“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”–James Fallow, The Atlantic, 10/16
These past 20 months have given Americans a front row seat to dominance rituals by a series of posturing Alphas.
From the contempt-laden 2016 presidential debates, to the uprising of White Nationalism, to “Incels” to the relentless threatening of internet trolls, we’ve had a parade of examples (mostly from white men) show us what it looks like to try to keep the upper hand, power-wise. Similarly, those who haven’t had access to direct power have resorted to what’s left (beyond submission): resistance. It’s all classic hierarchy, what our species has done since we’ve populated the planet. “Power Up” people dominate and control those who are “Power Down,” who collapse their energy in order to submit, while making their own attempts at control through what’s left: the indirect strategies of manipulation and resistance.
It’s time for this antiquated way of being to be put into its place.
Hierarchy works brilliantly in very specific circumstances, all generated by Reactive Brain, which is constantly scanning for potential threat. Hierarchy creates social order, and it is efficient when quick or urgent action is required. We all know how to dominate, whether as the cop that issues the ticket, the teacher lining his students up, the parent buckling the child into the car seat, or the driver honking her horn. Similarly we’ve trained our bodies to submit, mutely accepting the ticket, willingly standing in line, sitting quietly in the back, or slowing down into the right lane.
This smooth shifting of our physiological gears is particularly useful when quick, efficient action is required. I watched a family board the train at DIA and marveled at how the father took charge of his clan of five: “You stand there, you sit over there, take his hand. Hold on!” He dominated, they submitted. When the floods happened in Boulder a few years back, hearing the voice of the Emergency Response System boom through town felt reassuring. I felt no resistance to the directly controlling instructions in that chaotic situation. I was happy to have my physiology cooperate by freezing any internal aggression and simply submitting to authority.
As our Reactive Brains are always scanning for threat, once we are triggered they’ll give us an onslaught of false positives. Over and over our own reactivity sounds an alarm: WARNING! WARNING! Simple experiences like driving, having a conversation with a partner, opening a bill, or even standing in the slow line at the store can trigger that alarm–even if there’s no actual threat. And once we’re alarmed, our threat brains instinctively and immediately move into Power Up or Power Down. We’re ready to control or to be controlled.
Millenia of culture-building has created general order. As a result, most of life isn’t about emergencies, or even urgency. But you wouldn’t know that from our charged political climate, or how we’re talking to each other through social media and the media at large.
The latest political action turns into BREAKING NEWS! which results in excited, mobilized tirades against the threat with some call to action. As there’s typically very little effective action available, inevitably there’s exhaustion and immobilization. This echo chamber of escalation originates in our threat response, and can easily take on a life of its own, appearing to be reality, versus what it really is: Our common response to a threat that never seems to stop.
What dominating Alphas don’t know yet (which, as I said, really is every one of us at some point) is that a whole different space exists beyond threat and its intimate companion, hierarchy. It’s like the blue sky that’s always there, and so much bigger, behind the clouds. This is Creative Brain, the land of Power With.
We’ve all know what Creative Brain feels like. It’s the part of us that’s immediately available when we calm down. Our vision opens, our muscles relax, and we can breathe deeply again. It’s our natural state. We thrive when we’re in Creative Brain. We’re serene, connected with others, open to collaboration and innovation. Creative Brain supports a completely different way of being, where no one is up or down, no one dominates or submits. Each person can show up from essence and offer their genius. Rather than a lead/follow dance, Creative Brain lends itself to Flow, where people are in their bodies enough to feel the life as an invitation, not something to resist. One person’s expression can become the next person’s new discovery, leading to a brand-new chain of possibility.
When I look at people whose lives seem to be mostly about dominating others, I notice what’s missing: Relaxation. Health. Joy. They’ve traded their own happiness for some transient sense of control, something that requires increasing levels of firepower (emotional or actual) to keep in place. Being Power Up means having to constantly monitor those who are Power Down for the inevitable rebellion that comes from squelching one’s personhood. In other words, being an Alpha is overrated. And it’s on its way out.