Nurturing Our Humanity by Riane Eisler and Douglas P. Fry

How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Thirty Years Later

I’d been looking forward to reading this after reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade two years ago, though it was originally published in 1987, over 30 years ago.

Riane Eisler is a systems scientist, cultural historian, educator, speaker and pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and the recipient of many awards. Her work on cultural transformation has inspired scholars and social activists. She is President of the Centre For Partnership Studies dedicated to research and education.

Douglas P Fry is an American anthropologist. He has written extensively on aggression, conflict, and conflict resolution in his own books and in journals such as “Science” and “American Anthropologist.” His work frequently engages the debate surrounding the origins of war, arguing against claims that war or lethal aggression is rooted in human evolution. He is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A Guide to Raising More Conscious, Socially Responsible, Caring Future Generations

Nurturing HumanityBringing together these two authors has created an immensely readable work that describes how our societies and families and cultures, not to mention our brains, have been shaped by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one kind over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning that makes silencing and oppression the norm.

Eisler and Fry argue that the path to human survival and well-being in the 21st century hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, including gender equality.

Social systems that orient closely to the domination side of the continuum are ultimately held together by fear and force. In this system, beliefs and social structures support rigid top-down rankings, and the closer a culture or subculture orients to it, the more stressful it is.

Despite the narratives that exist that suggest humanity is hardwired for ruthless selfishness and violence, there is abundant evidence, referenced here, that:

“Indicates that humans have also evolved powerful capacities, indeed proclivities, for empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts.”

There are examples from ancient times past (anthropological evidence) and present in contemporary Nordic societies, one of the significant differences being a greater sense of partnership and equality between couples and also in the value attributed to “caring industries”, a sector of society that has been virtually ignored by academia, and undervalued, underfunded by governments worldwide.

In contrast, the partnership configuration is more peaceful, egalitarian, gender-balanced, and environmentally sustainable. As in the strivings of countless families, businesses and communities today, the partnership system consists of beliefs and structures that support relations based on mutual benefit, respect and accountability.

Once we understand these dynamics, of domination versus partnership, and the characteristics of each, the imbalance in the world becomes glaringly obvious. This work gives multiple examples and acknowledges that pockets of the partnership approach do exist and are growing, but there are significant challenges to be addressed before we can truly begin to benefit from the improved standard of living that more ‘caring societies’ can bring.

Fear and force are not woven into the cultural tapestry of of the partnership system because they are not needed to maintain rigid top-down rankings, whether it is man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, or nation over nation. Instead of hierarchies of domination, some partnership societies and leaders use power to empower rather than disempower. So love, care, nurturance, and creativity can flourish.

New Evidence About Human Nature

There is now a plethora of evidence from many different fields, ranging from ethnography, history and psychology to genetics, neuroscience and ethology that provide a shock-and-awe set of counter arguments to the assumption that selfishness and violence are central to what it means to be human.

Nurturing Our Humanity Riane Eisler Douglas Fry Caring Economics

Photo by CDC on Pexels

Human nature has an enormous genetic capacity for empathy, working together sharing, caring and helping, however we know from neuroscience that stress can inhibit this capacity by changing our brain neurochemistry. And starting with the crucial early family relations, domination oriented societies are extremely stressful.

We Need A Caring Econonics

As long as caring is culturally devalued, we cannot realistically expect caring social and economic policies designed to promote human well-being and protection of the natural environment. Measures of economic health such as GDP and GNP include as “productive” work, those activities that harm and take life, such as selling guns and cigarettes with their resulting health and funeral costs – but they fail to count as productive  the hard work of people who care for children, the sick, the elderly and others at home, and accord very low value to this work in the market.

The book ends with four cornerstones of Partnership, Childhood Gender, Economics and Narratives & Language, with recommendations and examples of policies and practices towards improving these areas, bringing new economic and social interventions that give value to caring and caregiving work in both the market and nonmarket sectors.

Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone at a loss to why the world seems to have become so divisive and uncaring, this deeply researched, erudite text stands back and shows us where we’ve been and where we could go, and what policies need to change to bring us to a more humane era.

