Somebodies and Nobodies

Dignity for all.

Peace Dividend: A Model of Morality

This is the 15th in the series "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship".

Somebodies and Nobodies

Bullying has always bothered me. Not just being bullied, though that too of course. I mean the phenomenon of bullying, in all its forms. I think bullying troubles everyone, even the bullies themselves. No one wants to be pushed around, to be forced to act against one’s own interests. And, if it’s happening to anyone, deep down we know it can happen to us.

Growing up, I saw bullying all around me. War was an extreme example of it. Slavery was, too. But, I didn’t need to look that far afield to find bullies. My schools were full of put downs, physical and verbal. Some of my classmates were regularly humiliated with epithets like “retard” and “fatso.” In college and graduate school, one-upmanship was the name of the game. Women were actively discouraged from studying mathematics and physics. Some educators even went so far as to claim that females lacked the “math gene.”

And, of course, in mid-century America everyone knew that blacks could be denigrated at will. When our all-white high school athletic teams lost to a school with black players, the N-word was employed to remind African Americans of their inferior social rank.

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By the 1960s, the growing strength of the civil rights movement was forcing Americans to question race-based discrimination. Within a few years, other liberation movements took aim at the indignities that were routinely visited upon women, the elderly, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

As a college president in the early 1970s, it was my responsibility to handle the grievances of various identity groups. I sensed that all of them had something in common—namely, those targeted for discrimination were taken for “nobodies” by their victimizers, who in turn saw themselves as “somebodies.” But, rank was relative. You could be a somebody in one context and a nobody in another. Somebodies could pull rank on nobodies, of course, but equally significant was that nobodies could lord it over people of still lower rank.

It was the power attached to rank that made degradation, discrimination, and abuse possible. If, by virtue of your place in a social or organizational hierarchy, you outranked someone, then the power of your rank shielded you from retaliation.

Identity politics had been effective at curtailing indignities that targeted solidarity groups defined by a common trait, but it was impotent when it came to disallowing indignities within these groups. My ah-ha was that all of the familiar isms were special cases of rank-based abuse and that, even taken together, they represented just the tip of the indignity iceberg.

But not to despair. In combatting racism, sexism, ageism, etc., techniques had been battle-tested that could now be leveled against the basic source of a wide variety of indignities—the abuse of power vested in rank.

Given the achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, is it unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone’s equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? If one racial group can learn to treat members of another race with dignity, why can’t it learn to treat people of the same race with dignity? The same applies to gender and the other traits that have served as pretexts for abuse and discrimination. If we can learn not to put people down who carry certain defining traits, why can’t we learn not to put anyone down?

That we’ve found ways to curb the indignities suffered by minorities, women, gays, the elderly, and people with disabilities suggests that making dignity the norm universally may not be out of reach. We could teach kids that dignity is their right and that it’s also everyone else’s. We could teach everyone to defend the dignity of others as they would have others defend theirs.

When I heard this proposition sounding in my head, I recognized it as an echo of the rule we’d mouthed in Sunday School. But in those days, although we were exhorted to obey the golden rule, no one seemed bound by it, not even the teachers and preachers who urged it upon others.

Since then, liberation movements—as personified by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, and others—have done more to put violations of the golden rule on the defensive than centuries of preaching. What if the techniques of identity politics were applied not just in defense of the dignity of minorities, women, and gays, but to overcome all forms of indignity?

The rest of this post sketches a model of morality that, by pinning a name on the rank-based abuse that causes indignity, addresses one of my take-away questions from Sunday School: How could we make the golden rule not only self-evident, but self-enforcing?

A Model of Morality

As mentioned in the discussion of modeling, the natural sciences search for grand unifying theories, also referred to as “theories of everything,” or TOEs. Everything? you may wonder. Really, everything?

Well, no, not quite everything. Not why some people like blueberries and hate broccoli, and for others, it’s vice versa. Not who will win the World Series next year. Not the answer to the question Einstein said would be his first if he returned in 500 years: “Is the universe friendly?” Chalk up the use of “everything” to poetic license. What scientists mean by a TOE is a theory that explains everything that current narrower theories do, but goes on to explain something more. In other words, a TOE is a broader, more inclusive, theory. It’s a theory of greater generality.

Whether it’s a theory of nature or human behavior, TOEs are important because they give us insight into the unruly margins where models of lesser scope break down. For example, by examining the intersection of the fields of electricity and magnetism, Maxwell discovered a broader theory that revealed that light was an electromagnetic wave and accurately predicted its speed. Radio was one of the early applications of Maxwell’s theory. When Newton’s laws of classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory were applied to the atom, they gave false results, but in the hands of Niels Bohr a new theory emerged—the quantum theory of the atom—that opened up the hitherto unexplored world of atomic physics. Similarly, when Paul Dirac married quantum mechanics and relativity, his more general theory predicted a new family of elementary particles, known as antiparticles. In the natural sciences, nothing hollers “Nobel Prize” louder than a TOE.

A more modest acronym for the Moral TOE I’ll suggest in this chapter would be MOM—Model Of Morality. (Think of “MOM” as acknowledging the mothers of the world who model morality for their children. Although, I shall speak of TOEs and MOMs, it’s not without a dollop of irony, as the acronyms are meant to suggest.)

Models are sitting ducks—meant to be faulted and disproven. Like all models, the MOM I shall sketch immediately becomes a legitimate target: What does it not account for? What does it get wrong? After all, its certain destiny is to be replaced by a better MOM. But if this MOM serves to provoke others to come up with something better, then it will be worth whatever mockery it provokes.

In the spirit of full disclosure and minimal obfuscation, I’m going to reverse the usual practice and give away my MOM’s punch line up front. Like the truths of science, it is disconcertingly simple, yet has a host of non-obvious, far-reaching implications.

When science and religion stop fighting and pool their findings, the headline and bottom line of the MOM that leaps out at us will be:

Dignity for All, Always

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

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

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