Somebodies and Nobodies

Dignity for all.

Why Do We Want To Be Famous?

Fame promises an escape from ghettos, both real and imagined.

I'm gonna live forever.
I'm gonna learn how to fly - high!
I feel it comin' together.
People will see me and die. Fame!

I'm gonna make it to Heaven.
Light up the sky like a flame; fame!
I'm gonna live forever.
Baby, remember my name.
- From the musical Fame

I hope to persuade you that the seemingly frivolous title question holds a secret with the power to reshape human relations. That a wish for fame belies the existence of a crippling, undiagnosed malady, one rather like malnutrition, except that it's a disease of the self, not the body. Let me explain.

In a world that sees people as Somebodies and Nobodies, indignities abound. The primary source of man-made indignity is rankism. By analogy with racism and sexism, rankism is defined as what somebodies do to nobodies. To be sure, not all somebodies abuse their power advantage. We've all known somebodies who are devoted to serving others and wouldn't think of abusing their rank, just as prior to the civil rights and women's movements there were whites who weren't racist and men who weren't sexist. On the other hand, most of us, even quasi-somebodies, have gotten a taste of the indignities routinely visited upon those taken for nobodies.

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Rankism is now appearing on the radar screen. To do so, it needed a name, and at last it has one. (If it's new to you, google "rankism" and see where the meme is taking hold.) But, many victims of rankism are still in the position of women before the word "sexism" elbowed its way into the language. Rankism's victims know that the indignities to which they are subjected are unjustified, but as yet they have few tools with which to resist their tormentors.

So long as rank-based abuse is regarded as business-as-usual, humiliation and indignity will remain unchecked. There are two ways to deal with this. We can either follow the example of identity politics and de-legitimize rankism (as the civil rights and women's movements have de-legitimized racism and sexism, and as the gay and disability movements are doing to overcome homophobia and ableism). Or, we can attempt to acquire enough power to place ourselves squarely in the Somebody camp and so enjoy the relative security that status provides in a society saturated with rankism. Everyone knows that it's imprudent to indignify a somebody. Who hasn't fantasized getting even with those who put us down when we were vulnerable by shoving our Oscar, Emmy, MVP award, Pulitzer, Nobel, or simply our promotion, in their faces? Accrue enough fame in life and you may even attain immortality and, in the words of the song, "live forever."

It should be noted that avoiding rankism by seeking status and fame is the same strategem employed by victims of identity groups who sought to blend into the dominant group. Passing as a somebody is like passing as a white or a straight. Until we can dismantle rankism, this is an understandable recourse for sidestepping its cruel injustice.

Dignity assures belonging. It's more than respect or courtesy. To live in dignity affirms, nurtures, and protects. Dignity is the social counterpart of interpersonal love. In the West Side Story ballad Somewhere, when the lovers sing "There's a place for us," they're claiming a right to the dignity of inclusion. Contrariwise, in her famous "nobody" poem, Emily Dickinson captures the indignity of exclusion:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
The there's a pair of us--don't tell.
They'd banish us, you know.

Nobodies are marginalized to the point of invisibility. Since humans are social creatures, banishment carries a threat of being deprived of social and material resources critical to health and happiness, and sometimes to survival itself. No wonder we're so sensitive to indignity. It poses an existential threat.

Fame promises an escape from whatever ghetto we're in, real or imagined. It deters detractors and may even squeeze a few crumbs of recognition from those who have begrudged us a smile while we were clawing our way out of Nobodyland. It's no coincidence that Oscar-winners enjoy better health and longer lives than runners-up.

Like liberty, we're often unaware of dignity until we lose it. A hint of disrespect may be a test of our resistance to subservience, or a reminder of our place in the hierarchy. A slight is often a precursor to pigeon-holing us as a nobody.

When strangers ply us with questions like "And you are?", "Who are you with?", or "Where did you go to school?" they are likely sizing up our power as belied by our affiliations.

The more recognition we can amass, the less likely it is that anyone will dare to nobody us. Fame is a bulwark against indignity. It proclaims our worth to anyone tempted to put us down and threatens retaliation if they persist. It even helps to quiet the critical voices we have internalized--of parents, classmates, and teachers--that echo in our heads long after these naysayers are gone.

The Miasma of Malrecognition

But alas, as everyone knows, there is not much room on the Red Carpet. Acquiring fame is like winning the lottery: many are called; few are chosen.

What then can we do until the dignity movement has garnered the support to put rankism in the doghouse with the other ignoble isms? Fortunately, there is an antidote to indignity more accessible than fame. It is called recognition. We gain recognition through the contributions we make to others and from their acknowledgment. These contributions need not be Oscar-worthy to gain us the dignity we need to thrive. In fact, they can be quite humble in conventional terms. But they must be accurately understood and acknowledged by all involved.

Genuine recognition must be differentiated from both false and inflated praise. The self-esteem movement fell into disrepute because the respect it offered was often disingenuous and exaggerated. What is required instead is a precise understanding and appreciation of each person's role, and the contributions he or she makes to others. These contributions can be anything into which time, effort, and care have been put--a home, a theory, a dance, a business, a garden, a pie, a blog, any job well done.

Children sense insincerity in exaggerated praise, and soon learn to discount it. The extreme adulation visited upon celebrities and superstars can be deadly. Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di, and Michael Jackson were first lionized and then destroyed by their responses to celebrity. The situation is reminiscent of the grotesque distortion that ordinary bees impose on their queen by force-feeding her royal jelly.

Recognition is to the self what food is to the body. And like food, too little or too much can be harmful. We must understand the effects on those who suffer from either a deficit or a surfeit of recognition and take steps to avoid malrecognition, much as we now guard against malnutrition. Seeking fame to preempt indignity and heal the wounds of malrecognition is like overeating to protect against malnutrition.

Rankism and its counterpart--the miasma of malrecognition--lie at the source of much of the social dysfunction that now vexes human societies worldwide. Effective policies to overcome school failure, poverty, chronic disease, criminality, discrimination against women, terrorism, and war require a redistribution of recognition and the de-legitimization of rankism.

In a subsequent post, I will describe a dignitarian society, one in which rankism has lost its bite, dignity is secure, and, although some people are better known than others, we seek salvation not via the vain pursuit of fame, but through service.

Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D., former president of Oberlin College, is an authority on rankism and dignity.

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