“Dominator” vs. “Partnership” Cultures: A Profound Re-Telling of Human History

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From Jordan Bates: “Riane Eisler, a world-renowned Austrian-born American systems scientist, writer, and social activist, has proposed that we ought to understand human cultures and societies in terms of two fundamental categories: ‘dominator’ and ‘partnership.’ In her landmark work, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, our Future, she suggests that our conventional social categories—religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. communist, Eastern vs. Western, and industrial vs. pre- or post-industrial, etc.—are insufficient to describe the whole of a society’s values, beliefs, and institutions.

Eisler argues that these categories overlook the fact that, historically, many societies in all of the aforementioned categories have been unequal and violent, whereas some societies—the majority of which existed millennia ago—have been much more equalitarian and peaceful. Eisler points out that we lack a frame of analysis that encompasses the differences between these latter societies/cultures and the vast majority of societies/cultures that are prevalent today. Thus Eisler turns to the historical and archaeological record to argue that throughout human history, sociocultural systems have existed on a continuum between the extremes of ‘dominator’ and ‘partnership’ systems. A couple of passages from her website seem a worthy starting point for understanding the definitions and profound implications of these categories:

In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

I’m guessing that you, like me, see your own society reflected in the description of the dominator system. Most societies existing today are paternalistic, disciplinarian, materialistic, and hierarchy-based. Judgment from peers, guilt over one’s actions, the threat of force, and fear of alienation or punishment are among the primary dictators of most people’s behavior. Groups of people are labeled, marginalized, and discriminated against based on surface-level characteristics.

Many people tend to believe that these sociocultural norms are simply an expression of ‘human nature’ or just ‘how life is.’ Eisler is offering an astonishing and radically different narrative. She’s turned to history, archaeology, anthropology, mythology, and other fields to conduct cross-cultural comparisons and argues convincingly that for the majority of the last ~37,000 years, humans lived primarily in partnership societies, in a global partnership culture—a state of affairs nearly unimaginable today.”

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