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What Is Rankism and Why Do We “Do” It?

Rankism is what "somebodies" do to people they think are "nobodies."

Rankism is an assertion of superiority. It typically takes the form of putting others down. It's what "somebodies" do to people they think are "nobodies."

It turns out that rankism is the source of most manmade suffering. So, if we could get rid of it, we would be a lot happier. Let me explain.

Before you conclude that rankism is human nature — that we're like the apes, and they do it, so we have no choice — and dismiss the possibility of overcoming it, consider this list of specific kinds of "put-downs" that, not long ago, were deemed cool, but have now become a surefire way to embarrass yourself:

  1. Racism: Whites putting and keeping non-whites down
  2. Sexism: Males keeping females at a disadvantage
  3. Ageism: Patronizing the young, condescending to the elderly
  4. Anti-Semitism: Discriminating against Jews
  5. Classism: Putting down people based on differences in class (more prevalent in former aristocracies like Britain than in America, but also known here)
  6. Homophobia: Heterosexuals demeaning gays and lesbians
  7. Ableism: Humiliating people with disabilities
  8. Colonialism: Subordinating and exploiting another society or nation
  9. Workplace and schoolyard bullying; sexual harassment, child abuse, and domestic violence; corporate, bureaucratic, and political corruption

The list goes on. Once you have a word for it, you see rankism everywhere.

Although all of these familiar "isms" persist, none of them has the force it did 50 years ago. Most of them are now regarded as distinctly uncool, even grounds for dismissal.

The burden of proof, which formerly fell on "nobodies," now falls on "somebodies." That's historical change, and that's why it is not utopian to think that we might be able to give up putting people down — and not just people bearing a targeted trait such as color, gender, age, class, religion, sexual orientation, or disability — but give up putting people down period. For any reason.

You're probably thinking, What if they deserve to be put down? What if they have screwed up?

Even then, being put down is not what's needed, nor is it justified. Correction, maybe; put-downs, never. Indignity and humiliation have no place in human relations. That is where the above sequence of no-longer-legitimate putdowns is heading. That is how humans are evolving behaviorally.

Some will think of this direction as long-prophesized. Isn't this just the Golden Rule? they will say. Well, yes, it is the Golden Rule. But with a difference — a very significant operational difference.

This Golden Rule has teeth. In this framework, "Do unto others ..." becomes operative. Why? Because many behaviors that violate the Golden Rule can be understood as rankism. The perpetrators of these behaviors are rankists. Once you put a label on ignoble behavior, it is much harder to get away with.

In the same way that sexism and sexists rapidly lost legitimacy once they were named, so, too, will rankists find themselves in untenable positions once a label can be pinned on them.

Not overnight. It has taken decades to delegitimize sexism and the other "isms," but once the process of de-legitimizing indignifying behaviors begins, there is no stopping it until we reach an equilibrium characterized by equal dignity for all.

The title of this piece promised an explanation of why we practice rankism. If we look at the kind of "reasons" used to justify the familiar "isms," we see that they are now all regarded as specious. Not one of the "reasons" that people trotted out 50 years ago flies today.

So, there must be some hidden reason, something other than the traditional ones, that causes humans to behave in ways prejudicial and inimical to others. Why do we demean, marginalize, and disenfranchise others? Why do we subject others to indignity? Why do we do to others what we would not want them to do to us?

In short, why do we put others down? Or, in this language, why do we tolerate rankism? You've probably sensed where this line of questions is going: Why do we sometimes engage in rankism ourselves?

Rankism is a residue of predation. Our species, Homo sapiens, has a long history of predation. We're not only good at it, we're the top of the food chain. Of course, we do more than prey on animals and on each other. We also cooperate with each other, we love each other, we have shown ourselves to be capable of living in peace and harmony.

But through recorded history, we have preyed on other tribes, other states, religions, classes, races, etc. Everyone alive today has predatory ancestors and, what's equally important, ancestors who managed to avoid becoming the prey of other human predators.

The twentieth century may go down as the bloodiest of all centuries, but it will also go down as the century in which many millions of human beings threw off centuries of colonial exploitation by a handful of relatively small nation states. And what is colonialism but one group putting another group down for purposes of exploitation?

Colonialism was long justified (as we once justified racism) in terms of a "superior" people ruling an "inferior" people. Colonialism was an example of people who regarded themselves as "somebodies" putting down people they took for "nobodies." And once one group has got another down, it can exploit it until its victims — the "nobodies" —organize and marshal a commensurate, if not surpassing, power.

We "do" rankism to institutionalize and normalize predation. That is why we "do" all the subspecies of rankism (racism, sexism, etc.). We practice rankism to put ourselves in a position to prey on others without exposing ourselves to risk. Predators all target the weak, and humans are no exception.

The reasons we've given to justify the familiar isms are bogus. They're actually not reasons at all, they are excuses. They are excuses for putting people down and keeping them down so we can more safely exploit them in the future. Or, so they will not compete with us. Or, simply to feel superior.

When I was a student at Oberlin College in the 1950s, the student body was one percent black and there were virtually no women majoring in math or physics. I'd not have made the basketball team if the college had accepted African-Americans in numbers anywhere near their national percentage. The competition for places in graduate school would have been stiffer if women had been encouraged to pursue careers in science. I was the unwitting beneficiary of a number of rankist practices.

Discrimination disadvantages targets by denying them equal opportunity, and it advantages those not targeted. That is why we do it — to give ourselves an advantage. That is the real reason. We've kept it a secret because it diminishes our achievement to admit the game was rigged in our favor.

Fixing the game is the real reason for rankism. If we can handicap or eliminate the competition, we improve our chances of coming away with the spoils.

But isn't that just what any animal has to do to survive? Isn't rankism just "survival of the fittest" at work? In short, isn't rankism nature's way?

Yes, rankism is what we've done through recorded history — one person to another, one group to another, one tribe to another, one nation to another. Until recently, the gains were judged to exceed the costs.

But rankism has now become counterproductive. Instead of giving groups or individuals an advantage, rankism backfires in the same way that racism, sexism, and homophobia do. It undermines group solidarity and hampers cooperation. Rankism stifles creativity, inhibits learning, and taxes productivity. Rankism causes unhappiness and illness. Rankism corrodes organizations and societies that condone it.

This is not just another moment in history. We stand on the threshold of an epochal change. Humans are on the verge of giving up intra-species predation. Not just because preying on other people is bad and causes suffering. No. We are giving it up, wherever we can identify it, for a more compelling reason.

Rankism is no longer working. Wars aren't being won anymore. Trade wars hurt more than they help. Slavery is universally condemned. Wage slavery will not for long outlast its brutal antecedent. Nations that disallow rankism will outperform and outproduce those that do not and lead the world in the 21st century.

As we target rankism, we create a world of dignity for all, not just for some at the expense of others. As we disallow rankism, we build a dignitarian world, a world in which, regardless of rank, everyone experiences equal dignity.

Rankism wins, wins, wins, and then one day it loses. In the end, it loses because organizations and societies grounded in dignity for all trump those driven by the threat of indignity.

Dignity is our destiny. Why not embrace it?

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