Humans, Hierarchy, and Human Rights

Harold McDougall

Harold McDougall is a professor of law at Howard University, Washington, DC. He says, “I wish to thank my research assistants, Ahmad Ahmadzai, Tiffany Dayemo, Alexandria Randall and Jonathan McDougall for their research and writing contributions to this article. (Santia McLaren, Brooke Oki, Monique Peterkin and Tabias Wilson worked on an earlier version.) Thanks also to Dean Danielle Holley-Walker of the Howard University School of Law for research funding. Of course, all the mistakes are mine.”


I. Hierarchy: A stubborn problem

My experiences in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and with vari­ous social and intellectual movements in the African Diaspora in the years that followed, acquainted me with the energy and camaraderie of intimate, small groups of people critiquing and challenging an established, oppres­sive social order. As one after another of these movements dissipated, were co-opted or destroyed, I began to wonder what was going wrong, not only because I sensed there was much more work to be done, but because I missed the energy and camaraderie of the groups themselves.

My first inquiries in this area led me to write Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community,1 which began as a work of intellectual exploration and became a piece of cultural anthropology. I became immersed in the study of small groups struggling for survival, meaning, and joy in the hard-hit urban neighborhoods of Baltimore’s West Side. It was only then that I realized that it was the small groups themselves that had the answers I was looking for.

These small groups turn out to be the best way to engage people in social movements, because they become part of social life, and can thus be sustained. Moreover, they keep ownership of the movement from migrating to an elite group that disengages the rest, creating a top-down, hierarchical structure that gives orders, but not connection or community.

But they rarely prevail. According to Marilyn French, author of From Eve to Dawn, a History of Women in the World, “working] on [a] small scale. . . all new burgeoning belief systems. . . Christianity, Islam. . . socialism. . . began with small ‘cells. . . ,’”2 [but soon developed top-down, hierarchical structures.] Our failure to create a humane, just, or egalitarian society is a result of our almost universal faith in domination, government from above.”3

II. Hierarchy: Origins and development

A. The transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture

Homo sapiens is genetically engineered to empathize only with small groups of other humans, no larger than approximately twenty persons. However, as Jared Diamond points out, the transition from hunting and gathering to “food production” during the Agricultural Revolution re­quired the managing of the large groups of people who participated in the process.4

Paul Shepard, in Coming Home to the Pleistocene, shows that our own species, homo sapiens, has lived in small groups—nomadic, hunting and gathering—since our emergence 200,000 years ago.5 It was only 15,000 years ago that things began to change. As agriculture developed and humans began a sedentary lifestyle based on the domestication of plants and animals rather than roaming6 and foraging,7 groupings got larger.

We are born with empathic soft-wiring—“mirror neurons” that cause us to experience the plight of our fellow humans as our own, and even to em­pathize with plants and animals.8 These mirror neurons encourage a natural solidarity and cooperativeness among us that is the central aspiration of most of the world’s religions,9 and orients us to preserve our environment as well as to respect one another.

However, we were not designed to empathize with groups of humans any larger than the hunting and gathering band, about twenty people, and only the plants and animals we directly encounter. Jeremy Rifkin believes our brains have changed in the last 15,000 years, via evolution, to permit us to empathize with more and more people. Thus, we can “cohere in larger social units,”10 first religions, “then the nation state, then even larger entities.”11

But Shepard would point out that 15,000 years is not enough time for such a significant evolutionary change to take place.12 Instead, Yuval Harari shows that “imagined realities” 13 were invented to knit large groupings together and manage them. An imagined reality creates the illusion that we are connected to a larger group, creating a kind of “virtual” empathic connection which has an intersubjective rather than a biological underpinning.

B. The emergence of “imagined realities”

An actual genetic mutation, occurring 70,000 years ago (not 15,000), changed the inner wiring of the homo sapiens brain to allow us to use lan­guage in a special way. We were enabled not only to communicate what was immediately before us, but also to gossip about others, and soon, transmit information collectively about things that we imagined. This spurred a “Cognitive Revolution,” by which human behavior could change without “natural” mutations stemming from changes in our genetic makeup or our surrounding environment.14 This developmental change is sometimes called the “Tree of Knowledge” mutation.15

Over the next 50,000 years, we developed tribes, our first imagined reality. Tribes were agglomerations of several families and bands bound together by gossip, connecting about one hundred fifty people. Tribal leaders were those with useful skills. Eventually, larger and more centralized chiefdoms emerged, in which leadership was hereditary. Finally, at the transition to sedentary agriculture 15,000 years ago (called the Agricultural Revolution) we developed bureaucratic states. Along the way, we created legends, myths, gods, and eventually religions, imagined realities that gave these larger so­cial units coherence, binding people in them together with virtual empathic connections.16

These imagined realities changed the basis for human cooperation and interaction, from what they knew of their environment and their kinship mates to what they believed, and what they were told. An imagined reality coalesces as a set of beliefs, discourses, institutions and practices that explain and support the social order17 and cause it to cohere, providing human be­ings with an inter-subjective understanding of their objective conditions of existence. The imagined reality tells its subjects what exists, what is good, and what is possible.18

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.19 Such an orientation allows the subjects of the imagined reality to be managed, from a distance, by leaders, elites, in a hierarchical arrangement.

