Why do some people seem obsessed with having power over others? What are the roots of this need to control people, which seem to prevent the development of empathy and compassion? How did we get to be like this?
Babies aren’t naturally domineering, though control of others can be observed in children as young as two. Such behavior appears to be learned through experience. It seems that being dominated can teach one to dominate.
Empathy, on the other hand, appears to be an inborn trait. When an infant hears another crying, she will join in. Infants mimic the emotional expressions they observe. In fact, empathic learning appears to be the way we learn to become domineering. Ironically, to become a more effective dominator, one must shut down the natural impulse toward empathy.
This is the core of military training, which begins in our culture long before induction. Inferior beings are thrown into the category of “others, those who do not feel as I do.” It is pointless to empathize with the insects we squash, the animals we kill for dinner, or the people we oppress.
Thus, troops learn to kill Japs, or Gooks, or Ragheads, without concern for their feelings. Others of all ages and either gender are fair game. It is their fault for getting in the way of our superior society. For militaristic men, expression of dominance can supplant natural sexual urges. Thus rape, pillage, and plunder of the weak by the strong become the rules of engagement. Officers frequently rape underlings.
For too many people, dominance is just the way life is. If you don’t want to suffer more, you submit to your share of humiliation. The only way to rise above it appears to be becoming dominant yourself. Thus the boss shames the worker, who beats his wife, who disciplines the child, who kicks the dog, who gets shot for biting the boss.
Outside the military and prisons, overt domination is socially unacceptable. Civilized people are not expected to behave this way in public. Yet subtle forms of dominance pervade our society, from the hierarchical corporate organization chart to the practices of prostitutes. Expressing dominance is a cheap stimulant in which we all engage at some time.
The thrill of dominance is undermined by our natural tendency toward empathy. Soldiers and jailers suffer from the realization that they have been hurting other people. PTSD and high suicide rates are found amongst those who practice routine violence, even under the umbrella of state sanction. To shut down this natural empathy is to become a sociopath.
Many people play the line between dominance and submission, experiencing both roles. Sometimes partners engage in the interplay of role reversal, developing empathy by walking in the other’s shoes. Many search for empathic proof that voluntary servitude is not painful, but joyous.
The alternative to the world of dominance and submission is the egalitarian ideal, where the autonomy of every individual is respected. Service is always voluntary. As Marshall Rosenberg teaches “I don’t want you to do anything for me unless it brings you joy.” Enlightened people in all cultures devote themselves to service.
Gandhi & Dr. King modeled for us the power of compassion over dominance. By voluntarily choosing to submit to a jail cell while respectfully denying the authority they protested, each of these gentle men asserted their autonomy to the shame of those who relied upon violence to maintain dominance.
The big challenge is to teach by example the higher road of compassion. Rather than dominating our children, we can respectfully encourage them to find pleasure from voluntary service. We can devote ourselves to those who need to heal from the crude dominance that is too common in our world. Both victims and perpetrators need compassion, forgiveness and redirection toward a healthy, natural way of being.