Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Chickens and Democracy

Watching backyard chickens is an amusing past-time because they do funny things. They will suddenly run across the yard and then, on arrival, calmly look around as though nothing exciting had happened. Their feet are a flurry of motion while they scratch, then they back up and, completely frozen, look down to see what they uncovered. 

One of the less funny things about chickens is that they are an instinctively hierarchical species. They establish status through physical violence -- pecking, confrontation, and other behaviors (even three-day old chicks fight). Their pecking behavior has analogs in human status behaviors -- chickens inspired the phrase "pecking order" used to describe human hierarchies.

People vary considerably in their desire to establish hierarchy. Some cultures explicitly celebrate power and the powerful both consciously and unconsciously. Everyone expects to serve the powerful. It is the way life is -- "the weak serve the powerful." Everyone must know and accept their place. Hierarchy requires that people meeting each other for the first time need to assess their status relative to the other person so that they know how to behave. A lower status person should not question a higher status person and will always explicitly show deference to their opinion. In Japan, this discovery takes the form of the meishi koukan (名刺交換), or exchanging of business cards. The information on business cards helps the newly acquainted quickly assess their relative status and act appropriately.

In other cultures, hierarchy is less pronounced because people do not accept large power distances. Differences in power are not emphasized inter-personally. People in powerful roles are people, just like everyone else. They just have a different role. In Denmark, a country that is low on the power distance index, a direct report is expected to treat their manager in an informal manner. A Danish employee expects to be able to disagree with or bring ideas to their manager, behaviors that would be unthinkable in a high power distance culture. I have heard that in Denmark it is even considered an insult to add "Sir" or "Madam" when speaking to someone -- it is an indirect way of telling someone you think they are arrogant.

Looking back on the early Founders of the United States, their view was a mix of these two perspectives on power distance. On the one hand, many Founders felt that unless a person had property or financial independence from others, they could not be trusted to think for themselves in democratic decision making - employees might be too aligned with their employer (evidence of a high power distance perspective of employees). Further many early leaders either had slaves or were not opposed to slavery - an institution totally off charts in terms of power distance.

On the other hand, these early leaders were establishing something very unusual. Amidst the context of warrior kings and staggeringly hierarchical societies, early leaders of the American Revolution were clear that "We the People" were forming this new government to serve the needs of its citizens. The government derived power only by the consent of the governed. As an important symbol of the egalitarian culture they wanted to promote, George Washington, as the first U.S. President, chose the modest "Mr. President" or "Honorable" as the style of this office over the more elegant styles chosen by high power distance leaders in other countries. It is important to note that the style of "Honorable" is also afforded to the President's subordinates in the Executive and many other individuals in various levels of government, something that would be completely unacceptable in a high power distance culture. You might say the early culture of the United States had a little hierarchy, but not too much. 

What do chickens have to do with all this? 

Chickens are ruled by their instincts. They only know one way to be. That one way involves establishing a pecking order through physical expressions of power. Humans are different in that we can organize ourselves in ways that are insanely varied. Human societies through history have been organized in very egalitarian or very hierarchical ways shaped mostly by what came before. Today we have the opportunity to shape society consciously, even in ways that might depart from patterns of the past.

In a healthy democracy, people generate many different ideas about how society should be organized. The relative merits of these ideas are debated and argued over until eventually an idea emerges that has broad support. True, even groups who mostly agree might take years to come to agreement. But the transfer of information and ideas between groups is essential for the eventual agreement to occur. 

When people have different views about power, however, even small differences of opinion can become intractable disagreements -- the two sides are starting from very different assumptions about how society should work and not discussing the biggest thing that separates them. Very little progress can be made in these disagreements because the two sides are not arguing about their actual differences. 

A recent example is a debate about whether a police officer's use of force is appropriate. Your answer to this question hinges on your view of power -- how "last result" should the use of power be? In a high power distance culture, having power means using it. You will not have power if you do not use it and it is right to exercise all the power you have. In a low power distance culture, people are peers. You do not use all the power you have. You show restraint in use of power because having to use power means you are desperate. As you might see, the debate is not really about whether the police officer followed their training. The real debate is about how the power given to police should should be exercised.

Fortunately, unlike chickens, we can observe and discuss our views about power and society. We have the ability to adopt different thinking patterns. It is not easy. Even with the opportunity to live in a democracy, some early settlers chose to remain under the British monarchy. Even those who wanted democracy entertained the idea of making George Washington the King of this new democratic republic. Yes, changing our thinking about power is difficult. However, as our history has demonstrated, we can have specific conversations about what behaviors and beliefs will lead to a more effective democracy and we can make conscious choices to get there.

What do you think? What kind of power distance would best support democracy? How should we behave so that the sum of our individual actions add up to a more perfect union? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

While you will not find a complete answer to the above questions in this blog, I leave you with one last comment: when you realize someone's position might be rooted in a different idea about power, remember that you are an adaptable human, not a one-trick chicken

Raise awareness about power distance so you can discuss it openly. Once you do, you might find more agreement than you thought possible.


Chickens and Hierarchy

Power Distance
American History

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Chickens and Democracy

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