What is rankism? First, some examples; then, a definition.
An executive pulls into valet parking, late to a business lunch, and finds no one to take his car. He spots a teenager running towards him and yells, “Where the hell were you? I haven’t got all day.”
He tosses the keys on the pavement. Bending to pick them up, the boy says, “Sorry, sir. About how long do you expect to be?”
The executive hollers over his shoulder, “You’ll know when you see me, won’t you?” The valet winces, but holds his tongue. Postscript: That evening the teenager bullies his kid brother.
The dynamic is familiar: A customer demeans a waitress, a boss humiliates an employee, a principal bullies a teacher, a teacher mocks a student, students ostracize other students, a parent beats a child, a coach bullies a player, a professor exploits a graduate student, a doctor insults a nurse or patronizes a patient, a priest abuses a parishioner, a caregiver mistreats an elder, executives award themselves perks and bonuses, police use racial profiling, politicians serve the special interests. Surely, you can add to the list.
Most such behaviors have nothing to do with racism, sexism, or other discriminatory isms. Yet perpetrators of these insults, like racists and sexists, select their targets with circumspection. In every case, a disparity of power and rank figures in the choice of target and higher rank shields perpetrators from retaliation.
Rank signifies power. Sometimes rank is abused, as in these examples, but often it’s simply an organizational tool used to get a job done in a timely manner. Many bosses, coaches, doctors, priests, and professors interact with their subordinates without insulting or exploiting them. Yet in the hands of a sadistic bully, rank is a cudgel if not an instrument of torture. What can victims of rank abuse do to protect their dignity?
Those abused on the basis of color unified against racism. Women targeted sexism and the elderly took aim at ageism. By analogy, “rankism” denotes abuses of power associated with rank. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere. More importantly, once you call it by name, everyone else will see it too, and perpetrators will find themselves on the defensive.
“To have a name is to be,” said Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractals. As “sexism” gained a foothold, men’s desire to avoid being labeled “sexist” caused them to modify their treatment of women. Likewise, the desire of perpetrators to avoid being labeled rankist will make them think twice about insulting the dignity of subordinates.
Rankism is what people who take themselves for “somebodies” do to those they mistake for “nobodies.” Whether directed at an individual or a group, rankism aims to put targets in their place and keep them weak so they will do as they’re told and submit to being taken advantage of.
In the examples above, rankism consists of abuse of the power attached to rank. Another expression of rankism occurs when the abuse lies not in how rank is used, but in the very fact of ranking in the first place. There are lots of hierarchies whose only purpose is to justify privileging one group over another. Then, high status is used by the creators of these fabricated hierarchies to rationalize the privileges they’ve arrogated unto themselves. Contrariwise, the inferior status of the less powerful is invoked to justify their on-going exploitation. The irony is that while the less powerful are forced to serve as benefactors to those of higher rank, they are routinely depicted as dependent and inferior.
Examples of rankism based on pseudo rankings include the illicit hierarchies maintained by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexualism (or, homophobia)–in short, the familiar isms that plague societies and that, one by one, are being discredited and dismantled.
Like abuses of legitimate rank, the use of illegitimate rank is a source of humiliation and indignity. Both expressions of rankism are indefensible violations of human dignity. Rankism is simply an umbrella name for the many ways that people put others down to secure advantages for themselves. All forms of rankism have their roots in predation and have evolved from the practice of slavery.
The relationship between rankism and the specific isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as varieties of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific cancers all had their origins in cellular malfunction.
In this metaphor, racism, sexism, and homophobia are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malignancy analogous to cancer itself. Rankism is the mother of all the ignoble isms.
Now that rankism has a name, we must learn to say it aloud. It was not easy to use the word “sexism” at first. Men utterly refused, and women demurred for fear of seeming “uppity.” As we overcome our reluctance to be uppity nobodies, and gain the confidence to stand up for our own and others’ dignity, rankism will become insupportable.
The demise of rankism in all its guises will mark the dawn of something new in human affairs–dignitarian societies. In a dignitarian society, no one is taken for a nobody and, regardless of role or rank, everyone is accorded equal dignity.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.