Domination Systems


Domination systems as revealed by language

Marshall Rosenberg describes a domination system as follows:

"...By systems I mean governments, organizations, institutions that regulate human affairs. In his books, The Powers That Be and Engaging the Powers, theologian Walter Wink talks about domination systems being ones in which a few people control [many] to their own advantage. In domination systems you have to train people to think in ways that support the system, so they fit the system.

Domination systems require:

1 Suppression of self

2 Moralistic judgments

3 Amtssprache (This expression was used by Nazi officials to describe a bureaucratic language that denies choice, with words like: should, have to, ought.)

4 The crucial concept of deserve"

The above quote was taken from an edited transcript of a 1999 workshop Rosenberg gave on anger entitled "Anger and Domination Systems."

Let me explain what Rosenberg means by these 4 characteristics of domination systems as revealed in the language we use:

1. Suppression of self means you deny your own feelings and needs. Before being exposed to Rosenberg's work in nonviolent communication, I had great difficulty revealing how I was feeling and what I was needing. I lacked a language for feelings and the ability to ascertain what I was needing. I was not alone. Once, I asked a psychologist, who I presumed would be an expert in this area "How do you feel?" His reply was "I feel fine." I asked him to be more specific, and to use some feeling words, because I said that I wanted to learn how to identify my own feelings more precisely and would like his assistance. He was unable to answer my question, so I told him that this was going to be my last appointment with him. I then asked him again how he felt, and you know what his response was? He said "I feel fine," but the look on his face was not congruent. In fact, he got rather angry with me.

For the majority of us, the reason why we find it so hard to express our feelings and needs is because we are educated by our society to ignore them so we can become some kind of interchangeable part in a vast money making machine, where feelings and needs are not important. In a domination system, the language of feelings and needs is not necessary, only obedience to authority. My boss just wants me to come to work and do the job. If I don't feel like it, well too bad because there are plenty of people waiting in the wings to take my place.

2. Moralistic judgments are when we judge another person as wrong or bad when they do things that are not in agreement with our values. If you say to a person "You are selfish" or "You are a lazy good for nothing bum," "You are neurotic" "What you did is wrong," "You are too fat," you are making a moralistic judgment. Insults, put downs, labels, name calling, criticism , comparisons or diagnoses are all forms of moralistic judgments, and you can find lots of other examples of this kind of language on my webpage of "Discouraging words."

Now how did moralistic judgments become so widespread. I think it started out with our being taught to classify. In Nisbett's book "The Geography of Thought," there is an illustration: a drawing of a chicken which is labeled A, and a drawing of grass which is labeled B. Underneath the two drawings is a drawing of a cow, and the question asked is: "What goes with this: A or B. Researchers found that American children linked cow with chicken since they were both classifiable objects belonging to the same "taxonomic" category. The Chinese children said the cow and grass go together, because "the cow eats the grass." In the Western tradition traceable back to the ancient Greeks, children are taught to classify objects according to rules, while in the Eastern tradition, children are taught that everything is connected to everything else, and so they look for relationships. I have even heard that the Orang Asli, an nonviolent aboriginal people of the Malay peninsula, do not have the word "to be" in their language and so they cannot even perform the classification act itself! (Alfred Korzybski also thought certain uses of the verb "to be" lead to errors in thought. His most famous line is "the map is not the territory.," which I first learned from Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature.")

Once you view the world in terms of categories, then labeling everything in that category as being bad is a short step away. Labeling by the dominant members of society is a form of oppression. For example, the DSM-IV has all sorts of categories of mental illness, and the psychiatrist who makes the diagnosis, ie, the judgment, has the power to determine your fate. The generally accepted view of mental illness is that it is a biochemical imbalance in the brain, treatable with drugs. The psychiatrists in power in concert with the pharmaceutical companies, like this interpretation. But there is another viewpoint. After psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, wrote the book "The Myth of Mental Illness," he was marginalized by the psychiatric establishment, as recounted in an essay by Ronald Liefer. According to Liefer: "The psychiatric repression of Thomas Szasz is a symptom of the rise of the State-Science Alliance--the ascendance of the ethics and technology for managing and controlling people and the simultaneous decline of the ethics of individual freedom, dignity, and responsibility. See this short video entitled "Psychiatry: No science, no cures" furnished by the Citzens Commission on Human Rights. According to Marshall Rosenberg "All diagnoses are tragic expressions of an unmet need."Jan Hunt has also argued in "Subjective Vs. Objective Labels" that the use of subjective labels, as all psychiatric diagnoses are, leads to the unfortunate consequence of self-fulfilling prophesies. more...

