Somebodies and Nobodies: Equal in Dignity

Rankism is putting oneself up and putting others down.

Posted Aug 27, 2009

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Rankism is putting oneself up and others down. Here's an example from a friend in the academic world.

I was on a doctoral committee with several other professors examining a graduate student in physics. It was the final hurdle to his Ph.D., and his career hung in the balance. There is probably no scarier moment in one's entire education, unless it's the first day of kindergarten.

The candidate was less than five feet tall. At one point he ran out of space on the blackboard and asked if he might erase some of what he'd written. The committee chairman, pretending to be helpful, suggested, "There's still plenty of room at the top-just climb up on a chair."

The student turned red, but stood on a chair to complete his presentation. As a last rite of initiation, he'd been made to look and feel like a schoolboy. The chairman smirked condescendingly behind his back, and looked around to see if the rest of us shared his delight in the fellow's humiliation.

Rankism is what people who take themselves for "somebodies" do to those they mistake for "nobodies." Most of us have experienced the indignity of rankism, but we do not routinely protest--at least not to our tormentors' faces. Instead, we complain to our peers and fantasize getting even.

Uncle Tom's policy of "to get along, go along" recommends itself to most when it comes to confronting rankism. As a short-term solution this is understandable because the power difference upon which rankism is based makes resisting it dangerous: the bully may pile on, the boss can fire you, doctors and professors hold our lives in their hands. But as a antidote to rankism, appeasement fails. Uncle Tom was whipped to death.

Despite the fact that we may hold our tongues when we or others suffer abuse and baseless discrimination, most of us sense that there is something about human beings that is universal, absolute, and, yes, equal.

Equal? We are obviously unequal in specific skills, talents, beauty, strength, health, or wealth-in any measurable trait for that matter.

What then? For millennia, people of every faith, often in opposition to their own religious leaders, have sensed that all human beings are of equal dignity.

Rankism is an assault on dignity. If people are fundamentally equal in dignity, then abuse and discrimination on the basis of differences in power, role, or rank have no legitimacy and must be disallowed.

All ranks, like all races, are worthy of equal dignity. This idea, though it may be couched in moral terms, is ultimately grounded in pragmatism. Deviations from equal dignity set in motion a dynamic that draws energy away from whatever we're doing-working, learning, healing, or simply relating.

When energy is diverted to defending one's dignity in the workplace, productivity suffers. In schools, students will sacrifice their learning in the name of their dignity, and many do just that. At an early age, rankism creates the specious divide between "winners" and "losers" and extinguishes enthusiasm for learning in many before they reach third grade. In relationships, rankism undermines mutuality, cripples empathy, smothers compassion, and ends by killing love.

In focusing on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation as obstacles to equal opportunity, we've overlooked rank itself. Rank acquired in one realm often confers advantages in other, unrelated ones. Achievers of high rank may use their position to disadvantage those who would challenge them, or to hang on to rewards they may once have earned but have long since ceased to merit. Low rank should be seen as a stepping stone, not as a stigma.

Although most organizations start out with the intention of doing good and providing a service, rankism almost always creeps in and subverts that purpose to the goal of advancing the well-being of high-ranking members. The discriminatory, morale-sapping, and counter-productive effects of rankism can be seen in hierarchies of all kinds: schools and universities; firms, corporations, and businesses; labor unions; medical, religious and non-profit organizations; bureaucracies and governments.

In the 1960s, America faced a moral crisis that threatened to tear the country apart. Once we understood that there was no way to end the crisis without dismantling racism, we began to do so. Like racism, rankism won't be eradicated overnight, but its perpetrators can be put on notice. Once the word rankism is on people's lips, it will not be long before it's as uncool to be branded rankist as it has become to be known as racist, sexist, or homophobic.

The indignities of rankism, no less than those of racism and sexism, are cruel, inefficient, and self-defeating. Rankism, as an attack on human dignity, has no more place in democracy's future than the other ignoble isms.

Democracy is a work in progress. Its essence is its capacity for self-correction. Creating a world of equal dignity by overcoming rankism is democracy's next evolutionary step.