There isn’t a page where I haven’t highlighted a passage, reading this book makes one see the world differently, even though we already knew it. It makes me realise I’ve been working on evolving my brain for years, undoing the conditioning, rewiring it for a better way to live and be.

It makes me realise how starved I am for stories/films that present and represent the partnership model of society, rather than the proliferation of narratives that continuously adher to and promulgate the domination model. And why those stories have been having such a profoundly negative effect on me recently. The combination of empathising with characters and being witness to their maltreatment by other characters (or the author in their creation of them) is affecting my brain!

“Understanding the origins, natures, and impacts of partnership and domination systems on human lives and societies is crucial to human well-being and survival.”

Lifting the veil on the system behind so much of how our world works, to keep the domination system in place, once aware of it, it is almost overwhelming, the steep gradient of the uphill battle before us, however I like to believe we are on the way, that a new vision of future generations will embrace the partnership model more and more.

Totally fascinating and Highly Recommended.

Further Listening

Podcast : “Is Human Nature Peaceful?” Douglas Fry discusses human nature, our potential for peace, and some of the archeological/anthropological evidence behind his work.

Podcast : Behind Greatness by Inspire North : Riane Eisler JD, PhD(h) – President, Center for Partnership Studies / Author / Speaker – Building a World that Supports Capacity for Caring, Creativity & Consciousness 

Forced to Grow by Sindiwe Magona (1992)

A Second Autobiography, From Disempowered to Empowered

After reading the first volume of her autobiography To My Children’s Children, this second volume covers South African writer, teacher and facilitator Sindiwe Magona’s life, from the age of 23 to 40, from the lowest point in her life, to one of the highest. The last chapter of the first volume Forced to Grow, becomes the title of this wonderful book.

Sindiwe MagonaFinding herself unemployed and pregnant with her third child after being pushed out of a teaching job – her husband’s parting shot as he abandons his young family, to inform her employer of his disapproval (a husband’s approval was required for a married (black) woman to be eligible to work) – she reinvents herself, creating her own work (selling sheep heads (cooked) she’d bought on credit) initially to survive, determined to reinstate herself back into the teaching profession, to extend and elevate her education and move beyond surviving to thriving.

From poverty and struggle to a job offer with the UN in New York, this second volume of autobiography was hard to put down.

Overcoming Fear Through Perseverance and Self-Belief

Though she had a legal certificate to teach, she would spend four years working as a domestic servant in white women’s homes, because she was not a “breadwinner”, she had a husband. Unmarried, childless women enjoyed preferential hiring, as long as they retained that status. Ironically, she would find a way back into teaching when two unmarried teachers were forced to resign their posts, due to being “in the family way”.

I have this fear that if I ever believe that others wield power over my destiny, that I am so vulnerable, I might as well abdicate control of my life. For if I accept that, what is to stop me attributing to others all the setbacks I encounter? And once that happens, why would I do anything to get back on my own two feet? I would be virtually saying that it was beyond me to reclaim myself. I would be accepting absolute lack of control. And the Good Lord knows, I had very little control over my life as it was.

This fear, this need to go on believing I am in the driver’s seat, may be the one ingredient in my make-up I will not find easy to relinquish.

Therefore, with everything I cherished taken, broken or out of reach, I resolved I would become self-sufficient. I would work hard. I would study. I would pull myself up by my bootstraps. Yes, even though I had still to acquire the boots.

wp-1621263406986..jpgPursuing a higher level of education to offset so much else that set her back, fed into Magona’s ambition; as she achieved, her self belief grew and she pushed herself further, while assuming the role of both parents.

Moving from teaching into administration she witnessed how the country’s racist policies affect families, joining SACHED (South African committee for Higher Education) widened her circle of contact, connection, perspective & confidence.

What an inspiration Sindiwe is and what a gift to have witnessed her journey through reading; her perseverance and determination to make something more of herself, while trying to raise her children in a way to overcome the societally perceived disadvantage of being without the support or presence of the children’s father.

She sees the gift inherent in his abandonment, which is an example of how strong her mind is, she rewrites the narrative of her own life and how it will be. An errant husband is one thing, trying to create a career and attain a higher education while living within a system of apartheid and not being recognised as a citizen of your own country is impossible to imagine.

