Models of Dignity (Part 2)

All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity

Posted Jan 21, 2014

Chapter 3: MODELS OF DIGNITY (Part 2)

Models Are Commonplace

The notion of model building can sound technical at first, perhaps even esoteric. To make it clear that the use of this tool is not limited to scientists and philosophers but can be used expertly in “ordinary life,” here is an example provided to me by writer and educator Dr. Pamela Gerloff, who reflected on her upbringing on an Illinois farm:

I learned about model building from my mother. No one called it that; it was just what you did, the way you solved problems or made decisions, the way you lived in the world. If I asked my mother why I had to do something a certain way, she never said “because I said so,”or even just “because.” She always had a reason for why this way worked better than others. I was free to propose a different way–a different model–if I could come up with a more useful, effective, or efficient one, based on reason, observation, experience, or insight.

Whether it was folding laundry, dealing practically with difficult (i.e., rankist) school officials, or understanding the complex psychology of human interaction, no model was static. Solutions and approaches changed and improved, and the superior model won out. I remember how her model for unloading hay bales from a wagon saved me from my own less effective approach, which had caused me considerable strain and struggle. (“I think of it as a puzzle,” she said, as she gracefully selected the next bale most easily removed from the pile.)

When I was a young adult interested in child rearing, she explained to me how, periodically, she used to secretly put new books on the bookshelf for her small children to “discover” on their own. She read philosophy and psychology, using others’ thinking as a springboard to develop and refine her own theories about why the people we knew acted the way they did.

It was exciting and adventurous, this way of approaching the world. No job was mundane, no chore particularly tedious. Everything was an opportunity for model building, for intellectual engagement. From my mother, I learned to observe, to contemplate, to formulate hypotheses and theories, to seek new and better solutions.

An example of the changing nature of social models is provided by the evolution of governmental models in the twentieth century. The United Nations Development Program reports that eighty-one countries moved from tyranny toward democracy in the 1980s and 1990s and that by 2002, 140 of the world’s almost 200 independent nations had held multiparty elections–compared to just a handful a century earlier.

When we recall how few democratic states there were at the beginning of the twentieth century, a dignitarian world does not seem to be quite such an unrealistic goal for the twenty-first. Ironically, the apparent infinitude of our ignorance about the universe and ourselves has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will always remain unfinished, our knowledge incomplete. We will never lose the opportunity to contribute by extending our understanding. Therein lies a transcendental refuge for human dignity.

Modeling Our Uses of Power

Only yesterday our forebears moved out of Africa. They multiplied and spread out across the earth. One tribe became many.

So under threat of enslavement or worse, we designed ever more potent weapons with which to protect ourselves. Sometimes, thinking we had the advantage, we turned them on branches of our estranged family. Over some five thousand generations we have accumulated enough might to return us all to the Stone Age. As Enrico Fermi, nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate put it, “What we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires.”

Although Homo sapiens often misused their powers in the past, many of our species’ misadventures can be chalked up to “youthful experimentation. ”How else to learn that certain actions have long-term negative consequences except by seeing what happens when we execute them? Moreover, on many occasions we have used power well. A species that can go from living in caves to landing on the moon in some tens of millennia must be doing some things right.

With luck, adolescence ends without serious mishap. But its inherent recklessness sometimes lands the young in trouble before they complete the dicey transition to adulthood. Because the powers we now command are capable of putting the entire human project in jeopardy, it has become ever more important that we learn to predict in advance the ramifications of their proposed uses. And we must institutionalize safeguards to minimize the damage should we miscalculate. When it comes to our use of power, building predictive models has become a matter of life and death. For example, based on models of global climate change, a scientific consensus is now forming that if we don’t curtail greenhouse gas emissions, we may inadvertently induce a planetary catastrophe.

We took one step out of the Dark Ages as we ceased to accept the idea that authorities could make up the “facts” to suit themselves and began to substitute knowledge, evidence, and reason for hearsay, superstition, and dogma. Now we must bring the other foot forward out of the past.

Today’s challenge is distinguishing between rightful and wrongful uses of power. It’s a distinction that goes to the heart of virtually all political issues, both local and global. The consequences of asserting rank range from the relatively harmless (as in the alienation of an acquaintance) to the fate of life on earth (as in global nuclear war or a man-made pandemic). We must begin to make a practice of refusing to acquiesce when people in positions of authority misuse that authority, even if we are the beneficiaries of their actions.

Likewise, we ourselves must expect to be held accountable in this regard. By modeling the uses of power and choosing only those that protect dignity, we can do for standards of justice what modeling nature has done for standards of living.

Some might argue that we already accomplish this, albeit imperfectly, through the various mechanisms of democracy. It’s true that democracy provides a recourse when government officials abuse their rank; we can vote them out. But thus far we’ve applied the democratic idea only to our civic affairs, only within national boundaries, and quite inconsistently.

Democracy’s next step is to extend its protections against rankism beyond civic affairs to social institutions and to relations among nation-states. As indicated in the preceding chapter, we can do this in two ways: (1) by conducting dignity impact studies before authorizing a new use of power, and (2) by remodeling existing institutions into dignitarian ones.

Rankism is invariably experienced, by the individual or group suffering it, as an insult to dignity. Indignity therefore provides us with a litmus test that signals a likely abuse of power. But determining which uses of power will damage dignity, and as a result, backfire, can no longer be left to the full-scale, rough-and-tumble tests of power politics. That has become too dangerous because modern weaponry is more destructive and more widely available than ever before. Rather, the process must be brought into the “laboratory,” as natural scientists have learned to do, and modeled in thought or other small-scale experiments. As Stewart Brand puts it, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.”