C. Hierarchy in imagined realities

Hierarchy is introduced as various social relations, social institutions and social practices inform the subject that there is inherent inequality between groups; that the hegemony of the dominant group is right; and that equality between superior and inferior groupings is impossible. Thus, a hierarchical imagined reality works to “constitute” subjects at all levels of the hierarchy, to create personalities that think and act as they are directed.

These hierarchies are sustained by what Rifkin calls “utilitarian ideolo­gies.” Utilitarian ideologies are imagined realities that suppress the empathic impulses that would draw us back from the exploitation of nature and hu­manity necessary for “bigger and better.” To be successful, these ideologies must be ingrained deep in our family life and in all the social constructs in which we live and have our being.20 Elites use utilitarian ideologies to suppress and redirect the empathic im­pulses of their subjects, facilitating their subordination and control, enabling the elites to maintain the social order and their privileges within it. The sup­pression, distortion, and misdirection of our empathic instincts involved in imagined realities has fomented alienation, violence and aggression since the emergence of the first states and empires.21 The bullying, physical punishment, threats, incentives granted and withheld that humans developed in order to train and control animals, were now turned on other humans.22

D. “Othering” in hierarchical imagined realities

To foment solidarity among subjects, and teach them to submit to hierarchy, subordination and control, utilitarian ideologies depend upon an “other” with whom the subject does not empathize. According to Marilyn French, the first group “othered” were human females, who were subordinated to men in the new social order that developed along with sedentary agriculture.23 In this regard, original sin seems to have been committed by males, rather than females, reversing the Creation myth. Indeed, early religions emerging as the transition from hunter-gatherer to sedentary agriculture took place featured titanic struggles between masculine and feminine forces.24

The question of male subordination of females is a specialized area in lit­erature. None of the authors I relied upon had much to say about it. Diamond, Shepard,25 Harari and Rifkin, (referenced in notes 4, 5, and 8, respectively) all focus on the organization of production rather than the organization of reproduction. Only Engels was explicit about it, in The Origins of The Fam­ily, Private Property, and the State.26 Yet it is a central part of the story, one too extensive for more than cursory discussion here. For now, we will only sketch the analysis, giving the reader the tools to dig deeper.

Marilyn French’s study fills four volumes. Her first volume, Origins, tracks the transition from hunter-gatherer society to sedentary agriculture and the emergence of states, the period of primary interest to us here. According to French, hunter-gatherer society was matrilineal. Children were identified as descended from their mothers, paternity being rather difficult to establish.27 But as animal domestication commenced, and the link between coitus and childbirth came to be understood,28 men began to seek control of women’s re­productive processes just as they had learned to control that of their animals.29

Facing resistance from the women in the increasingly sedentary com­munities in which they lived, men began to raid settlements to capture their “own” women, placing them under surveillance and control to ensure that offspring produced were “theirs.”30 Removed from their own settlements, the women became slaves.31

Women and children came to be viewed as men’s property.32 Women were expected to show deference to men at every turn. Girls stayed with their mothers until they reached an age when they could be bartered off to men in other settlements, often in exchanges of female for female.

Boys were separated from their mothers at puberty and passed through rigorous and symbolic, and often cruel initiation rites designed to disrupt their empathy towards women and cement them into the male fraternity.33 Boys were taught to reject “female” qualities of softness, love, nurturing and compassion, 34 and adopt “male” virtues of “hardness, self-denial, obedience, and deference to ‘superior’ males” instead.35

With the emergence of larger kingdoms and structured religions, women’s subordination became more expansive and complex.36 The first laws estab­lishing female subordination appeared in the state of Sumer.37 Within most early states women were forbidden to act independently,38 restricted in their movements, often denied education, and forbidden to abort pregnancies.39 Female adultery was a capital offense.40

Even under these constraints, individual women learned to resist passively, securing some sanctuary from their subjection41 by “binding their male mas­ters, husbands, or owners with sexual affection.”42 Their children, whom their fathers needed to “own,” also provided the mothers with a source of status, strength, and leverage. But even those upper-status women who occasionally engaged in combat, led battles, or rose to rule never challenged the patriarchy itself, seeking instead to succeed within it.43

