Bias Review 2015." Retrieved from

[11] "Study: lighter-skinned black and Hispanic people look smarter to white people," Vox, Feb 28, 2015.

[12] "Dangerous idiots: how the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans," The Guardian, Oct 13, 2016.

[13] "America is held hostage by flyover states," The Hill, Dec 12, 2016.

[14] "12 Women Who Say Sexual Harassment Cost Them Their Careers," Time, Nov 15. 2017.

[15] "The Challenge of Paternalism in Social Work," Social Work Today, January/February 2005.

[16] “The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” New Yorker, June 12, 2015.

[17] "Why America Must Lead," The Catalyst, Winter 2016.

[18] See

[19] Rutherford Insitute, "Transforming America’s Schools into Authoritarian Instruments of Compliance," Oct 7, 2013.

[20] "Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think," Scientific American, March 31, 2015.

[21] "Close Friends Less Common Today, Study Finds," Live Science, Nov 4, 2011.

[22] “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us,” The New York Times, December 22, 2016.

[23] "We're eating more of our meals alone: Is that a bad thing?",, Aug. 25, 2015.

[24] "Happiness Is Other People," The New York Times, Oct 27, 2017.

[25] Steptoe, Andrew , Aparna Shankar, Panayotes Demakakos and Jane Wardle, "Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women," Retrieved from

[26] “Guns and Opioids Are American Scourges Fueled by Availability,” The New York TimesFeb 24, 2018.

[27] "Why Access to Screens Is Lowering Kids' Social Skills," Time, Aug 21, 2014.

[28] Personal communication.

[29] Retrieved from

[30] Other sources of concern included: The United States was losing the Vietnam War, which called into question its future global power; More consumer and environmental regulations might further restrain their freedom; Labor unions were conducting more strikes and pushing for higher wages; Many formerly dependent countries were demanding and achieving independence; From October 1973 to March 1974, an Arab oil embargo targeted at pro-Israel nations caused the price of oil to rise from $3 per barrel to nearly $12.

[31] Saez Emmanuel and Gabriel Zucman, "Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data," NBER Working Paper No. 20625, October 2014.


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