We are all the more fortunate to have been given such an insight into this personal and collective struggle and one courageous woman’s ability to work through and overcome it, in defiance of what the govt of the time wanted for the local African population.

Women Cooperating in Partnership

This volume too is an affirmation of the power and support made possible when women work in partnership, in collaboration, in community for a higher good.

The various groups she becomes part of that bring women together from different races, social classes and backgrounds and the facilitated discussions they have, both bring out her natural ability as a facilitator and leader and create a safe place for all them to develop empathy, to know each other, hear differing perspectives, challenge them, look for ways to resolve problems and how to put pressure where things need to change.

Invited to attend a meeting of a group of women who wanted change, it would create a pivotal turning point in her career.

As might be surmised, CWC (Church Women Concerned) was multi-racial, multi-denominational, inclusive of all faiths. It had members from the Christian faith, the Islamic faith and the Jewish faith. The primary objective was to build bridges, to effect reconciliation, to attempt to live lives that projected well into the future, to a time when the laws that separated us according to skin colour would be no more.

It was a fond dream put forward as a testimony of faith. We truly believed the possibility existed for apartheid to be dismantled. Therefore, it behoved us to hasten the process by living the future now.

How domination and partnership shape our brains lives and futureI was reminded of my recent read of Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry’s Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, and the pockets of a Partnership System approach to living and being they promote and suggest already exist; something women are naturally capable of creating if given a chance, or are bold enough to go ahead and create these circles of connection and support anyway, as Sindiwe Magona and others did, despite the risks.

“Humans are capable of living in egalitarian social systems where neither dominates the other, where violence is minimized, and where prosocial cooperation and caring typify social life. This image is not a utopian fantasy but rather a set of potentials, if not inclinations, stemming from our evolutionary heritage.” Riane Eisler

A Third Volume of Autobiography Please

Oh I wish there was a third volume, I do hope she might be writing one, covering the last 30 years. However I also understand why since her retirement she has been writing children’s books, creating a necessary resource for children in her country and around the world, to learn, be entertained and create understanding, hope and belief in the ability for situations to change.

Highly Recommended.

Dublin Literary Award Winner 2021

The winner of this prestigious award nominated by public library’s from around the world, has now been announced.

From an initial longlist of 49 books from 30 countries across 10 languages, they were narrowed down to a shortlist of six by a panel of expert judges and the winner, coming from Mexico, but nominated by the Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia library of Barcelona is:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

A road-trip novel of a family driving one summer from New York to Arizona, perspective and voices move from the parents to the children, witnesses, speaking and listening, seeing and observing, the subtle, yet dramatic shift. A story of what happens to the human spirit on a long road journey.

As their journey progresses, countless migrant children are making their way up from Central America to the US border, often alone, separated from their parents. A growing awareness of familial rupture enters the confined vehicle space, as they move closer towards an immigration crisis at the border, as their roads converge.

Lost Children Archive is a novel about the depths of childhood solitude, about children’s boundless imagination, the fragile intensity of familial ties, about tensions between history and fiction and the complex intersections of political circumstances and personal lives.

But more than anything Lost Children Archive is a novel about the process of making stories, of threading voices and ideas together in an attempt to better understand the world around us.” Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli

Born in Mexico, but raised and schooled in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa and India, she learned early on to inhabit a solitary, liminal and observant space, a childhood she attributes her decision to become a writer to, situated between cultures, spaces and their linguistic bridges or barriers.

Tell Me How It Ends, An Essay in 40 Questions

Tell Me How It Ends Valeria LuiselliIn preparation to read Lost Children Archive, I decided to read Valeria Luiselli’s nonfiction narrative essay Tell Me How It Ends which documents her experience as a volunteer translator, assisting child migrants who travelled alone from Latin America to the US, now facing deportation, to fill in the 40 question questionnaire they must respond to within 21 days of arrival.

It’s a sombre read as she and her niece become more and more despondent, discovering they are virtually helpless in terms of changing the outcome for these children, fleeing one bad situation and arriving into another.