These early patriarchal structures gave all men power over women of their class and rank.44 It is very important to note, however, that these structures also gave an elite class of men power over everyone. French links the rise of the state to men’s jockeying for position seeking permanent “alpha” male status within the imagined reality of the male fraternity.45 States and empires became grounded in the idea that some men were inherently superior to others, “ac­cording to divine will,”46 and were therefore “entitled to more status, resources, and power than others.”47 These betters have the authority to direct others, suppress dissent, make war, and even take the lives of their own subjects.48

As French states,

The assertion of female inferiority prepares the ground for men’s subordina­tion, because the principle of superiority ramifies endlessly. . . . If men can be superior to women, some men can be superior to other men. . . . Male superiority is the psychological core of patriarchy but its political and economic purpose is the subordination of other men.49

Further, “[c]ontrol over a woman is the only form of dominance most men pos­sess,” their reward for their obedience and subordination to more powerful men.50

E. A legacy of hierarchy, subordination and violence

Believing in imagined realties has allowed us to cooperate in larger numbers than we could before. But the larger the group, the further empathy must be stretched, the more virtual it becomes, and the more selective. We empathize with those inside the group, but our empathy with those outside it must be suppressed if the project is to succeed. Rifkin observes as an aside, that when empathy is suppressed, narcissistic and violent tendencies emerge. Even our empathy for those in our group can lose its balance.

Further, every subordination in a hierarchy involves a ranking of the sub­ordinators as well as of those subordinated. Just as patriarchy also ranks men within the patriarchy, subordinating some to others in a “pecking” order, so also with later subordinations using categories of race, class, and religion. Indeed, the whole point of subordination of a “scapegoat” caste, an “other,” is to allow leaders to subordinate and dominate their own followers.51

Patriarchal arrangements were the first of many that drained the empathy reservoirs of human beings. They were solidified and rendered more complex as social structures and hierarchies expanded.52 As states and empires grew more powerful, “othering” grew more extensive, managing the primary group’s relations with an ever-widening array of new subjects.53

With such extensive internal subordination and social control, a group’s leaders can easily appropriate the wealth and power of the entire group to their own ends, a theft ingrained in all hierarchical societies, making them “kleptocracies” in the words of anthropologist Jared Diamond.54 In these emerging societies, the higher-ups used their positions to enhance their own quality of life, typically at the expense of those lower down the food chain.55 We will see those “kleptocratic” tendencies repeated and amplified throughout human history.

Subordination of one human being by or to another continues to stain human society, and, until they are discredited, power cliques will always emerge, insisting that some people are better than others. 56 Such false claims are regularly challenged but countered with propaganda aimed at convincing subjects that these lies are the “real” truth.57 This propaganda is resisted in turn, in a never-ending cycle, eroding empathic connections even further.

III. Looking for a way out

Hierarchies are inherently unstable because members must rely on the tolerance of those above, and the obedience of those below.58 From top to bottom, hierarchies are riven by “discontent, subversion and rebellion” from below and by fear and paranoia from above. Elites consolidate their positions with “propaganda, bribery and force,” and subvert rebellions with “massacre, dispersal, or co-optation.”59 But resistance renews. There have been revolts and uprisings by women, slaves, serfs,60 nobles, industrial workers, colonial elites and later by minority groups and colonized peoples. These have usually failed, at best wresting some concessions, at worst replicating or even reinforcing the existing kleptocratic order.

I believe there is a central, human, anthropological reason for this. We are still engineered to operate in small groups. To challenge a larger, established order, insurgents have always attempted to create another imagined reality to replace the one of which they complain, or more modestly, to tweak the one in place.61 They begin the project in a small group, or cell, where they experi­ence camaraderie, energy, and solidarity. But when they try to expand their numbers using an imagined reality, even a modified one, they can only sustain themselves by using a top-down, command and control, hierarchical approach.

A. “Reform” from the middle

Upheaval from the lower elites of the social order has aimed to increase their power within the existing imagined reality. Where successful they hyper-exploit those below them in the social order. Feudal nobles won rights against their king,62 but continued to exploit those below them. Colonial elites in North and South America won economic as well as political independence, but enslaved and exploited those below them as well.63 “Third world” colo­nial elites won political, but not economic, independence and in some cases aided, abetted, and profited from continued exploitation of their own people by former colonizers.64

B. Resistance and rebellion from below.

Resistance and rebellion from the lower classes of the social order has aimed to replace the imagined reality with a new one, either failing to do so or creating a new social order that is as exploitative as the one replaced. Slaves were emancipated, but not compensated for their stolen labor. Freed serfs became landless peasants.65 Industrial workers gained the right to unionize, but not to own the means of production. “Utopian” socialists called for “off the grid” co-ops owned and operated by workers themselves,66 but elite and government backlash against unionization and utopian socialism splintered these movements.67 Women gained the right to vote, but remained subordi­nated in the economy and at home.