3. Amtssprache: bureaucratic language or language denying choice: When Adolph Eichmann was asked, "Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?" Eichmann replied, "To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy." Asked to explain, Eichmann said, "My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache -- 'office talk.'" In office talk "you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"

If you say to yourself, "I drink, because I am an alcoholic," your self-talk is a combination of Amtssprache and a moralistic judgment because you are denying responsibility for your choices by labeling yourself as an alcoholic, a kind of tautological self-fulfilling prophesy.

I value freedom. This statement is a value judgment, and a statement of a need, to be distinguished from a moralistic judgment which implies right or wrong. Freedom means I take responsibility for my choices because I choose to do the things I do. The problem is we are taught from an early age, out of awareness, that we are not free, despite words to the contrary. Domination systems want to fool you and trick you into believing you are free, yet have you all the while serving them. In actuality, "You are free, but you just don't know it!"and this topic is the subject of my webpage on freedom.

4. Language of Deserve: "I came in on Saturday to work, and deserve to be paid overtime." A statement combining a moralistic judgment and deserve thinking is typical in our present retributive justice system: "He did something wrong and deserves to be punished," in contrast to restorative justice. Domination systems believe that the people in positions of judgment, power and authority have the right to punish or hurt others because they believe they "deserve" it, but really, it is just their way of using their positions of power and authority for their own benefit.

Deserve thinking also leads to the language of demand and coercion as in "I demand to be paid." When someone in a position of authority over you, like your supervisor, asks you do to do something, invariably, it is interpreted as a demand. Saying "no" risks the charge against you of insubordination, which would elevate your chances of being fired, a frightening experience to contemplate. Interestingly, in the aboriginal group called the Semai,(which I have just learned is part of the Orang Asli from this map), known for their nonviolence and fun loving attitudes, it is very easy to say no. The children of Semai are taught from an early age, the concept of "bood." If a parent asks a child to do something and the child replies "I bood," in other words, "I don't feel like doing that," the matter is closed. The parent never tries to force or coerce the child to do something it does not want to do! As a consequence, Semai society is nonhierarchical. There are no formal leaders, no police, courts or government and best of all, there is no violence! Unfortunately, this nonhierachical society is defenseless against domination systems, such as corporations, which are currently decimating their tribal lands.

They say that the language we are taught prepares us for the society we are going to be living in. Language having the above four characteristics prepares us to live in a domination system where a few people (largely hidden from view) will control the large majority. I am not satisfied living in such a system. It does not meet my need for fairness. To change the system, we need to first change ourselves and the way we think about things. If the language just described leads to violence, then this suggests that learning to speak in the opposite manner will lead to the opposite result. In other words, using nonjudgmental language that reveals our feelings and needs, and making clear requests to fulfill those needs. I have started writing my own website on Nonviolent Communication but I sure have a lot to learn!

We all learn to speak this language from birth, and in so doing, our alienation from each other happens completely out of awareness. We accept our loneliness as being the natural state, when it really is not. I have provided glimpses of other types of language systems used in another society, with the hope of planting a seed in your mind that there are other ways of living. But this insight regarding language may only be the tip of an iceberg. Imagine this: that we are not aware of and may never be aware of the extent to which our language limits and constrains our very way of thinking.

