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Thursday, October 27, 2011

We're Hierarchical Creatures for a Reason

I swear I don't mean to keep harping on Occupy Wall Street today, but Matt Yglesias has something up today that raises another point that's been on my mind recently.

In trying to explain why the economic situation in Europe is proving so difficult to resolve, Yglesias asks us to envision a problem that has more than one potential solution. For example, he suggests, imagine a large group of people traveling in three cars to go on vacation together. One of the cars runs out of gas and another suffers a flat tire. Yglesias lists five different ways to resolve the situation, points out that these various solutions impact everyone involved in slightly different ways, and then explains that
the issue you're going to have isn't that the problem is "too hard to solve" it's that getting everyone to agree on one particular solution is difficult.

That's why normally human institutions are arranged into hierarchies. If a military convoy was in some kind of jam, the highest-ranking officer just picks a solution. In the White House, they'd have a bunch of meetings and then Barack Obama would pick. But Europe doesn't have a good process for making decisions. So since every possible option has various downsides, they keep not picking any particular option even though not-really-deciding is basically worse for everyone. And "everyone" in this case includes non-EU folk like you and me who suffer from the general panic. (emphasis added)
This has been bugging me about the "alternative communities" the Occupy protests are building across the country. They seem to take it for granted that any organization of humans into hierarchies is somehow inherently wrong -- hence the emphasis they place on being "leaderless," and making sure "everyone has a chance to speak," and "respecting the process." And this insistence on "respecting the process" already has led to some strange incidents.

For example, until only this past Monday there was some real fear that Occupy Wall Street might be turned out of Zuccotti Park because they were losing "the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who [had] been fighting the city to stave off [OWS's] eviction, get [OWS] toilets, etc." Those allies were abandoning OWS because of the incessant drumming of the drum circles. Despite the fact such drumming might have ended up driving OWS out of the park completely, after "more than 2 weeks of mediation" between the OWS General Assembly and the drummers it seemed that no solution to this problem could be worked out until the very last minute. So . . . crisis averted, I suppose, but one gets the feeling that this shouldn't really have been allowed to develop into a crisis in the first place.

Another example is Occupy Atlanta's refusal to allow Congressman John Lewis to address them when he showed up unexpectedly. I've mentioned this incident before, so this time I'll just reproduce the explanation provided by The Daily Show's John Oliver in episode 168 of his and Andy Zaltzman's magnificent weekly podcast, The Bugle:
There was also a moment at a rally when Congressman John Lewis, the historic civil rights leader, attempted to address the crowd only for some moron to propose a motion that he shouldn't speak, as no one person was more important than anyone else in the movement. And -- to the frustration of the majority of the crowd -- Congressman Lewis was then unable to speak.

Now, whilst no one would claim that John Lewis was more important as flesh-and-blood than that protester, he is a shit of a lot more important as a human being, and when in his presence you might want to shut the fuck up and listen to him.
The thing is, humans haven't been organizing themselves into hierarchies for millennia because we're all a bunch of power-seeking jerks (well, not only because of that); we've been doing so because top-down organized hierarchies provide some necessary efficiency when it comes to decision-making, especially when dealing with unexpected circumstances where decisions need to be made quickly.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that top-down organization is the only way to organize ourselves, or even that it is always the superior way . . . only that it is sometimes the best way to make decisions. The Occupy Movement's unshakeable and total aversion to any hierarchical organization, under any circumstances, seems to me just as foolish and overly rigid a point of view as would that of someone who insisted on always following a strict top-down chain of command.

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