Slave and peasant rebellions and uprisings were typically led by a single charismatic leader or a small vanguard group.68 To gain recruits in the larger population, these leaders created their own fictions, their own imagined realities,69 which were ultimately crushed by the established order70 or at best (or worst?) simply replaced it, replete with pre-existing kleptocratic tendencies.71 A similar fate befell later movements, such as worker’s upris­ings, and movements for minority rights, women’s rights, and anti-colonial national liberation.

The French Revolution was the first struggle against a sitting government that was not engineered by the upper classes.72 Instead, ordinary people began to believe they had the right to control their own lives and voice their concerns in society at large.73 The Haitian Revolution, fomented by slaves, began immediately after.74 The floodgates then opened, and the next 150 years saw many attempts to effect radical change—utopian communities, political parties seeking structural social change, and uprisings and rebel­lions the world over.75

Even these ultimately failed, were co-opted or destroyed. The cause of their failure? Ironically, like most previous efforts at resistance to the structural subordination and oppression of “civilization,” they were centered in small groups that didn’t know how to grow larger without sacrificing the intimacy upon which they were based.

C. The human rights project

The historic struggle for human rights (the “human rights project”) has sur­faced many common human values that are arguably based in the Pleistocene era, “hunter-gatherer” values that I discuss in section C2, below. (Dr. Sabine O’Hara lists these as place, context, participation, limits, and temporality.76) Using these values, it has attempted to respond to some of the concerns of the lower classes, but has done so employing bourgeois discourse. As a re­sult, though some concessions have been made, they are very fragile, partly because the human rights project is beholden to bourgeois institutions. Let’s see how this works.

  1. The human rights project emanates from “natural law.”

The Romans believed there was a “natural” law (ius natural), certain prin­ciples recognized by all peoples regardless of their own unique customs (ius gentium) or their own laws (ius civile). Christian theorists of the Middle Ages later embellished these notions with canon law.77 These two projects together, issuing from and designed for the top of the social hierarchy, intersect with the bottom-up resistance and uprisings I described earlier, building a “human rights” discourse based, first of all, in natural law.

  1. Natural law and hunter-gatherer values

In her article “Valuing Socio-diversity,” Sabine O’Hara describes a value matrix common to all cultures, emerging from everyday human existence in a recognizable, though volatile, environment, full of surprises.78 I believe this matrix emanates from the hunter-gatherer past that all humans share.

Our sense of place grounds us and makes us aware of the unique ecological balance of the particular location we occupy.79 The sense of context identifies the community in which our life functions are carried on, the matrix that provides our primary support and point of reference.80 (Today, that means giving our allegiance to that community rather than to “imaginary” institu­tions created by kleptocrats.)

Our sense of participation reminds us that each member of the community should be included in both common efforts and common benefits.81 A sense of limits gives human beings an appreciation of the world’s finiteness.82 (Today, it can enable us to challenge the idea that more is better, and to resist the ever-increasing consumption which neoliberal consumerism presses upon us.83)

Finally, linked to limits, is the sense of temporality, our sense of time.84 At our empathic human core time is an experience to be cherished rather than a commodity to be rationed, regulated, bought or sold. We take our time to observe, learn, reflect, and bond with others.

  1. Losing our way

As we transitioned from small groups that were egalitarian and roughly democratic, to larger, hierarchical, exploitative social structures that eventu­ally became states and empires, we lost sight of many of these natural values.85 Diamond calls these new social forms “kleptocracies.”86 This transition is probably the most important change in human history and in human exis­tence thus far.87

Farmers carved their croplands from the surrounding wilds, penned up their animals, and expended large amounts of energy to keep nature at bay from both.88 In the process, humans developed stronger attachments to their homes and farms than to their neighbors. Violence increased as people felt a need to defend their lands, permanent villages and granaries to the death instead of simply moving on to new territory when faced with intrusions, as had their hunter-gather ancestors. This period thus marks the beginning of war.89 Humans cast off what was left of their symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.90

Human evolution, our biological engineering, our DNA, has still not had time to catch up to this new lifestyle, or even to the diet.91 This has implica­tions not only for our physical and mental health, but also for how we treat one another. Shepard focused on the daily damage done to our muscles, bones, and digestive tracts from our departure from hunting and gathering—the lack of exercise and consumption of processed food.92 But I am much more interested in the probable damage done to our social or cultural DNA,93 and our psyches, from trying to operate in large, hierarchical social structures.

  1. Can the human rights project revive natural values?

Two years after his “Four Freedoms” State of the Union address in 194194 (considered the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), Franklin Roosevelt drafted a Bill of Socio-Economic Rights.95 While the Four Freedoms included a “freedom from want,” guaranteeing a healthy peacetime life for all humans, the Socio-Economic Rights draft was more specific. It is interesting to compare these with the value system Sabine O’Hara unearthed.

