Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Alpha Male Syndrome

Natural selection has left animals with a wide variety of survival instincts. The alpha male tendency is common amongst predators that hunt in a pack as well as primates. But domination by an authoritarian male is not the only route to biological success. From the social cooperative nature of emperor penguins and dolphins to the individualist behaviour of foxes and squirrels, it is clear that one does not need to submit unreservedly to a snarling leader to make something of one’s life. Without the cerebral capacity to examine and compare, it is not surprising that once a species has developed a way of being, it sticks to it. Human beings, however, have no such excuse.

For thousands of years the alpha male instinct directed human interactions. In return for order, an allotted place in the group, and protection from ‘outside’ threat, one surrenders oneself to control by the most determined and aggressive in taking charge. This mindset is projected ‘upwards’ in the theological representation of ‘God’ as an absolute ruler who will punish dissent with eternal suffering, and ‘downwards’ in the social validation of oppression through the lower rungs of the hierarchy. The lord could treat his peasants as he pleased, the head servant could treat his subordinates likewise, and similarly with the priest and his underlings, the man with his wife and children.

It was only when the right conditions for related intellectual and political development converged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the movement towards a democratic as opposed to an authoritarian way of life began. It has been a long and hard struggle. And what remains the most challenging aspect of the struggle is to expose the grip the alpha male syndrome retains to this day.

Alpha male authoritarianism is not displaced just by opening the door to women, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, or lower socio-economic classes, especially when those who take control are no less ‘alpha male’ in their power disposition.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have been fed stories that authoritarianism has been roundly defeated by democracy. But if that is the case, why is power at almost every level still concentrated in the hands of those most ruthless in securing and exercising power? Why are corporate barons able to sell arms, destroy the environment, or promote addictive consumerist behaviour when these are blatantly against the interests of the vast majority of people? Why are only those capable of destroying their enemies through the modern weapons of mass communication and subtle (or not so subtle) character assassination in line to compete for the most important political offices? Why can the wealthiest go on rewarding themselves more while subjecting their employees to pay restraints and perpetual job insecurity? Why is domestic violence still a blot on our moral landscape? Why are human beings, including young children, exploited as mere cogs in faceless production lines?

We need to ask ourselves who get to wield power in the world around us. Democracy has won many battles in the last few centuries, but it still has a long way to go. The alpha male psyche is deep in our evolutionary make-up. The aggressive few are inclined to push their way to the top. The silent majority are all too ready to acquiesce for fear of a backlash. But if authoritarianism is to be combated, we have to start unmasking the alpha male holders of power in every sphere of society. The legitimacy of power does not come from defeating their competitors, but only from engaging with us as equals in pursuit of our common good.