Despite warnings from a few farseeing individuals, we have typically plunged ahead and learned only by doing. The end result has been the same as that suffered by the succession of foolhardy men who climbed into flying machines without first modeling the consequences of their designs: over and over again, we’ve crashed and burned.

Conducting dignity impact studies in advance may sound far-fetched and utopian now, but this was once believed true of environmental impact studies, which are now mandatory. Nor are what we’re calling dignity impact studies really a new thing. People do the equivalent every time they imagine the effect on someone of something they are about to do or say. Part of conducting ourselves thoughtfully–of not inadvertently giving offense–is projecting ahead before we commit ourselves to a course of action, especially when the stakes are high. Such imaginative thought-experiments have long been a common tool in model building of all sorts. It is now time to apply this tool systematically to our anticipated uses of power with an eye on their impact on dignity.

By modeling the consequences of proposed uses of power, all of which hold the potential for unwelcome if not catastrophic results, we can disallow those that flunk the dignity test and thereby spare ourselves much grief. In doing so we’ll be heeding Shylock’s warning that victims of villainy are seldom satisfied with merely getting even, but rather are inclined to “better the instruction.”

An Example from Higher Education:
A Template for Remodeling Institutions

Although it’s possible to delineate the broad features of a dignitarian society, no one can foretell exactly what shape they will take. Likewise, it’s impossible to tell in advance precisely what an organization will look like after it is transformed into a dignitarian one. This is because the process of transformation must be one in which everyone involved has a voice and everyone’s views have some political weight.

In a dignitarian society, the role of institutional architect is inherently collaborative. Providing a blueprint from outside the design process is contrary to the dignitarian spirit. This is not to suggest that the role of experts in education, health care, organizational development, government, and international relations is unimportant. Quite the contrary. But for the resulting institutions to embody equal dignity, these professionals will have to work directly with the people those institutions are being designed to serve.

That leaders and pundits insist on designing programs without involving those they’re meant to serve is one reason their ideas usually fall flat. A paternalistic process is incompatible with a dignitarian outcome because such a process, no matter how benevolent, is inherently rankist. To illustrate the remodeling of an institution, the following is an example I’m familiar with–one from academia. Just change the names, and it illustrates the procedures that apply to transforming any kind of institution into a dignitarian one.

In response to the renascence of the women’s movement in the 1960s, many academic institutions established special committees on the status of women. Typically, these committees were composed of women administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and staff, and also included a few men. They began their work by holding open hearings on campus during which anyone could call attention to policies or practices that were felt to demean women or put them at a disadvantage. The committees then compiled a list of specific instances of unfairness or abuse along with potential remedies and presented it to the administrator, group, or governing body with the power to redress the grievances at issue. Their final task was to persuade that official or body to adopt the recommended changes.

This process, widely employed to make institutions less sexist, can serve as a template for making institutions less rankist. Open hearings can allow participants to point out ways in which members of various constituencies feel their dignity is not respected. A portion of the complaints may be contested, with some eventually judged to be ill-founded and withdrawn or dismissed. A number of the valid ones will be relatively easy to address. Other problems may take years or even decades to rectify.

A few words of caution regarding committees–especially those charged with transforming an institution. First, the likelihood of success is greatly enhanced by the participation of a figure of very high rank in the organization who makes it clear that it’s safe for others to seriously challenge the status quo. It need not be the president, but if not, it must be someone who everyone knows speaks for the president.

Second, the committee must have a fixed deadline against which it works. As the postwar British Prime Minister Clement Attlee noted, “Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”

Dignitarian governance does not necessarily mean giving everyone a vote on every issue, but it does mean giving everyone a voice. To ensure those voices are heard usually requires having at least some voting representatives from each of the organization’s various constituencies serving at every level of its governance. This is sometimes referred to as multi-stakeholder or collaborative problem-solving. For example, in an academic institution this means adding students and alumni to committees on student life, educational policy, appointments, and promotions, and to the governing faculty body itself and also the board of trustees. Typically, such representatives hold 5 to 15 percent of the seats, but the percentage could go higher. The aim is to ensure every group has an opportunity to make its interests known. This goal is given teeth by providing each group with enough votes to determine the outcome in those situations where the group as a whole is closely divided.

Vote ratios between various constituencies mirror their relative degree of responsibility for achieving each specific goal of the institution. Thus, students would have a decisive majority of votes on a student life committee, faculty a decisive majority on educational policy. And students, faculty, and administrators would all play minority roles in fiduciary decisions that traditionally are decided by the board of trustees.

Including voting representatives from all constituencies creates an environment in which the authorities do not merely deign to listen to those of lower rank. Rather, it behooves them to treat everyone with dignity because at the end of the day everyone will be exercising some degree of voting power over the outcome.

In addition to shared governance, a dignitarian institution is likely to possess a number of other distinctive characteristics. For example, the evaluation process would be broadened so that people from constituencies other than the one for which the person is being evaluated would be involved in hiring decisions and reviews of job performance. In the corporate world, such evaluation models are referred to as 360-degree reviews. All comments thus generated are provided as feedback to the employee. A growing practice is the appointment of an ombudsperson with broad responsibility for resolving disputes over the use and abuse of rank. Princeton University’s ombudsman in 2004, Camilo Azcarate, told me that his job can largely be summed up as making the distinction between rank and rankism in a wide variety of circumstances.

Finally, institution-wide constitutional reviews would be scheduled–every five or ten years or more frequently if called for–to update the system of governance in light of changing circumstances to ensure that it remains dignitarian. As power evolves, new opportunities for abuse present themselves. No institution will remain dignitarian for long if it is not committed to co-evolving with power.

The next chapter looks at how business organizations can be transformed into dignitarian ones.

This is the sixth 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.]