Most of the rights Roosevelt advanced were connected to the value of participation, revealing this as the human value most compromised by the top-down, kleptocratic social structures Jared Diamond identified. Roosevelt’s list includes96 a right to “the necessities and amenities of life in exchange for work, ideas, thrift and other socially valuable services”; to “adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care;” to “freedom from fear of old age, want, dependency, sickness, unemployment and accident”; and the “right to educa­tion, for work, for citizenship and for personal growth and happiness.” One entry on the list speaks to temporality: “The right to rest, recreation and ad­venture, the opportunity to enjoy life and take part in advancing civilization.”

These generally belong to the “second generation” of human rights—so­cial, economic and cultural rights—and are focused on individual rights vis-à-vis the community. (The “first generation” of human rights—political and civil—focuses on individual rights vis-à-vis the government, and issues from the struggles of economic elites to move up the political food chain.)

The other values, which speak to community and ecology, have surfaced elsewhere. Context, whose empathic foundations have been stretched and distorted by the emergence of states, the growth of cities, the shocks of industrialization,97 and the illusions of global consumer culture, remains elusive, on the fringes. It will have to be rebuilt by small groups creating social capital off the grid, as discussed later.98 Place and limits are being grounded and developed in the movements for peace, environmental bal­ance, and sustainable development, the so-called “collective” human rights of the “third generation.”

However, the human rights project has been limited by its failure to look beyond the “imagined reality” strategies used by previous efforts to resist subordination and kleptocracy. It has succeeded only in generating law and custom-based concessions generally issued from the top. It has barely grazed the surface of the “natural” values O’Hara describes, and only barely shaken the existing hierarchical, kleptocratic order. Today, we live in a global, neoliberal empire99 that still manifests the hier­archy and stratification that has bedeviled us since our “fall from Paradise.” Consumerism dims our vision, encouraging us to imagine that millions of strangers belong to our consumer “tribe,” that we all have a common past and a common future.100 Mass media and advertising give us unreasonable expectations of what happiness is like, such as having a flawless body,101 in order to sell us these attributes at a price.102 At the same time, feckless consumption upends the value of shared human prosperity and destroys the ecology we occupy with the world’s other inhabitants.

The consequent decline in family and community has greatly impacted human happiness.103 Improvements in material conditions over the last two centuries that accompanied, and in many instances caused this decline104 have not truly absorbed the shock.105 We have lost sight of a grounding principle our ancestors understood: that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments, but rather being able to see one’s life as meaningful and worthwhile.106 Even though we have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities and established empires, time and again, massive increases in human power have not uniformly improved individual well-being. At the same time, our ceaseless quest for more comfort and amusement, never satisfied,107 continues to wreak havoc on our planetary cohabitants and the environment in which we all must live.108

Progressive forces today face a worldwide counterrevolutionary movement. A right-wing party controls all three branches of government in the United States. Capitalism in China and Russia, and fundamentalism in the Middle East, threaten human rights in those regions as well.109 Human Rights Watch, in its 2017 World Report, warning of the rise of populist leaders exploiting “rising public discontent over the status quo,” sees a grave danger to the future of democracy.

To succeed, the human rights project must nurture a set of social conditions conducive to the beliefs it seeks to engender. It must promote a set of customs and patterns of practice, as well as a network of organizations to reinforce those practices. There is not much time.

IV. A new approach

To “save our species and save our planet,” Rifkin says we must be able to extend our empathy to all life on the planet, human and otherwise. He thinks this can be done virtually, with global communications, but Malcom Gladwell questions whether empathy generated without human interaction is strong enough to do the trick.110 To take an example: the global empathic response to the earthquake in Haiti, which Rifkin describes, was generated by social media but implemented through institutions of our imagined reality—na­tions and NGOs—which all had their own agendas. The result? Very few of the resources generated found their way to the victims of the disaster.111 The people who actually came and worked on the ground, however, made a real difference.112

Modern social media-based movements have figured out how to gain ad­herents without replicating hierarchy or subordination, but they have lost the intimacy of face-to-face, “real-time” communication and relationship build­ing. Gladwell shows that social change cannot succeed without the intimate personal connection people need if they are to take risks for one another. Personal risk is necessary if the established order is to be challenged, but the personal connections enabling risk are even more important for the erection of a new, more just order in its place.113

Under these conditions, to what extent can the human rights project be successful in the face of the “imagined realities” that govern our lives today? What is the role of civil society in that process?114 True empathy and human rights are inextricably intertwined, entrenched in the advice to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself, a maxim found in all the world’s major religions and encapsulating many of the natural human values Sabine O’Hara identified.

B. The “vernacularization” project

Vernacularization is a strategy emanating from the women’s movement. It seeks to incorporate the principles of women’s human rights into common discourse at the community level, building such a familiarity with, and un­derstanding of women’s human rights that the corresponding norms become part of everyday speech.115 Thus, the vernacularization project seeks to make human rights discourse part of the language and folkways of the broad base of the population, enlisting them in the project and building power from below.

