Dilbert, Seriously

Clueless at the Top
While the Rest of Us Turn Elsewhere for Life, Liberty, and Happiness
Charlotte and Harriet Childress
Cypress House, 2005

If you are a man, and of mostly European descent, chances are good that you have come across books that blame you or your kind for everyone's problems.

How did you feel while reading such a book? Skeptical? Defensive? Outraged? I guess what I'm saying is that I like to think of myself as an open minded kind of person, but when I'm faced with this sort of accusation I tend to feel a bit defensive. I take careful notes of the arguments that are presented, and try to find the holes in the arguments. I'm particularly skeptical when the book repeatedly points out that, if you are the cause of the problem, then you are probably not even aware that there is a problem in the first place!

It's a typical "Emperor's New Clothes" argument, right? We all know the story: This vain emperor was looking for some stylish new threads, so he hired a couple of people who were actually con artists. They told him they could fashion such an amazing suit of clothes for him that stupid people could not see them. In fact, the con artists kept all the money they were given and just pretended to make the clothes. But no one wanted to admit that they might be stupid, so everyone pretended that they could see these marvelous clothes.

In Clueless at the Top the Childresses have put together a case against hierarchies. They introduce the problem initially by pointing out various places where there are hierarchies. These hierarchies are pretty undeniable, instances where some people have more power and authority than others. If that were all there was, the book would be pretty unremarkable. Most of us take hierarchies for granted. Many if not most of us would say that in any undertaking more complex than fixing a bowl of breakfast cereal, someone has to be in charge to organize the rest of us.

However, the Childresses then proceed to argue that hierarchies are the cause of our problems. There is first the assertion that "their policies and practices are becoming increasingly annoying and repulsive to the rest of us," but as the book proceeds, the Childresses illustrate that hierarchies are a particular problem for the USA, where hierarchical structures are such a powerful part of our system that many times our society cannot function properly, especially when compared to how they do things in other countries, where, presumably (the Childresses don't actually address other countries in any serious fashion), hierarchies are less entrenched.

The Childresses do point out that we have been busting hierarchies, however slowly, to the extent that we have enacted women suffrage, and civil rights and labor rights legislation. But hierarchies still persist.

The bulk of the book consists of short stories where people are confronted by problems, identify a particular hierarchy as the root of the problem, and proceed to deal with the problem by stepping outside of the game of hierarchies. Each short story is written to illustrate the Childresses' eight axioms of hierarchies.

  1. We are high in some hierarchies and low in others.
  2. Judging and ranking builds hierarchies.
  3. More valuables flow to the top; what's objectionable sinks to the bottom.
  4. Status and reward are based on one's position, not on one's contribution.
  5. Our positions in hierarchies influence our interactions.
  6. Placement in one hierarchy transfers to some other rankings.
  7. Lower people need fixing.
  8. Harmful behavior holds hierarchies together.

If you believe the book, then just about any frustration in your life can be solved by identifying the hierarchy at the root and finding a way out of it.

This is where I had trouble. I could see various places where I thought the stories were oversimplifications of rather more complex issues. However, one of the book's starting assertions is that people at the top don't really notice the presence of a hierarchy. So if the White culture is the problem, how would I know? Further, the book points out that if you are at the top then a nudge from below will "seem like a bulldozer," meaning that it invites a reaction out of proportion with the perceived threat. Was I being overly sensitive to these stories just because I'm a member of the dominant culture?

The hell of it was, this is precisely the sort of book that would give the likes of Sean Hannity a conniption fit, and I think that anything which might shake certain clowns out of their self-satisfied complacency is a Good Thing. The trouble appeared to be that in this case I was one of the self-satisfied clowns, and I didn't particularly enjoy the experience.

It isn't as if I'm always part of the hierarchical top. There are plenty of places in the book where even most White males will stand up and shout, "Amen!" But the fact that my knee jerk reaction had been triggered meant that I had to take a very careful look at both my applause and my criticisms of the book.

For example, the Childresses write that hierarchies are such that what's OK for people at the top is OK for everyone. They illustrate their point by writing that any color is OK for baby girls, but baby boys must always be wrapped in a blue blanket. They add that men would never dream of wearing a dress, while women could wear anything. The point may or may not be valid, but I was thinking that the matter of "proper dress for women" has been more an issue of what women are not allowed to wear, rather than what is OK for women to wear. I mean, at BYU women still aren't allowed to take tests while wearing jeans, which are perfectly OK for men. And I'm pretty certain that at BYU a cross-dressing man could be subject to disciplinary action.

I was put in mind of Lakof's book Moral Politics which points out that much of our perception of our world is based on overlaying concrete concepts on abstract relationships. People who want to imagine what a good government is like try to apply what they know of good family life, with parents and children. Is it possible that many of our strange behaviors and beliefs have nothing to do with hierarchies, but rather with the belief systems that create hierarchies in the first place?

Another example is the problem of subcategories. The Childresses write that hierarchies tend to describe themselves as a group by using the label that applies only to the people at the top. Everyone else is expected to feel included. Thus "men" conventionally refers to all people, while "women" refers only to, well, women. If the Declaration of Independence read, "all women are created equal," we men would feel slighted. So why didn't TJ express himself better? "All people are created equal."

In and of itself I have no problem with a rewrite, especially in view of the fact that the Declaration's "all (whatever) are created equal" was roundly ignored, in that TJ and GW and the rest held on to their slaves in spite of that noble assertion. Never mind that women suffrage didn't get enacted until 160 year later. What I have a problem with is the Childresses' claim that anytime a category can be divided into subcategories that's evidence of a hierarchy. For example, "cars" are easily subcategorized into "stationwagons," "coupes," "musclecars," etc. Does that mean that there's a hierarchy present that puts "cars" at the top?

The stories themselves also invite criticism. It's tempting to imagine problems solved this easily, but reality is never that simple. In one example a news director wants to decrease the emphasis that is paid to violence and war in the news. Ironically, when then president Ronald Reagan suggested that news organizations should try to air at least one optimistic story every night he was accused of attempting to hide his administration's shortcomings.

What it boils down to is that human beings are hierarchical creatures. It's instinctive for us to find pecking orders. That doesn't make hierarchies right; it does make hierarchies difficult to dispose of.

I still recommend the book. The Childresses offer alternatives to hierarchical thinking. Too often solutions imposed from the top, from "three strikes" laws to the "war on drugs," don't actually solve anything. In spite of their failures, our leaders, in business as well as in government, persist in pushing them. Even if Clueless doesn't solve every problem, it's essential to recognize that there are other ways of looking at a problem, ways that don't involve appealing to authority and playing the game of hierarchies.

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