Image Credit: Vlad Tchompalov

On a December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to be relegated to the back of a Montgomery Alabama bus because of her race. This brave act of peaceful defiance, along with the actions of other black activists, would help ignite the national Civil Rights Movement. History has shown that small sparks of resistance to injustice among individuals have the power to change society in a big way. But how can these movements progress even faster and further in today’s world? What is it that makes some sparks of social justice catch fire and others just simmer?

In his recent article “Humans, Hierarchy, And Human Rights,” Harold McDougall, professor of law at Howard University, takes a multidisciplinary approach to examining social justice movements. Pulling from research in ecology, economics, geography, biology, anthropology, history, and law, he analyzes why some social justice movements gain more momentum than others and what’s needed for movements to permeate society and engender lasting change. McDougall argues that in order to have wider impacts social justice movements require a combination of top-down and bottom-up forces. The development of formalized social justice organizations is needed to promulgate causes and, at the same time, small group efforts are needed to kindle the fire of social justice movements by building empathy within communities.

In the interview below, McDougall discusses the findings of his paper and steps he believes can be taken to spur localized group involvement within larger social movements.

Q&A with Harold McDougall

What made you decide to write an article on human rights and social justice from a multidisciplinary perspective and how did you approach it?

HM: I first began thinking about looking at human behavior from a multidisciplinary perspective when I read The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and social theorist. Rifkin showed that human empathy is biological rather than cultural, and I found that really fascinating, because empathy is at the heart of every movement for social justice. Rifkin felt that such empathy could be stretched to include the whole world’s population, but the interim steps he suggested - organized religion, nationality - seemed to fall very far short of that. To the contrary, those steps have often led to exclusion, even violence instead.

Once I started asking questions about this, other pieces started to fall into place; they came from ecology, economics, geography, biology, anthropology, and history. Law, specifically the “human rights project,” turns out to be a facilitator and manager of the human social, economic, and political currents these other disciplines identify.

It was natural to submit the resulting article to the National Lawyers Guild Review, the publication of the oldest racially integrated lawyer’s association in the country. It has a long and impressive track record of pursuing human rights and social justice.

Why are small groups more effective in engaging people in social movements than large organizations?

HM: Environmentalist and ecologist Paul Shepard’s work on our species, homo sapiens, was a great help with this. His “Pleistocene paradigm“ shows that our biological engineering (200,000 years old) has not had time to catch up to our “civilized” lifestyles (15,000 years old at best). Through Shepard, I started looking at “fire circles,” the original form of human grouping, about two dozen people at the most, gathered around a fire.

That’s the scale at which the biologically-engineered empathy Rifkin discussed resides; it doesn’t dwell securely in larger gatherings. It’s that empathy that draws us to social justice, and connects us to others of like mind. But if the group gets larger, the connections weaken.

Why, despite their effectiveness, do small social justice groups alone rarely prevail? Can you give an example?

HM: The first thing to realize is that civilization itself is based on large groupings, in which our biologically-engineered empathy is directed to serve the interests of elites; suppressing its natural flow, pointing it to the elites and away from the “others” the elites use as scapegoats. Anthropologist Jared Diamond calls such larger groupings “kleptocracies,” because through this scam, elites siphon value from their subordinates. It’s important to remember, though, that this is actually very recent in human genetic and evolutionary terms.

Marilyn French, a feminist and English professor, showed that these arrangements begin with patriarchy, with the subordination of women; the first of a long line of human beings “othered” in the service of elite control. We still naturally cohere in small groups, but the larger groupings demand more and more of our attention. When smaller groups seek to resist the demands of a larger one they become an annoyance, then a threat, and the larger group responds accordingly.

But there’s another reason small groups rarely prevail. It has to do with “imagined realities.”

Can you explain the concept of imagined realities as it applies to human rights movements? What are the benefits and limitations?

HM: Historian Yuval Harari had a best-seller in 2016, Sapiens, a book about the larger groupings I was studying. These larger groupings are governed by what he calls imagined realities, intersubjective belief systems that emerged with the Agricultural Revolution of 15,000 years ago.

Now “civilization” begins, and we leave hunting and gathering in small bands, the fire circles scaled to our natural empathy. The imagined realities erected as a substitute changed the basis for human cooperation and interaction, from what humans knew of their environment and their kinship mates to what they believed, and what they were told.

Imagined realities are a set of beliefs, discourses, institutions and practices that explain and support the social order and cause it to cohere, providing human beings with an intersubjective understanding of their objective conditions of existence. The imagined reality tells its subjects what exists, what is good, and what is possible.