The “vernacular,” a Roman term meaning “native to a place,” refers not only to language, however, but to an entire way of life. I have described this elsewhere as the “cultural DNA” of a people or a community, their way of solving problems and the customs and artifacts they create along the way.116 The synthesis of human rights vernacularization and cultural DNA could be profound and game-changing, surfacing, strengthening and celebrating in­trinsic human values now caged behind walls of neoliberalism and hierarchy.

C. The Citizen’s Assembly: A vehicle for vernacularization

The re-emergence of “natural” human values can only occur if “natural” empathy revives as well. As opposed to the virtual empathy that characterizes imagined realities, natural empathy requires face-to-face contact. We need a face-to-face forum in which to practice and promote human rights at the vernacular level. The project’s impact could be greatly amplified if power was built using naturally sized human groupings

One of Thomas Jefferson’s black descendants shared an idea with me that Jefferson once proposed that could answer these needs.117 Jefferson’s idea, bor­rowed from Native Americans, was to aggregate small groups in concentric circles, bound together by dialogue, without utilizing bureaucracy, hierarchy or subordination. Ideas, direction, and accountability flow from the bottom up (or rather, from the outside in) rather than from the top down. Jefferson called these small groups “ward republics.”118 They were to select Members of Congress in a series of caucuses, and would continue to meet during the Member’s term, to give the Member instruction and hold him accountable.

An updated version of this idea would see local ward republics as an in­formal system, operating in the community, not seeking formal political or economic power but rather to create solidarity, self-help, and cooperative options. Examples of self-help, and cooperative approaches include home schooling, community mediation, cooperative child care and housekeeping, small energy and agricultural cooperatives.

These ward republics would be linked by democratic dialogue into larger associations, called Assemblies, which would still operate without hierarchy or kleptocracy. These larger bodies could promote and protect human rights in the larger community without the need for top-down intervention of any kind. Ward republics are thus the likeliest venue for the “vernacularization” of human rights, grounded in democratic dialogue at the grass-roots level.

V. Next steps

Media and politicians must join to defend democracy, but Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth calls on ordinary citizens to step up, cautioning that rights by their nature are indivisible. “We should never underestimate the tendency of demagogues who sacrifice the rights of others in our name today to jettison our rights tomorrow when their real priority— retaining power—is in jeopardy,” he writes.119

“You may not like your neighbors,” he says, “but if you sacrifice their rights today, you weaken your own tomorrow, because ultimately rights are grounded on the reciprocal duty to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.” That advice is as old, and perhaps older, than civilization itself. A poster on view in the United Nations main lobby presents a picture of more than a dozen religions, including all the major ones, each articulating this same Golden Rule.120 But I do not believe the human rights movement can succeed as an imagined reality, even when expressed as simply as this, unless it is communicated and implemented through a structure that transcends hierarchy in execution as well as in conception. Instead, I believe human rights must be based in small groups of humans intimately connected with one another, such groups in turn linked to one another by personal contact, dialogue, and exchange.

This is the answer for which I have been searching most of my life, the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article. My journey through social movements and cultural anthropology brings me here. A People’s assembly, an “Assembly of Sapiens,”121 if you will, that could ag­gregate those small groups into something extraordinary.

Such an assembly could grow community, countering hierarchy and klep­tocracy. Such an assembly could not only renovate the basic human values that support and undergird the Golden Rule, but surpass it, as those values evoke empathy not just for our fellow human beings but for all the inhabit­ants of the natural world.



