I was fighting for dominance long before I understood hierarchy. In classrooms, on playgrounds, and on neighborhood fields, I considered it natural that I should be in charge.
I didn’t necessarily like most other people. I didn’t much care whether they liked me. But it was important to me to have as much control as I could get. If I couldn’t have leadership of the larger group, I would at least be the leader of the opposition — those who refused to go along. It was rarely open conflict, but everybody knew which few were competing for power. I was always one of those.
I read a long diatribe online today from a woman who was denouncing “male power hierarchies.” She claimed they were an instrument of “white supremacy” and she claimed white men were trained in this “unnatural power system” in order to oppress minorities.
I had to laugh. Nobody ever taught me to want dominance. Humans are naturally drawn to form dominance hierarchies and certain people among groups want power. Some people tend to be given power, even though some of them — those like me — weren’t the best liked. And this woman who was ranting would be shocked at the vicious power hierarchies among groups of young black men I’ve known. Is their hierarchy all about “white supremacy,” too?
Humans need hierarchies. We couldn’t survive without them. I can’t explain how we decide who gets power in a room, but we’ve all been in plenty of situations when we’ve known — without words — who was in charge and who would lead us.
I’ve sometimes been the one in charge — and I’ve sometimes been the one pushing power buttons to disrupt someone else’s control of a group. Like it or not, these are essential human skills.
The earliest I remember openly taking charge of a group in a formal sense was when I was about 10 years old. I set up a little club of the smart kids in my neighborhood when I lived in Meridian, Miss. I was inspired by a group of kids in a book series I’d read, so I envisioned us as spies and investigators. I called our little “company” United States Spy and Investigation Enterprises. (Yes, seriously.)
We had walkie-talkies and toy gadgets that allowed us to look around the corners of houses. We practiced our skills and had a great time. We built ourselves a sad little clubhouse out of random pieces of scrap plywood, plastic and lumber. We didn’t even use nails. It was nothing impressive, but we were proud of it. We even had a little flag on it with a logo I’d designed.
There was a rival group of boys down the street — slightly older kids — who had a club they called Flash. They were nasty to us. I don’t remember why. Maybe we never really knew. But they ridiculed us and made fun of us. Then one day when we weren’t around, they trashed our makeshift clubhouse.
They bragged about it. At one point, the leader of the other group — whose name I don’t remember — got into my face and said sarcastically, “So what are you doing to do about it?!”
They were older. There were more of them. We couldn’t openly oppose them. But I decided what we were going to do. Very quietly.
These kids had a nice clubhouse. It wasn’t anything super fancy, but it was something small their fathers had built for them, so it was far better than our makeshift place. It was located in a small rock canyon near our neighborhood. That was going to be my target.
I didn’t have access to gasoline, but one of my friends, Kirk, was able to get his older brother, Perry, to get some for us. We waited until none of the enemy were around and we went to their clubhouse late in an afternoon. Kirk brought the gasoline and I brought the matches. Several of us carefully and strategically poured the gas around the wood structure and then set a match to it.
We retreated to the cover of some nearby trees to watch it burn.
Not a word was ever said to us about that fire. I’m sure they knew it had been us, but it was completely ignored. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but those older boys never bothered us again. In fact, they even stayed away from our end of the street.
At times in my life, I’ve wondered if I should be embarrassed to tell this story. For many years, I told it to absolutely nobody. When I finally told my father — many years later — he was flabbergasted and said he had never heard of the incident. So should I see myself as an out-of-control kid punk? Or as a leader of the underdog kids?
I’m still not sure. Maybe some of both?
I don’t think humans could survive without hierarchies, formal or otherwise. We join together in these voluntary associations — for our own reasons and for as long as those associations make sense.
The idea that we could ever be a bunch of egalitarians of equal power and rank is a fantasy. In the best of worlds, all power arrangements would be voluntary and peaceful, but even so, someone is going to be in charge — by mutual consent.
I think it’s in our genes. Some of us simply don’t know how to obey orders. For good or bad, I’m one of those. I don’t take orders well. I never have. I never will.