All of the other posts I’ve written about the legacy we’ve inherited from the Puritans have been more about sexual codes of conduct, gender equality, and the shadow of the witch trials. While all of those are important parts of our colonial shadow, eclipsed only by the genocide of Native Americans, there’s one more structure from Puritan New England that I’ve got to cover. It’s pervasive, subtle, and if modern news says anything, still very much alive and dangerous.
Please Line Up Shortest to Tallest
We’ve all heard the theories of wolf pack dynamics, that there is a hierarchical pecking order, with a strong, combatively superior Alpha male that bosses everyone else around. When it was determined that those observations were of wolves in captivity, this has since been debunked. Wild wolf packs largely live in family groups. This theory is even frowned upon in dog training circles. It’s pretty much only popular these days in werewolf urban fantasy and MRA circles.
To be fair, this theory has persisted among humans for far longer than in dog pack theories in the natural sciences. In Friedrich Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil from 1886, he spoke of an “instinct for rank” among men. That people would automatically, instinctively, fall into a ranked order from most powerful to least powerful, and that their morals and perceptions would be shaped by that. (This, BTW is a philosophical basis for absolutism, authoritarianism, fascism and irrationalism, all of which we should be keenly aware of just about now.)
This hierarchical idea was not new in the late 1800s. Medieval nobility and the Roman Catholic Church had done a really splendid job of cementing this concept in the subconscious way before Nietzsche came along. In the 1600s, the Puritans regulated life strictly according to this rank-order set up.
Because God Said So
The Puritan order goes like this:
- Fathers above sons;
- Men above women;
- Everyone is sorted by wealth.
One could argue that wealth = power in many or all cases – in fact, the only time the non-wealthy are considered powerful it is usually en masse. In Puritan Colonial New England, wealth directly correlated to the amount of land one owned (much like Medieval times).
The key component of the Puritan’s view of social hierarchy was that it was considered to be preordained by God.
If you were poor, that was your lot in life, and you should not do anything to try to get out of that situation. In fact, if you showed anything but diligence in your ascribed role, you were guilty of sins of pride or sloth. It was strictly enforced that you stay in your lane. A woman could be tried in court for wearing a silk scarf if her husband’s estate did not add up to at least £200.
These are the same people who wiped out thousands of Native Americans. This seems like an obvious underlying thought for the 1800s phenomenon of manifest destiny and a lot of the morality that allowed for colonization and slavery to begin with.
What Does That Mean To a Modern Reader?
Think about the descriptions I used above as elements of a collective subconscious.
If we, collectively, consider that the person with the most wealth is the most powerful, and that he was put there either as an element of his own clear superiority or because of his preordained mission from God, then who are we to deny his role in leadership?
A recent study said that what many Christian voters liked the most about Trump was his Authority. Even if he is a total non-Christian jerk, he wielded his “Father knows best” authority enough for the Christian middle to vote for him. This is the ripple effect of “Men above Women” and “Fathers above Sons” and “Wealthiest at the Top.”
In the recent news that Trump wants his female staffers to dress like women, we see both the “Men above Women” playing out as well as the “Virgin/Whore” dynamic. In fact, the wealth-as-qualification of his Cabinet picks is another version of this same story.
Many of us can see these things as clearly illogical, and often can’t understand why people don’t agree with us about this.
Equality vs Hierarchy
The first element of this that springs to mind for me is the Occupy Wall Street movement from a few years ago. The masses have figured out that the wealth and power is isolated with the top 1% of the population, and they try to tear those barriers down.
It’s blatantly obvious to all of us that large dollar donations and lobbists with clout can make legislative winds blow in their general direction. It’s growing more and more obvious by the day that the the Trump administration and presidency will be one of growing his own personal power and financial gain, and lining the pockets of his cronies.
There is a root fact of politics: Those in Power will do anything they can to stay there. Trump inherited his fortune from his father. Trump’s family inherited their power from the Puritans.
The idealistic, disorganized, shaggy left is struggling with a platform of equality and fairness because just because it’s right doesn’t make it jive with the collective subconscious. Bernie Sanders’ whole platform was one of creating a more equal distribution of wealth, resources, education, healthcare, etc. Look how far that got him.
Just because the left doesn’t believe in the hierarchy, and because they can see the cracks in the logic doesn’t mean they have the power to stop it. The only way to grasp that much power is to get really organized and create the power that the masses have when they unite.
What About Empathy?
At the end of each of these posts, I’ve been putting a little reminder that this is a call for empathy. I’ve invited you to unpack your privilege a little, or to share experiences of how these cultural shadows have impacted you.
I’d like to suggest that this concept of social hierarchy is a much bigger bite than many of us can chew by ourselves. Feel free to comment with your thoughts, but I might also recommend talking about it with trusted clergy, advisers, parents, professors. Talk about it with your kids. Talk about it with each other.
We’re all in this together.