The function of an imagined reality is to orient individuals and classes to the social structures of society so that they can act in “appropriate” ways. Such an orientation allows the subjects of the imagined reality to be managed, from a distance, by leaders, elites, in a hierarchical arrangement. As Harari notes, all the way to the present, these imagined realities have enabled us to cooperate on the large scale that “civilization” requires.

The problem is that all these imagined realities turn out to be “kleptocracies,” to use Diamond’s term. We are trained to admire those “above us” and shun those “beneath” us in the hierarchy, and that keeps resources flowing up the food chain. Harari celebrates how much humanity has benefited from these systems in terms of scientific and material progress, but doesn’t seem sufficiently concerned about the human costs involved—war, slavery, and colonialism, for starters.

Ironically, social justice-seeking small groups typically fail because their initiators think they can take ideas birthed in a small, empathic circle and transmit them to the rest of the world through an imagined reality. The results are predictable.

The revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba, to give well-known examples, all started out with small “vanguard” groups that soon transmuted into hierarchical, imagined realities. Even where small groups were incorporated into the larger structure, they were subordinated to a small leadership group at the top.

How have we lost sight of “natural values” in the transition from small groups to larger hierarchical social structures?

HM: Looking at a list of these from ecologist Sabine O’Hara, we can see that our sense of place, of our environment and ecological setting, our connection with the natural world, has been almost obliterated. This is especially true for urban dwellers, and that’s more and more of humankind. Context? The community that gives our life meaning? Almost gone. Instead, we’re members of what political economist Benjamin Barber called “consumer tribes.” Participation, who’s with us, who isn’t? Smothered in “imagined realities” of race, nation, religion, even political party. Limits? How much of the world’s resources are “ours” for the taking, in light of the rights and needs of other humans, much less succeeding generations? Many of us don’t even think about this anymore.

In the article, you give examples of how vernacularization can bring back small group connections within large hierarchies. Can you explain this concept?

HM: I get this from Sally Engle Merry, an anthropology professor at NYU. She describes “vernacularization” as a process by which local groups modify, revise, and adapt cosmopolitan human rights concepts and vocabulary for use in local settings. This is particularly significant in former colonies and among subordinated peoples.

Interestingly, the dialogue is two-way. As local actors adapt human rights tools and language to fit and work in local culture, they also change the larger, cosmopolitan discourse, unearthing some of the natural values we discussed earlier, which have survived in more traditional contexts. The natural tendency to work in small groups surfaces in these contexts as well. Perhaps these fundamental values can work their way back into the large groupings we now inhabit, making us less and less satisfied with the distorted and misdirected empathy we now experience, causing us to reach out and build real connection, at a real human scale.

Can you explain your suggested approach for strengthening human values within large organizations to propel human rights and social justice movements?

HM: I’m suggesting we create small groups within large organizations to “empathize” them, using endangered human values to leaven such large organizations from the inside. At the same time, I’m suggesting we link up small groups in parallel structures on the outside, holding larger organizations accountable where necessary.

The trick is to arrange small groups into a pattern that enables them to consider and deal with human problems at the required scale without employing an imagined reality or hierarchy. Participating in smaller groupings can strengthen our empathic connections within the “fire circle,” but these connections can also be relayed to a larger assembly through delegates who are selected through a series of concentric, linked fire circle meetings. (I’ve talked about this in the Huffington Post and a number of law review articles as well, under the rubric of “civic infrastructure.”) Ideas and approaches flow from the small groups through these linkages to an assembly that is accountable to the small groups, not the other way around.

I want to emphasize that these assemblies would not seek to replace the existing political process. Instead, they would surface and nurture natural values as well as “vernacularize” human rights through intra-assembly dialogue at the “fire circle” level. This would enable assembly members to engage in and with more traditional, large-scale political and economic groupings in a principled fashion, “empathizing” such groupings. At the same time, the combined social, political, and economic power of assembly members could be brought to bear on such groupings to hold them accountable.

To give one example, we could build concentric circles of small groups, linked to one another by delegates, to create “Citizen’s Assemblies” within the boundaries of current political districts. This was one of Thomas Jefferson’s proposals, borrowed from First Americans - the Iroquois, I believe. Calling these linked groupings “ward republics,” he suggested we use them to select our Members of Congress, an idea the “Founding Fathers” rejected. But today we could use ward republics to hold elected officials accountable between elections, as they govern. That’s something only big shots can do under the current system.