I became involved with this kind of work while I was writing the novel, and what happened is I started using the novel as a space in which to pour all my angst and fury and political frustration and emotional sense of stalemate. But I slowly started to realize I wasn’t doing justice to the novel by trying to turn it into that kind of vehicle for my politics, and I wasn’t doing justice to the subject matter itself, either, because I was trying to thread it into this fictional narrative. So I stopped writing the novel. Then, John Freeman, whom I’d worked with as an editor in different projects, suggested I write a non-fiction piece on what I was witnessing in court.

Once I had done that, I was able to go back to the novel and not feel the responsibility of directly covering the crisis. I could focus on other issues and allow the novel to breathe with fictional lungs, so to speak.

Have you read Lost Children Archive or any of Valeria Luiselli’s essays or novels?

Further Reading

Interview : The Social Fabric – An Interview With Valeria Luiselli by Allan Vorda

Dublin Literary Award 2021 Longlist and the Six Shortlisted titles.

Sidewalks, Essays by Valeria Luiselli translated by Christina MacSweeney

To My Children’s Children by Sindiwe Magona (1990)

“Until the lioness can tell its own story the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African Proverb

This first of two autobiographies by South African author Sindiwe Magona was initially published in 1990, and the second volume in 1997.

A Lioness Shares Her Story

Frustrated like many, at seeing her country and people portrayed as backward and uncivilised by colonisers, she decided to rectify the balance, a literary scholar, sharing her life and experience first hand, an important and insightful narrative for a wider audience, dedicated to her own children and grandchildren, and perhaps especially for girls, on their path to womanhood.

In a conversation with anthropologist and activist Elaine Salo, Magona said:

I experienced incredible anger about others writing about us, I asked myself, ‘How dare they write about you?’ I told myself that shouldn’t stop me from writing about myself … There is value in those like me writing about our experiences, who did not study apartheid but lived it.

It is authentic experiences like this, that offer a richness in understanding other cultures from the inside, reading the personal experience of one women in her struggle to raise and support her children, understanding how her childhood and upbringing shaped and supported her, enabling her to cope when other societal support structures let her down.

Review

Autobiography South Africa WomenThe slim autobiography shares stories from her childhood up to the age of 23, all of it taking place in South Africa. In her early years, as was customary among amaXhosa people, she lived with her grandparents. It was often the case while parents were trying to earn a living in starting a new life, that the extended family and home community was the safest, most caring environment for young children to be. There was always someone to look after children, they had food, shelter, company and they thrived.

As she explains, looking back it may have been poverty, but that wasn’t something they were aware of; they belonged, were loved and felt secure. There was no awareness of the link between the colour of one’s skin and a difference in lifestyle, until much later, their paths never crossed, outsiders had no impact on their very young lives.

In such a people-world, filled with a real, immediate, and tangible sense of belongingness, did I spend the earliest years of my life. I was not only wanted, I was loved. I was cherished.
The adults in my world, no doubt, had their cares and their sorrows. But childhood, by its very nature, is a magic-filled world, egocentric, wonderfully carefree, and innocent. Mine was all these things and more.

Generations of Storytellers

Not only did they learn and grow from being socialised in these large families, they listened to stories, passed down the generations. There was always one or two in the family, renowned for their storytelling ability, masters in this art and the children revelled in those evenings when they became the audience to them.

Central to the stories in which people featured, was the bond of love with the concomitants: duty, obedience, responsibility, honour, and orderliness; always orderliness. Like the seasons of the year, life was depicted full of cause and effect, predictability and order; connectedness and oneness.

grayscale photo of woman kissing child

Photo TUBARONES on Pexels.com

In this warm, human environment she spent her first five years, immersed in a group where her place was defined, accepted, giving her all she required and more.

Far from the distant world where white people lived and ruled, busy formulating policies that would soon impact them all, policies that invited in certain immigrants, offering them privileged rights, while denying them of the local black population, restricting their ability to move from one area to another, fracturing families, keeping them in poverty.

Everything changed when her mother left to join her father due to illness, to be near medical support and soon after, her grandmother died, requiring them all to leave and join their parents.

A New Era, Fractured Families and Apartheid

It would be fortuitous timing as a year later, in 1948, the Boers came into power and laws were formulated restricting the movement of Africans. Had her grandmother died later, they may not have legally been able to rejoin them.

