Q: What do you mean by “somebodies” and “nobodies”?
A: “Somebodies” are the relatively powerful and successful, “nobodies” the relatively weak and vulnerable. Somebodies with higher rank and more power in a given context can maintain an environment that is hostile and demeaning to nobodies with lower rank and less power in that context. Taken together, those of low rank vastly outnumber those of high rank. If they were to stand together against rank-abuse, they could overcome it. But it’s not that simple because nobodies may also abuse their rank by putting down those of still lower rank. There is usually someone weaker on whom you can pull rank, even if it means kicking the dog.
Q: How can “nobodies” stand up for their dignity?
A: The same way women did in the 1960s. They broke the taboo on discussing gender and initiated a process of consciousness-raising about gender issues. In the process they coined the term “sexism,” which served to identify their grievances and put men on the defensive. In like manner, we must (1) break the taboo on discussing rank, (2) give a name to rank-abuse, and (3) replace the prevailing social consensus, which tacitly sanctions abusing and exploiting the weak, with a new consensus in which rank-abuse is regarded as uncool.
Q: What shall we call rank-based abuse and discrimination?
A: When discrimination and injustice are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re gender-based, we call it sexism. By analogy, rank-based abuse and exploitation are rankism . We won’t be able to confront rankism until we overcome our fear of seeming uppity by using the word in public. Following in the footsteps of uppity women, expect to see more uppity nobodies as the dignity movement gains momentum.
Q: Are you proposing to do away with rank?
A: Not at all. When earned and exercised appropriately, rank is a legitimate and virtually indispensable tool of organization. We rightly admire and respect those who attain it. But when those of higher rank abuse their authority, those of lower rank experience indignity not different in its material and psychological effects from the indignities we now disallow when victims are black, female, elderly, gay, or have a disability. People do not object to legitimate differences in rank, only to rank abuse. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender.
Q. Isn’t rankism human nature?
A: One of the hard-earned lessons of the twentieth century was that racism and sexism are not immutable. While it is virtually inevitable that a power advantage will be exploited initially, it is just as inevitable that such abuse will eventually be resisted. In this sense, rankism, of whatever sort, is no more part of human nature than are racism or sexism. If anything is human nature, it’s that human beings resist abuses of power. Racism, sexism and rankism may be hard to uproot, but they are not immutable. The first two were put on the defensive in the late twentieth century, and rankism itself is no more likely to survive scrutiny than the now-familiar isms.
Q: Why focus on rank instead of class?
A: In modern democracies we interact with authority in terms of rank, not class. In contrast to aristocratic societies, it no longer matters whether your superior has blue blood or blue collar ancestry. What matters is that he or she is your boss, your professor, your doctor, a police officer, or a president.
Q: What are the dynamics of rankism?
A: Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at others’ expense. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement and demeaning and exploiting subordinates. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders eschew rankism; bad ones indulge in it.
Q: Where is rankism found?
A: Although it is not necessary to abolish rank to eliminate the abuse of rank, it is true that hierarchies are breeding grounds for rankism. When authorities are not held accountable to those served by the hierarchy, rankism invariably develops. Thus, rankism can be found in bureaucracies, corporations, businesses, workplaces, families, schools and universities, as well as religious, nonprofit, and healthcare organizations. It can be especially hard to confront in non-profits, which see themselves as “doing good,” and may become blind to malpractice within their ranks. Rankism, however, is an equal opportunity malady, and will infect any organization where accountability is lax.
Q: What are the effects of rankism?
A: Rankism distorts personal relationships, erodes the will to work and to learn, taxes productivity, fosters ill-health, and stokes ethnic tensions.
Q: Who are the victims of rankism?
A: Although racism and sexism target specific identity groups, we are all potential victims of rankism. This is because rank is not fixed, but relative. You can be a nobody in one context—and as such vulnerable to rankism—but a somebody in another—and thus a potential perpetrator. Likewise, you can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next. Like racism in the era of segregation, rankism is pervasive and enjoys the support of a tacit social consensus. Rankism afflicts no group more than the working poor, whose hand-to-mouth subsistence makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes a compelling case that the working poor are in effect unacknowledged benefactors whose labor subsidizes the better off.
Q: What are some examples of rankism?
A: Examples include a boss harassing an employee, a customer demeaning a waiter, a coach bullying a player, a doctor humiliating a nurse, a teacher disparaging a student, a parent belittling a child. The civil rights and women’s movements have managed to put racists and sexists on notice. But there has been no corresponding outcry against abuses that occur within a race or gender, in part because until now we haven’t had a name for them. Blacks insult and exploit other blacks of lower rank, whites do the same to whites, and women to women, all with confidence that such behavior, which does not fit the definition of racism or sexism, will pass for business as usual and escape censure.
Q: Do we really need another “ism”?
A: Yes, but rankism, which includes the other ignoble isms as special cases, is the last of the lot. Identity politics, because of its exclusive focus on the rights of particular groups, can foster resentment in those who feel that its concerns and protections don’t extend to them. But no one is immune to rankism. Everyone has experienced it in some context or other (and most of us have dished it out). So overcoming rankism is an inclusive, unifying goal that reduces the myriad injunctions of political correctness to just one: Protect the dignity of others as you would have them protect yours. Sound familiar? The concept of rankism puts teeth in the golden rule.
Q: Does the dignity movement have a slogan?
A: To succeed a movement needs to know what it’s for and what it’s against. The dignity movement is for dignity and against rankism. Imagine the bumper sticker. Better yet, design one.
A: A dignitarian society would provide universal healthcare, equal access to quality education and retraining, an equitable tax structure, affordable housing, campaign finance reform that prevents vote-buying by special interests, and compensation compatible with living in dignity. In short, a dignitarian society does not tolerate a dignity gap, as created and maintained by rankism, and that, in turn, will require us to make good on the promise that the Founding Fathers imprinted on the American psyche—liberty and justice for all.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.