  1. Harold McDougall, Black Baltimore: ANew Theory of Community (Temple University Press, First Paperback ed., 1993).
  2. IVMarilynFrench, FromEve to Dawn, AHistory of Womeninthe World: Revolutions and the Struggles for Justice inthe 20thCentury 492 (2008) [here­inafter Revolutions].
  3. Id. at 346.
  4. Jared M. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of HumanSocieties 264-65 (W. W. Norton, 1997).
  5. Paul Shepard, ComingHome to the Pleistocene 155 (1998); see also Yuval NoahHarari, Sapiens: ABrief History of Humankind 8-9 (2011).
  6. Harari, supra note 5, at 51-52.
  7. Diamond, supra note 4, at 260.
  8. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness ina World inCrisis (2009). See, e.g., RSAnimate, Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization, YouTube (May 6, 2010), [hereinafter The Empathic Civilization].
  10. The Empathic Civilization, supra note 8.
  11. Id.
  12. Shepard, supra note 5, at 154-59.
  13. This term is Harari’s. See Harari, supra note 5, at 22-36.
  14. Id. at 37-39 (marking a significant difference between our evolution and that of all other species on the planet).
  15. Id. at 21-22; see also The Tree of Knowledge, Erenow, sapiensbriefhistory/7.html (last visited Feb. 16, 2018). 143
  16. See Arthur Munk, Major Ancient Revolutions, 53 Soc. Sci. 237, 237-42 (1977).
  17. Compare Paul Costello, Racism and Black Oppression in the United States: A Beginning Analysis, 24 Theoretical Review 11 (1981) (discussing the social construction of “ideology”).
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Harari, supra note 5, at 113-18.
  21. See id. at 102, 104, & 112-18; Diamond, supra note 4, at 52-53.
  22. Id. at 91-94.
  23. Friedrich Engels made this point as well. See FriedrichEngels, The Originof the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
  24. I MarilynFrench, FromEve to Dawn, AHistory of Womeninthe World: Origins: FromPrehistory to the First Millennium71 (2008) [hereinafter Origins].
  25. But see Shepard, supra note 5, at 96-97 (“From the beginning, men have always sus­pected that women knew something that they did not.”).
  26. Engels, supra note 23.
  27. Origins, supra note 24, at xi, 6. But see Harari, supra note 5, at 42-43.
  28. See Hilary Mantel, The War Against Women, The Guardian(Apr. 17, 2009, 7:01 PM),; Origins, supra note 24, at 24 (speculates the male role in procreation may have been discovered as much as 15–20,000 years ago, where the oldest cave paintings depict a connection between the male role in sex and consequent pregnancy appeared 7,000 years ago and also depict animals copulating in the spring and females pregnant in the summer).
  29. Origins, supra note 24, at 19-20.
  30. Id. at 10.
  31. Id.
  32. Id. at xi.
  33. Id. at 11; see also id. at 54-55 (for the suggestion that male fraternity may have evolved from the primarily male hunt for big game).
  34. Origins, supra note 24, at 56.
  35. Id. at 56.
  36. Id. at xii.
  37. Id. at 181 (these laws outlawed adultery as committed by women and legalized prostitu­tion, almost simultaneously, at once restricting women’s sexuality and also commercial­izing it).
  38. See generally Origins, supra note 24, at 67-189.
  39. Id. at 182-83.
  40. Id. at 10.
  41. See id. at 184.
  42. Id. at 115.
  43. See generally Origins, supra note 24, at 67-189.
  44. Id. at 66, 114.
  45. Id. at 65-66.
  46. Id. at 177; Diamond, supra note 4, at 267. See also David B. Grusky, Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender inSociological Perspective 9 (2001).
  1. Origins, supra note 24, at 177-78.
  2. Id. at 178.
  3. Id. at 179 (emphasis added).
  4. II MarilynFrench, FromEve to Dawn, AHistory of Womeninthe World: The Masculine Mystique: FromFeudalismto the FrenchRevolution4 [hereinafter Mystique].
  5. Diamond, supra note 4, at 266.
  6. Origins, supra note 24, at 180-88.
  7. Diamond, supra note 4, at 270.
  8. Id. at 265.
  9. Id.
  10. See Mystique, supra note 50; Diamond, supra note 4, at 49.
  11. Origins, supra note 24, at 178.
  12. Id. at 188; Diamond, supra note 4, at 265.
  13. Origins, supra note 24, at 186.
  14. Alastair Dunn, The Great Risingof 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution22-23 (2002).
  15. Harari, supra note 5, at 116-18.
  16. Danny Danziger & JohnGillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta 256-58 (2004); SeanMcGlynn, Blood Cries Afar: The ForgottenInvasionof England 1216 137 (2013).

63 Compare III MarilynFrench, FromEve to Dawn, AHistory of Womeninthe World: Infernos and Paradises: The Triumphof Capitalisminthe 19thCentury 110 (2008) [hereinafter Infernos] (“The American ruling class declared the revolution complete, ignoring the nation’s vast inequities, privilege, poverty, and conspicuous injustice.”); see also Revolutions, supra note 2, at 151, 191.

  1. See Revolutions, supra note 2, at 346-47.
  2. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society: The Growthof the Ties of Dependence (1989).
  3. See Infernos, supra note 63, at 93 (“Such workshops were established in Paris during the 1848 Revolution.” Id.).
  4. Id. at 107-09.
  5. See Appian, Civil Wars, book 1, pg. 116; Florus, Epitome, book 2, chp. 8; Abraham Bishop, “The Rights of Black Men” and the American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution, 67 J. of Negro History 148 (1982); see also Revolutions, supra note 2, at 156 ff, (discussing Toussaint L’Ouverture); JonathanSumption, The Hundred Years War III: Divided Houses 491 (2009) (An account of Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion in England).
  6. See, e.g., Rosamond Faith, The ‘Great Rumour’ of 1377 and Peasant Ideology, in The EnglishRisingof 1381 43-73 (R.H. Hilton & T.H. Aston eds. 1987) (discussing Wat Tyler’s peasant uprising).

