JMU in the Community

Partnership instead of domination for a new way forward


Logo for Madison Vision Series Contemporary issues in an engaged society

“What kind of future will our children inherit?” Dr. Riane Eisler – renowned social and systems scientist, attorney and author – asked a Madison Vision Series audience on March 25.

“We have to show that the struggle for the future isn’t between right and left, religion and secularism…it’s between this pullback [from] the domination system and the movement toward the partnership way of life,” Eisler concluded. “We have an opportunity in our research [and] in our classes to weave this in and to begin to make that new story.”

More specifically, she continued, “What kinds of social systems support optimal human development? What kinds of social systems support the expression of our human capacities for consciousness, for caring, for creativity, or, alternately, cruelty and destructiveness?”

Eisler’s lecture, “Re-Examining Human Nature and Re-Creating Society: Four Cornerstones for Transformation,” synthesized decades of Eisler’s cutting-edge research into four main foundations for a new kind of society: childhood relations, gender relations, economics and stories.

What we are continuing to learn from neuroscience is that the human brain is flexible and adaptive—it develops in interaction with its environment, Eisler said. And the most important environment that we are exposed to is culture, a way of life that is reinforced in all of our social institutions. Given the fact that our brains develop most rapidly during the first few years of our lives, our family institutions, then, along with other intimate relationships, are influenced by what kind of society we live in and what kinds of relations that society supports.

Our world has tended to understand social processes through rigid binaries – right versus left, religious versus secular, capitalist versus communist. “I am inviting you to join me today in going outside these old categories and looking at human societies from a perspective that transcends them,” Eisler said. “The lens of two underlying social configurations: the domination system and the partnership system.”

Eisler asked the audience to think of all the modern progressive movements that have occurred throughout history – the abolitionist movement, women’s rights and the civil rights movement, for example – and to notice their common thread. Each one has challenged entrenched systems of domination. And this system of domination and authoritarian rule does not just exist in the state, but is also embedded into our personal relationships and families. It relies on the rigid ranking of one half of humanity over the other – men being superior to women – where anything in the realm of masculinity is given higher value than stereotypical female qualities. And it’s perpetuated through a system of institutional violence.

“Most of the progressive social movements have focused on dismantling the top of the domination pyramid, but far less attention has been paid to changing the foundations on which that pyramid keeps rebuilding itself,” Eisler said. There is irony, however, in the fact that many individuals who consider themselves progressive devalue the rights of women and children as “just” women’s issues and “just” children’s issues, despite both playing critical roles in the world’s overall social structure. “We have to pay much more attention to these primary human relations,” she added.

Relating these historical precedents to four cornerstones of recreating society, Eisler called for a shift in thinking on four issues. First, an attention to childhood relations. Because we know from neuroscience that children gain an almost full base understanding of the world in their childhood years, this window is critical for demonstrating the partnership system over the dominant one.

This comes, secondly, from gender relations. There are currently two fundamental halves of humanity, and children learn to equate differences with either superiority or inferiority. If the men and women most intimately connected to them in their lives – most often, their mothers and fathers – are unequal in terms of power and partnership, children will generalize those differences not only into their own perceptions of sex and gender, but in other racial, religious or sexual orientation differences. “We have to really focus on changing this tradition of devaluing not only the female half of humanity,” Eisler said, “but also everything associated with the female half of humanity” – of compassion, of empathy and of sensitivity.

Economics is the third cornerstone, where the devaluation of “the feminine” adversely affects a nation’s quality of life. Eisler cited research demonstrating that the status of women can actually be a better predictor of general quality of life than a nation’s GDP. “When women are devalued, so are values like caring for people,” Eisler emphasized. “We have to change our thinking about what is and what is not valuable.”

Finally, stories constitute the fourth cornerstone. Our culture, our gender relations, and domination-partnership continuums are all socially constructed through the narratives we tell and re-tell as truth. “We’ve already seen how we need a new story,” Eisler said. “It’s up to you to see that that new story spreads.” And because culture is a human creation – devised and reinforced by humans themselves – we also have the capability of igniting transformative change that improves these systems and, through acknowledging Eisler’s four cornerstones, draws them toward the system of partnership and a more peaceful, equitable future.

Eisler said she was happy to be on James Madison University’s campus, where she noted that the warmness and caring nature of the university was an excellent setting for her presentation. It is through JMU’s engagement, she said, that we can play a part in shaping the future she hopes for.

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April 9, 2015

By Rosemary Girard (’15)

Published: Thursday, April 9, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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