Origins of Domination systems

So how did this state of affairs came to be. Domination systems, dominator cultures, and hierarchical societies arose at the time of the Domestication revolution. approximately 8000 BC. According to this timeline, "The availability for the first time in human history of a dependable food supply ...made it possible to support larger societies. .... food surpluses became common.... freed some workers to do other forms of work, such as crafts leading to the division of labor. Surplus food and crafts were traded with others. (Trade) Durable goods could now be saved and some people accumulated more than others. (Accumulation of valued goods) People now had possessions worth fighting over. (Feuds and wars over possessions). Captives from battles were forced to do less appealing work. (Slavery) Some people accumulated much over time while others accumulated little. (Inequality increased). The wealthy wanted to pass their benefits on to their children. (Wealth became hereditary) Wealth and power became concentrated in the hands of a few. (Power becomes concentrated and chiefs, kings, and feudal society emerged). With the agricultural revolution 5500 BC "The invention of the plow drawn by animals made agricultural production vastly more efficient than before permitting far more land to be farmed by fewer people. This resulted in an even greater food surplus. It also freed far more people for other types of work, creating an even greater division of labor. Jared Diamond details some of the additional specifics of the process.

According to Walter Wink, since the time of Babylon (1250 BC): "The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world."

Adam Smith is credited with promoting the modern version of "division of labor." Previously, division of labor meant some people worked on the farm, while others specialized in making various goods, but the craftsperson made the item in its entirety. In its modern form, division of labor means that many workers work on the same item, each rapidly performing a small simple repetitive operations on a production line. However, if you read his book, Wealth of Nations (1776), you will find that he actually denounces this form of division of labor. He wrote that it would make us "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." Personally, this is not what I want to become, but those in power in a domination system love the idea! "Division of labor" is just another way of saying "divide and conquer" because now no one worker knows even how to make the item in its entirety. Because each step was simple and a worker was easily trained, the workers themselves became an interchangeable part of the production line and easily replaced if necessary. The worker could now be paid less and so became even more powerless, and essentially a wage slave of the dominant few. Mohandas Gandhi said "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

This practice of division of labor even invaded the elite Universities in America so that the brightest students became interchangeable parts and how this happened is described in my webpage "On Education."

Corporate capitalism betrayed Adam Smith so that even the whole factory is now an interchangeable part. Even if all the workers of the whole factory do not feel like doing the work, well, there is always another factory in another country willing to do it as cheaply or even cheaper. And the history of how large corporations in America built their enterprises on the backs of the poor, is explained in many of Noam Chomsky's writings, such as in this interview "On violence and youth."

The machinery of domination systems (to be expanded)


Sun Tzu, "The Art of War" To insure his army would be obedient and follow orders, he would kill the first soldier who stepped out of line, and after that, he did not have any problems with the rest of them.





Advertising/Propaganda: Manufacturing consent (Chomsky, Foucault)

Foucaldian quotes from Deconstructing the Election.

"Foucault was a philosopher of history who posited, basically, the impossibility of achieving an objective and neutral interpretation of a historical event or phenomenon."..."--the official interpretation--must have been imposed by the exercise of political power"

"... different groups construct different realities, different 'regimes of truth,' in order to legitimize and protect their interests."

"A final Foucauldian note. Foucauldian theory holds that the way of the rich and powerful will prevail, the less powerful or powerless will lose out (which is partly why the theory has been embraced by the left as a successor or adjunct to Marxism, and is so abhorred by the right). "

Learned helplessness:

Institutional racism

Discouraging words

FOGS: I like the mneumonic FOGS for the words: Fear, obligation, guilt, shame, to remind myself that I don't want to be running my life motivated motivating behavior based on FOGS. Why would I want to run my life doing things out of fear, obligation, guilt or shame?) Joseph Campbell said something about doing everything as "play"

The antidote (to be expanded)

Nonviolent communication



Foucault, Michel (1975) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison.( transl. Alan Sheridan) (1995) 2nd ed NY:Vintage books.selections: torture, panopticon

Chomsky, Noam (1994) On violence and youth

Diamond, Jared (1997) Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies...

Korten, David C. (2001) When Corporations rule the world. 2nd Ed., Kumarian Press.

Nisbett, Richard E. (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why (NY:Freepress)pg 141.

McCormack, Win (2001) Deconstructing the Election in The Nation

Liefer, Ronald, (1998) The Psychiatric Repression of Thomas Szasz: Its Social and Political Significance

Marshall Rosenberg (1999) Anger and Domination Systems

Smith, Adam (1776) Wealth of Nations

Szasz, Thomas (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness

Wink, Walter (1992) Engaging the Powers:Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Wink, Walter (1999) The Myth of Redemptive Violence, in The Bible in Transmission.


Last updated 15 February 2007

Copyright © 2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.