70 Appian, Civil Wars, book 1, pg. 120, available at Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/1*.html#120 (After the death of Spartacus and the defeat of his armies by Crassus, 6,000 captured slaves were crucified along the route from Rome to Capua.).

  1. See Infernos, supra note 63, at 310 (Before groups can revolt, “they must forge self-consciousness.”).
  2. Mystique, supra note 50, at 402. 145
  3. Id.
  4. For connections between the French and Haitian Revolutions, see Laurent Dubois, Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World: Connections Between the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, The Gilder LehrmanInstitute of AmericanHistory, http:// (last visited Feb. 17, 2018).
  5. Mystique, supra note 51, at 402.
  6. See Sabine U. O’Hara, Valuing Socio-diversity, 22 Int’l J. of Soc. Econ. 31 (1995).
  7. Ken Pennington, The History of Natural Law: Key Elements of Natural Law and Natural Rights in Jurisprudence, available at HistoryCanonLaw.html (last visited Feb. 17, 2018).
  8. O’Hara, Valuing Socio-diversity, supra note 76.
  9. Id. at 37.
  10. Id. at 34.
  11. Id. at 36.
  12. Id. at 39.
  13. Harari, supra note 5, at 350-51.
  14. O’Hara, supra note 76, at 40.
  15. Diamond, supra note 4, at 266-67, 269.
  16. Id. at 265.
  17. Id at. 255 ff; see also Harari, supra note 5, at 79; cf. Engels, supra note 23.
  18. Harari, supra note 5, at 98-99.
  19. Origins, supra note 24, at 47-48; see also Harari, supra note 5, at 81.
  20. Diamond, supra note 4, at 273-74, 279-80.
  21. See, e.g., Timothy M. Ryan & Colin N. Shaw, Gracility of the Modern Homo Sapiens Skeleton is the Result of Decreased Biomechanical Loading, 112 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 372, 374-75 (2015), available at http://www.pnas. org/content/112/2/372.full.pdf; E. Dounias & A. Froment, When Forest-Based Hunter- Gatherers Become Sedentary: Consequences for Diet and Health, FAO, available at (last visited on Feb. 17, 2018).
  22. Shepard, supra note 5, at 98-102; see also Harari, supra note 5, at 79-81.
  23. See note 111, infra, and accompanying text.
  24.; http://voicesofdemocracy.umd. edu/fdr-the-four-freedoms-speech-text/.
  25. See generally, Winston P. Nagan, Human Rights, Liberty & Socio-Economic Justice: Economic Theory and The Ascent of Private Property Values, Cadmus, Volume I, No. 2, April 2011, 35-54.
  26. Id at 38.
  27. Harari, supra note 5, at 355 (The Industrial Revolution upended the family and the local community, replacing them with the market and the state. Id at. 356); see also Infernos, supra note 63, at 87 and 106.
  28. The women’s and environmental movements of the late 20th century developed useful models. Danish co-housing provides another.
  29. Harari, supra note 5, at 374.
  30. Id. at 363.
  31. Id. at 384.

humans, hierarchy, and human rights

national lawyers guild review


  1. Id. at 403.
  2. Id. at 358-60.
  3. Harari, supra note 5, at 382.
  4. Id. at 382-83.
  5. Id. at. 391.
  6. Id. at. 416.
  7. Id. at 415.
  8. Mystique, supra note 50, at 2, 14, 15.
  9. Malcom Gladwell, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, New Yorker (Oct. 4, 2010),
  10. Alan Yuhas, American Red Cross Squandered Aid After Haiti Earthquake, Report Alleges, The Guardian(June 3, 2015 3:11 PM),
  11. Anastasia Moloney, Volunteer Network Helps Haiti Cope With Disasters Year After Year, HuffPost (Jan. 10, 2015, 12:52 PM),
  12. See Gladwell, supra note 110.
  13. Harold A. McDougall, The Citizen’s Assembly: A Civic Infrastructure for Progressive Social Change, HuffPost (June 29, 2012, 10:49 AM),
  14. See generally Sally Engle Merry, HumanRights and Gender Violence: TranslatingInternational Law into Local Justice (2006); see also Sally Engle Murray, Unpacking the Vernacularization Process, YouTube (Aug. 16, 2010),
  15. See Harold A. McDougall, Reconstructing African American Cultural DNA: An Action Research Agenda for Howard University, 55 How. L.J. 63, 64-69 (2011).
  16. See Don Anderson, Letter to the Editor, Assemblies That Help the Southern Poor Help Themselves, N.Y. Times (July 3, 1984),
  17. See, e.g., Ward Republic, Wikipedia, (last visited Feb. 17, 2018).
  18. HumanRights WatchWorld Report 2017 viii-ix (2017), available at
  20. See Harold A. McDougall, The Citizen’s Assembly: A Civic Infrastructure for Progressive Social Change, HuffPost (June 29, 2012, 10:49 AM),