The subordinate social rank once officially enforced on people of color in the United States is a prime example of rank illegitimately held. Rankism of this kind usually acquires a name of its own—racism, in this case—and is overcome by public demonstrations that defenders of the status quo perceive as a threat to the social order. In contrast, when the dignity movement targets illegitimate uses of rank, it is likely to manifest not in million-man marches in the nation’s capital, but rather in millions of schools, businesses, health care facilities, churches, and families across the country—that is, within the relationships and organizations in which rank is being abused.
The specificity of rank—parent, coach, boss, teacher, doctor, rabbi, roshi, imam, or priest—means that a dignitarian society will be built relationship by relationship, organization by organization. The focus on rank—the locus of power—is exactly what gives this framework transformative power. The Greek mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, and I will move the world.” Our lever is the will to dignity. Our fulcrum is a stance against rankism. Together, they can generate a force strong enough to change the world.
Contributing to the success of the trait-based liberation movements was support and leadership from individuals who were themselves not among the afflicted but who understood that it was in their own interest to help secure rights for those who were. Seminal roles in these movements, especially in their early stages, were played by fair-minded managers, unbigoted gentiles, white liberals, and non-chauvinist males, motivated perhaps by memories of having been nobodied themselves at some point in their lives. Regardless of their motivations, the dignity movement is also likely to depend heavily on help from a few enlightened leaders during its infancy. People of lower rank are reluctant to speak up unless it has been made safe for them to do so by someone with the authority to protect them if they take the risk.
Stages of the Movement
The history of the women’s movement for enfranchisement and liberation could well predict the stages of the dignitarian one. Movements usually begin, as did the nineteenth-century and modern women’s movements, with the formation of small groups of people who share a sense of injustice. In the 1960s, these consciousness-raising sessions occurred in homes, schools, offices, and churches, primarily among women. Within a few years, large numbers of women, along with their male supporters, joined together in protest and mounted demonstrations on behalf of specific policy goals such as equal pay for equal work, a woman’s right to choose, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Title IX (of the Education Amendments of 1972), which established school athletic programs for girls and women on a par with those for boys and men.
Progress toward nonrankist, dignitarian values is likely to follow a similar path. Much of the change will be set in motion in relatively private interpersonal conversations among victims and between victims and victimizers within specific organizations. Through such discussions, those guilty of rankism will come to understand the impact of their behavior on their targets, and some will be convinced to modify it. Part of the incentive to change arises from empathy and an innate sense of fairness, but by itself empathy is seldom enough. Also necessary to produce real change is a vivid prospect of the negative consequences of not doing so.
In the workplace, worker malcontent due to rankism inevitably results in foot-dragging, which eventually shows up as reduced profits. But the threat that the enterprise will lose out competitively is insufficient to change a culture of rankism if a leader is willing to sacrifice the well-being of his organization to his privilege and stubborn pride.
People of a certain age will remember Alabama’s Governor George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door defiantly shouting, “Segregation yesterday; segregation today; segregation tomorrow!” to a national television audience. Likewise, the heads of some companies have preferred to ruin their firms’ reputations rather than give up the right to disrespect or exploit their employees. What it takes to get many leaders to alter their ways is the imminent prospect of forfeiting their jobs.
In another parallel with the identity-based liberation movements, the dismantling of rankism will be furthered by each of us examining our personal relationships with relatives, friends, co-workers, teachers, physicians, and religious leaders. The larger transgressions we complain about—corporate and governmental corruption; bullying in the workplace, the marketplace, and among nations—differ in scale but not kind from the “little” abuses of power most of us permit ourselves. As we prune our individual relationships of rankism we create the understanding, will, and confidence to challenge the broader forms of it that afflict society and the world at large.
As already noted, to create a movement you need to know both what you’re for and what you’re against. That is why the concept of rankism is essential. Without it a movement for dignity is toothless. Try to imagine a civil rights movement absent the concept of racism, or a women’s movement without the concept of sexism. Until the targets of injustice have a name for what they’re suffering, it is difficult to organize a resistance.
In some situations, they may even blame their predicament on themselves and each other, never achieving the solidarity necessary to compel their tormentors to stop. Rankism begets rankism, so as surely as somebodies visit it upon nobodies, so too do nobodies inflict it on each other. A panhandler, spotting a copy of Somebodies and Nobodies I was carrying, insisted on telling me, “I’m not a nobody; I’m a somebody.”
Then, pointing to another street person about fifty yards away, she sneered, “See her? Now that’s a nobody.” Interpersonal rankism among the rank and file undermines their willingness to cooperate and unite against the more insidious forms of institutional rankism that marginalize them all.
