Perfection & the Great Chain of Being (Perfection, pt 2)


[i] We’ve all seen the harm that striving for perfection has inflicted on us, someone we know, or random Instagram teens we’ve heard about on the news, but the damage is harder to grasp on a larger scale: why is perfection bad for the culture and the world? I’ve believed this on an intuitive level for years, but have had a hard time identifying examples or articulating it for others. Even when I led a discussion on White Cultural Supremacy at work, I felt like I was faking my way through the Perfection section. Keeping my ears and my skin open to the universe, it’s finally reaching me in a way that those of us cursed and blessed by the intellectual focus of European culture can understand.  

Just as the idea that perfection is desirable and necessary can be personally burdensome and even devastating, its cultural embrace can fuck up a whole society. Perhaps it’s easier to grasp if we call it an ideal. (Much more on what perfection actually means in the next post.) If you studied Shakespeare or the Early Modern period in England (the source of so much of our White culture), you are probably familiar with the Great Chain of Being[ii]. Even if it’s new to you, chain of being, rather than circle or web or network, may raise the appropriate alarm bells. In this worldview, every natural thing their scholars were aware of fell somewhere on a ladder of superiority to inferiority. Since the Christian God is infallible and perfect, the closer you are to that God, the closer to perfection. So we have God, angels, humans, animals, minerals in that order, but also strict rankings within each category. The Divine Right of Kings put the monarch on top, then the aristocracy and the clergy, all the way down to actors (just below beggars), thieves, and gypsies. Lions were at the top of the animal list (thus the King is often represented by a lion in the art of the time), eagles were the best of the birds, and were also represented in analogous monarch art), bees were at the top of the insect list, with annoying flies at the bottom, and snakes (Satan!) were below insects! (Of course, they didn’t yet know the true source of malaria or plague.)

If you’re familiar with the history of the concept of race and racism, you know that “scientists” created a hierarchy of races that started thousands of years after human phenotypes adapted to their environments and lasted until genetic testing disproved the sophistry in the 20th century (not that the idea is dead, but it staggers on with only emotional support, not scientific). Sometimes the Irish were ranked below other Europeans, sometimes Africans were divided into a few different groups, but there were always the 3 races we would now call Whites, Asians, and Africans, and the Whites were always at the top and the Africans always at the bottom. As with the animals in the Great Chain of Being, greater phenotypic distinction was classified as greater genetic and therefore spiritual difference. Since Europeans considered their race superior, because it was familiar and because their culture told them that God looked like them, then those most unlike them must be most inferior, and therefore asking for abuse, or at the very least less consideration, less autonomy, and less integration. The Chain of Being, in one form or another, hung around through the 19th century, and has infected Western culture ever since.

Racism, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism are only the most obvious examples of the tyranny of superiority spread by Europe. When we rank the superiority of life forms on a human-determined, essentially arbitrary, arrogantly immutable hierarchy, we necessarily isolate entire species. That does not leave space for symbiosis and co-evolution, or collaboration and competition, all relationships that we know not only exist, but are essential for the sustainability of life. We see the slow horror of isolation in monoculture farming and urban landscaping around the world. Choosing to prioritize one tree, one crop, one groundcover for the sake of uniformity (which White Culture sees as Ideal) has killed off countless species, weakened others, emboldened diseases and pests, and heated the climate. It’s “separate but equal” on an ecological scale, and like segregation it is inherently unequal. Elms were devastated by disease in large part because we lined them up one on top of another in towns all over America, creating a dull but delicious feast for the beetles that spread the fungus. Planting grass – excuse me, planting fucking grass – has killed our soil, gobbled up our water without returning on the investment, and crowded out native grasses and flowers that can feed pollinators, create nutritious food & invaluable medicinal plants, and effectively capture carbon. All for a perfect lawn, uniform treelined streets, and so on.

The one good thing about this influential worldview, IMHO, is that it does allow for variation and a place for every type, but those places are not of equal value. The chain enshrines definite hierarchies of value and significance – who and what is prized, saved, listened to, killed for the comfort of whom or what, given space, given freedom, given protection. If you don’t think this influences the way we think today, look at the focus on megafauna. Why do environmental nonprofits use polar bears and pandas and elephants in their advertising, rather than trees and wild rice? It’s not because they’re more important; if that were the criterion, they’d focus their campaigns exclusively on keystone species, those most influential to the maintenance of an environment. They know we care more about animals than plants, and more about high-on-the-chain, charismatic animals than small, ugly, or invisible ones. Remember the great spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s?[iii] A prominent environmental group decided to focus on the owl because they didn’t think they could get people to care about old growth deforestation for its own sake (or get people to understand the non-extractive value of this ecosystem to all life around it), but they might fight for an endangered, high-ranking bird. After all, the owl was protected under the Endangered Species Act, but punishment for endangering profitable plants is basically nonexistent. Unfortunately for the advocates, humans trump owls, so logging interests one-upped environmentalists: how dare they put owl lives about human livelihoods?

I can’t argue with the evolutionary logic of a group putting itself first, even if it is speciesism. I don’t expect anyone to lay down their life to feed a hungry tiger, as in the Buddhist parable, and I do think there is some kind of a built-in affinity for living things that are more like ourselves than those that are weirder. I also acknowledge that to live on the earth is to necessarily kill and harm other living things, but that destruction shouldn’t be frivolous or glorified. And losing a job is not the same thing as losing your entire genetic line. Plus, we could remove the conflict entirely by taking better care of people, so they don’t feel like protecting the environment that sustains us is putting their family on the firing line. Though I suppose that’s another issue. We still rank members of our own kind, and not only by race.

As the only ones that have the power to destroy entire ecosystems and wipe out entire species the way we do, I think we have a responsibility to recognize and respect the inherent value of all of it. We ravage our animal and vegetable brethren out of ignorance of the interconnectedness of everything. Ranking, ideals, and perfectionism necessarily presume the isolation and independence of every item on the list, when in reality we are all interdependent. How can one part of the web be of greater cosmic importance than any other when all are instrumental in keeping the planet humming? Recently, indigenous nations and others have been establishing “rights of nature” laws to protect waterways, plants, and entire ecosystems. Here in Minnesota, the Ojibwe are suing on behalf of wild rice. In lieu of cultural values that respect the unimaginably complex system that keeps us and everything else alive (which may be the only shift that will keep us around in the long term), using our human ranking to stand up for those further down the imaginary ladder is a decent stopgap measure.

**Next time: What is Perfection, Anyway? Or maybe Perfection and Capitalism. We’ll see what happens.


[i] For part one, see Paradox: Perfection, Part One

[ii] There is a great little book, The Elizabethan World Picture, that we acting students had to read in college, if you want to dig into this a bit more..

[iii] For an excellent analysis of this battle, check out the Timber Wars podcast, specifically The Owl episode

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