Since indignities are usually perpetrated by those with a power advantage, one might jump to the conclusion that differences of power are the problem. And, since power is attached to rank, we might think that if we could eliminate rank, we could minimize indignity.
The reason this logic has not worked–the failures of communes and communism come to mind–is because egalitarian ideologies have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Rank is an indispensable tool of organization. Without it, groups soon become ungovernable and uncompetitive, and, not infrequently, rank reappears in a storm-trooper’s uniform.
The truth is, we admire — we may even love — people of high rank who have earned it and who serve us wisely and well. We want the professor to teach chemistry, not the freshman. We want the surgeon to perform the operation, not the nurse. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. We admire George Washington for rejecting the crown and for not hanging on to power. The source of indignity is not rank itself, but rank abuse. To effectively combat this abuse, we must pin a name on it.
Rankism: What the Dignity Movement Is Against
To have a name is to be. – Benoit Mandelbrot, inventor of fractals
Rankism is what people who consider themselves somebodies do to people whom they regard as nobodies. Think of it as a degrading assertion of rank.
Examples of rankism include a customer demeaning a waitress, a boss humiliating an employee, a teacher mocking a student, a religious leader abusing followers, a doctor patronizing a patient, a coach shaming a player, executives using the powers of their office to enrich themselves or prolong their tenure. Prototypical forms of rankism are bullying, corruption, cronyism, and insider trading. The world got a look at rankism’s ugly face in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in the degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Although it’s often taken for granted and overlooked, rankism is everywhere. Blacks demean and exploit other blacks of lower rank. Whites do the same to whites, and women to women, all with confidence that such behavior, since it does not cross a color or gender line, will escape censure. Now, we can label it “rankism,” and de-legitimize it.
Rankism is the primary source of the indignities we inflict on one another. It’s what the Dignity Movement is against. Once the malady has been diagnosed, we’re in a position to seek a cure.
Rankism, Malady of Hierarchies
Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted benefits for themselves. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement: for example, higher compensation for executives than the market requires, and perpetual job security. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders do not tolerate rankism; bad ones indulge in it and their example infects the organization.
Rankism occurs in families, in the workplace and the boardroom, in schools, and in the doctor’s office. It can be especially hard to confront in nonprofits, whose leaders may blur the distinction between saving the world and saving their own jobs.
Rankism differs from the familiar “isms” in that most of us are both victims and perpetrators. This is because rank is relative. You can be a nobody in one context and a somebody in another. You can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next.
Rankism poisons relationships and saps the will to work and to learn. The attention that students give to defending their dignity diminishes that available for learning. Rankism takes years off lives and it incites revenge. Yet it’s hard to imagine a world without it, just as, not long ago, it was difficult to imagine an America without racism and sexism.
But Isn’t Rankism Human Nature?
Racism and sexism were long regarded as human nature, but in more and more places, these “isms” are losing legitimacy. To be racist or sexist today is to disqualify yourself from professional advancement, if not to forfeit your job.
If we can learn to stop putting people down on the basis of race, gender, or disability, we ought to be able to stop putting people down, period, for any reason. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender. Rank itself is not the culprit; rankism is.
Past movements hold valuable lessons for confronting rankism. In the early years of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan famously described “the problem without a name.” A few years later, the problem had acquired one–sexism– and the movement had a target. Likewise, putting “rankism” in the lexicon will help us oppose abuses of power.
As in the long fight against sexism and the other ignoble “isms,” getting rid of rankism is a multi-generational task. It can take a half-dozen generations to discredit an “ism.” That’s a long time, but it’s not forever.
Overcoming rankism is an inclusive, unifying goal that reduces the injunctions of political correctness to just one: “Protect and defend the dignity of others as you would have them protect and defend yours.”
This does not and can not mean countering one indignity with another. We can only bring about a net reduction of rankism by interrupting the rankism-begets-rankism cycle. This means protecting the dignity of the perpetrators even as we reject their rankist behavior. While this Is not easy to do–because it means stifling the impulse to get even–it does prove possible.
The familiar “isms” are not gone, but they are on the defensive. The next step is to make rankism as uncool as racism and sexism. Granted, that’s a tougher challenge. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Once people stand up for their dignity, it is not long before they’re marching for justice.
The Dignitarian Era
Rankism is the residue of predation, and as we recognize that predatory uses of power are counterproductive, we’ll put it aside, like the toy soldiers of childhood. We’ve been inching away from our predatory past for millennia, and the twenty-first century finds us on the threshold of a dignitarian era. We’ll know we’ve claimed that future when rankism is considered indefensible.
In building a dignitarian world, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.
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