As making the distinction between rank and rankism becomes second nature, and as rank is delineated and rankism disallowed, families will become more harmonious, schools will improve, and businesses will see greater productivity. When dignitarian institutions are the norm, those that remain rankist will handicap themselves in the same way that an avowedly racist institution disadvantages itself today.
A Dignitarian Business Model
Here’s an example describing how a Seattle-area firm was transformed—in this case, from the top down—into a dignitarian institution.
In the early 1970s, residential real estate sales could charitably be called a predatory business. It was not quite as rapacious as in David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, but definitely not for the faint of heart. The tone was set by the principle of caveat emptor, which allowed sellers and their agents to misrepresent properties to buyers.
That license characterized the conduct of the entire industry: agents abused not only buyers but sellers and each other as well; brokers in turn abused their agents. It was rankism at its rankest.
In 1972 John Jacobi bought a small local office in Seattle called Windermere Real Estate. A younman, he had resigned from a promising career in banking to escape the coils of bureaucracy. He had no brokerage experience but he brought a model of cooperation, not exploitation, and of dignity, not rankism.
Jacobi began dealing with his agents as equals and upgraded the appearance of their work spaces. He insisted that they conduct themselves with honesty and respect for all parties. He increased the agents’ share of commissions and did nothing to encourage competition among them or, as the company grew, between offices.
These anti-rankist policies worked. Growth continued even in the grim years of the early 1980s, and today Windermere is a network of over 250 offices and some 7,500 agents throughout the West.
Jacobi’s changes did not occur in a historical vacuum, however.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, consumerism caught up with the real estate business and court decisions ended the practice of caveat emptor. The Federal Trade Commission forced profound changes in the industry, removing the stain of rankism from the relationship between agents and buyers.
Although the analysis of rankism may at first seem more complex than that of the familiar isms, there is one way in which tackling it is actually easier: we all have known its sting. Not everyone has a personal experience of racism or sexism or the other isms, but because at one time or another each of us has been nobodied, there’s a sense in which we’ve all set foot on the same boat.
But we are not yet all fully in that boat. Only as we opt to forgo the short-run gains of abusing a power advantage in exchange for a guarantee that our own dignity will be secure when the tables are turned do we align ourselves with others who’ve made this same choice. In time that solidarity group will assume the proportions of a movement which, as it swells, will force a renegotiation of the social contract predicated on the rejection of rankism. The result will be the creation of a legal framework for a dignitarian society analogous to that created by the U.S. Congress with passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965, which paved the way for a multicultural society.
A second way in which targeting rankism simplifies matters is in the effect it has on the principle of political correctness. All of this doctrine’s various, specific (and too often tedious) preachings can be replaced by one simple, comprehensive tenet: protect the dignity of others as you do your own.
Does this maxim sound familiar? The golden rule has been around for two millennia, but for the most part its observance has been optional and haphazard. Giving rankism a name and building a dignitarian society holds the promise of making adherence to the golden rule the norm rather than the exception. The reason this precept has always sounded unrealistically utopian is that there has not been a mechanism of accountability. Anyone could suspend it, at a moment’s notice, to take advantage of a difference in power. This will be far more difficult, and hence far more rare, in a dignitarian society that expressly disallows rankism.
Even when people have the best of intentions, the feelings and interests of others are invariably hurt at times. We’re constantly overreaching in our uses of power—stepping on others’ toes if not their necks—and experiencing injury ourselves. But it’s one thing to do this inadvertently and quite another to claim the prerogative to do it. Slavery and its segregationist aftermath were not defended as unintended deviations from the norm; they were defended in principle by whites who asserted their innate superiority and therefore their absolute right to dominate and exploit people of color.
So, too, rankism is now supported by many in principle. There will probably always be lapses, but once the burden of proof shifts from victims to perpetrators, we’ll know that rankism has lost its sanction and a dignitarian consensus is in formation.
How can we hasten that day? First, by learning to anticipate which uses of power will cause indignity. We can do this by building a model of each proposed use of power in advance so as to predict its ripple effects. By interviewing those likely to be affected, we can avoid what would otherwise be attacks on their dignity. We keep revising the model until we find one that does no harm, and only then do we green-light the project. Today, environmental impact studies are routine. Why not “dignity impact studies?”
Second, we can take steps to eliminate rankism from our existing social and civic institutions. This means creating models of the organizations in which we live, work, learn, heal, worship, and govern ourselves, and then testing them in practice and adjusting them until they succeed in safeguarding the dignity of both those who staff and those who are served by them.
In building a dignitarian society, no tool will prove more valuable than modeling. Modeling has enabled humans to harness power and it can equally help us to limit its damages. The following chapter begins a discussion of models and their transformational role in human affairs.
This is the fourth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.
[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]