“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”
I have been listening to Riane Eisler’s brilliant book, The Real Wealth of Nations. It is a miraculous synthesis of her life’s work in the study of cultural values, gender relationships, and economics.
One framework that resonates particularly strongly is her characterization of cultures on a spectrum between two opposite modes: domination at one end and partnership at the other. This framework allows her analysis of current economic theory, policy and practice to be independent of political or social ideology. Any culture can be one of domination or of partnership, and never are they purely one or the other.
As she characterizes them, domination requires insensitivity, competitiveness, cruelty, and destructiveness. It inhibits the partnership qualities of consciousness, caring, and creativity. Human beings have the biological capacity for the full spectrum of all these traits. Whatever model our culture orients to will bring out, express, or inhibit these tendencies.
Domination systems are rigid, top-down rankings that are maintained through physical, economic, and psychological control. A superior / inferior worldview ranks men over women and humans over other species, leading to other rankings of in-group over out-group, which applies to anything including race, ethnicity, or religion.
By contrast, partnership systems value and support participation, empathy, equity and caring. In partnership structures, equality between women and men is the norm. Caring and care-giving are not seen as something “soft” and valueless, but as integral to both female and male identity. All social institutions, from the family, education and religion, to politics and economics, form a mutually supporting, interactive whole.
The take-home here is that cultural beliefs and stories underpin our entire economic system. If the stories justify domination as inevitable, even honorable, we get an exploitative, inequitable, and destructive economic system. Sound familiar?
This started me wondering: where we are at this point in our own culture’s evolution – and where do I fit in to that? I see signs all around me that we are in transition from a dominator to a partnership system. While it’s possible to argue that we have actually regressed in the last years (unjustifiable wars, great disparity between haves and have-nots, cuts to caring economic policies, and concentration of power at the top), it’s just as possible to look around and see signs of partnership emerging.
My work as an architect is, at its best, a partnership with clients characterized by mutual creativity and mutual benefit. Of course, architecture can be and has been practiced in a dominator style. But good – even great – work does not require or even need the exploitation of people or natural resources.
It’s possible to see the green building movement as evidence of the design and construction industries moving from a dominator mindset to one of partnership. Many of the materials that go into buildings are extracted from the earth in very destructive ways. It has only been recently that we began thinking about where materials come from, the environmental impacts of their fabrication, and what happens to them after the building has served its use. Green building at its best exhibits a profound respect for natural systems, and great care is taken to understand the affects of building at every stage of the game.
The design and construction process itself is moving from top-down, competitive practices to integrated, creative collaboration. As a faculty advisor on the University of Maryland’s LEAFHouse 2007 Solar Decathlon entry, I worked with scores of students, professional mentors, and other faculty to craft a process whereby we all learned from each other, each person’s input was valued and considered, and the whole was most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
In my work with other LEED green design project teams, I have often observed this interplay between domination and partnership. Early in a project, there is a great desire for collaboration. Yet, since our culture’s center of gravity still pulls us towards domination, this intention of mutual cooperation for mutual benefit is frequently undercut by passive – or even overt – competitiveness, power-over attitudes (“My way is the right way”) and stereotypical beliefs (“Architects are technically weak.”). My role is to help people work more effectively together as they move from competitiveness to creative collaboration.
Other examples of the shift from domination to partnership can be found all around us. The Community Conferencing Center, started ten years ago and still led by my friend Lauren Abramson, is a fine example of the power of partnership in transforming conflict and building community. Indeed, conferencing is a highly effective alternative to the dominator-based traditional criminal justice system.
In the health care community, alternative medicine is becoming more mainstream. My son’s food allergies could not be helped by the traditional medical establishment with its dominator mind-set of FIGHTING illness. To be sure, I am grateful for their medications like Benedryl (an ANTI-histimine) and the Epi-Pen, which we fortunately never had to use. For the last three years, he has been under the gentle, subtle care of a homeopathic doctor and has outgrown ALL of his food allergies. Homeopathy works in partnership with his developing immune system, which may sound like mumbo-jumbo to those of us steeped in the dominator vocabulary of modern medicine. The healers at places like Tai Sophia Institute understand the awesome capacity for self-healing within the human immune system and use both ancient and modern wisdom to stimulate it.
This transition finds us in an awkward stage. So many of our cultural institutions – schools, courts, government – are built around the domination system. Indeed, our history, values, economy, and culture are steeped in domination, to the point where it is so imbedded we often fail to recognize it at work. Yet, the dominator system doesn’t fit for many of us – whether by default or temperament. As we reach for the partnership system, we can find ourselves mightily challenged by naysayers, lack of training (how DO we get people to trust and value each other?) and other setbacks.
Eisler’s book has been a real awakening for me and a reminder that I am absolutely on the right path. Partnership allows us to value everyone’s input and to widen the framework to include the human and natural capital that has been left out of dominator economic systems. Yes, we still have a very long way to go. And, yes, great progress is being made.
Next time you read about a policy debate in Washington, look at what the people are saying and ask yourself, “Is this coming from a domination mindset or one of partnership?” In fact, this question can apply to any situation in our lives and work. I hope that I have the awareness of it next time I have a dust-up with my seven-year-old son. What does partnership parenting look like, instead of the domination model I grew up with?