The move to live with their parents introduced them to a less harmonious world, one where police raids occurred and crime existed. Within the law or outside the law, there was reason to be more careful and fearful. The importance of attaining an education was the focus, to rise above.

The year I left primary school was the year that education became racially segregated. Hitherto, white pupils, African pupils coloured pupils, and Indian pupils could, theoretically, attend the same school. After 1955, the law forbade that practice. There would be different Departments of Education for the different race groups.

Her years of education were dependent on her attitude, some years she did well, others she lapsed, eventually her focus concentrated on becoming a teacher, though in her initial attempts to secure a position, she would initially be thwarted. Her real life lessons were only just beginning.

Lessons from the Real World

Father began hinting at what might at the root of my problem: I had omitted to offer the Secretary of the School Board “something” and people were telling him it would be donkey’s years before I would get a post if we did not oil  this gentleman’s palm.

Though she had done well in her classes, they were inadequate and wholly misleading as to how to prepare to teach children from poor homes, without textbooks, without exercise books, without materials. Trained to teach children from homes where there was a father and a mother, most of her pupils came from women-headed homes. And those women stayed in at their places of employment: busy being smiling servants minding white babies.

Not having books is one of the misdemeanors punishable by corporal punishment. The beatings and probably the sheer embarrassment that must surely accompany the daily proclamation of one’s poverty, prompted a lot of the pupils to pilfer. The very young do not always understand that poverty is supposed to ennobling…

The first class she would teach would have 72 pupils and had all been well, they should have been aged 11 or 12. All was not well however, the children ranged in age from 9 to 19 and the variation in skills just as wide.

Due to her principled stance, that first job would take a while in coming. Unemployed, but desperate to work, she accepted a job at the local fisheries.

Eventually she is offered a teaching job, experiencing the few joys and many disappointments inherent in an unfair, overstretched, oppressive system.

All along, I had known the agony for which some were destined. Such is the design of the government. And such is the abetting by even those of us who regard ourselves as oppressed.  Which we are. But we are also called upon to help in that oppression and unwittingly become instruments of it.

A Woman’s Lot

And then comes the intersection of youth with a newly developing career and as a woman, the added risk of pregnancy. Magona’s challenges are only just beginning and her teaching jobs will become continuously thwarted by how society expects women to behave. The arrival of her own children will force her from her role and into domestic service herself, and really open her eyes to how the other live.

What I had not known was that their perception of people like us did not quite coincide with our perception of who we were and what we were about.

More than anything, however, being a domestic servant did more to me than it did for me. It introduced me to the fundamentals of racism.

The different families she would work for, each provide key insights that broaden her understanding and perception of the other groups living within the country and how the system aimed to maintain and strengthen the situation in favour of white people.

As this volume comes to an end, Sindiwe’s situation seems dire, however, she delivers some of the most inspiring passages of the book, in the low place she has arrived at, she suddenly sees all that she is grateful for, all that she has, even the abandonment of a husband who had never supported them, she recognises as a freedom and a significant contribution to her own growth.

It is a wonderful and frank autobiography and introduction to an inspiring woman. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Forced to Grow, the same title as the last chapter in this volume, in which she shares how determination and resourcefulness lead her through and out of those challenges we end with here.

Sindiwe Magona

My Childrens Children Memoir Autobiography South AfricaMagona was born in 1943 in the small town of Gungululu near Mthatha, in what was then known as the homeland of Transkei, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

She was born five years before colonial Britain handed over power to the Afrikaners. Apartheid was officially introduced in 1948 and with it a series of oppressive and racist laws such as separate living areas and the Bantu education system. It was within this context that Magona grew up.

She is an accomplished poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. She spent two decades working for the UN in New York retiring in 2003. Her previously published works include thirty children’s books (in all eleven South African languages), two autobiographies, short story collections and novels.

My writing, on the whole, is my response to current social ills, injustice, misrepresentation, deception – the whole catastrophe that is the human existence. Sindiwe Magona

Further Reading

The Conversation Article: Learning From the Story of Pioneering South African Writer Sindiwe Magona, 5 March, 2021