The Stealth Revolution

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

Posted Apr 22, 2014


Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. –Rainer Maria Rilke, German poet

It’s impossible to foresee exactly when one social consensus will give way to another. Even after the fact, it’s impossible to put your finger on precisely when this happens. Some would argue that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 marked such a tipping point with regard to race in the United States; others would say the revolution pivoted on the passing of the civil and voting rights acts. But although not everyone agrees on exactly when it occurred, few dispute that sometime around 1970, America and the rest of the world underwent a profound social transformation. The sixties grip the imagination because they mark the onset of the collapse of the prevailing social contract on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

Stories in this book suggest that the dignity movement is already under way and quietly gathering momentum. As a dignitarian culture forms in the crevices and shadows of the current social consensus and institutions restructure themselves, another tipping point approaches. When will it be reached? Ten years from now? Fifty? No one can say. With prior movements, there were decades when nothing seemed to be happening and then, without any perceivable warning, weeks of momentous change. Most movements begin stealthily, and the one for dignity is no exception. But in due course, all of them end up in our face. One day, not too long from now, the dignity movement will be equally plain to see.

A Cautionary Note

Of course, when set beside current events, the model of a dignitarian society drawn in these pages may very well sound utopian. Emerging social models always do until moments before a new consensus displaces a prevailing one. As it turned out, King’s “I have a dream” speech was not a pipe dream. It was a timely prophecy of America’s imminent emergence as a multicultural society, with global ramifications as well.

As a counterweight to long-range optimism, however, a dollop of short-run pessimism is prudent. A sober assessment of the prospects for a dignitarian society must acknowledge two things. First, in the event of a natural catastrophe, drastic climate change, pandemic, or the use of weapons of mass destruction, the advent of a dignitarian world will surely be slowed. Depending on the circumstances, the delay could be years, decades, or longer. In a worst-case scenario, all bets are off.

Second, every movement must deal with the reaction of those who believe it to be against their interests. In this case, as it grows in numbers, “nobody liberation”–the movement for dignity–will be opposed by somebodies using all the tactics arrayed against earlier uprisings.

These range from ridicule to violent suppression, censorship to sabotage, agents provocateurs, fifth columnists, and co-option. In the end, however, the power elite will lose its will to resist and adopt the “If you can’t beat “em, join “em” position.

The Long-Range View

A model of the stages through which all movements pass and the response of powerholders at each one is laid out in stunning clarity by Bill Moyer in his classic Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. Moyer’s model supports what common sense suggests: as it gains force, the dignity movement will encounter every dirty trick in the book and face every weapon in existing arsenals. My guess is that the opposition will exceed in every aspect that mounted against the civil rights and other liberation movements. Simply said, establishing a dignitarian society will be no tea party.

But nothing can suppress forever the will to dignity, not even the will to power. As asserted in the epigraph that opens this volume, “Dignity is not negotiable.” In the long run dignity, like liberty, cannot and will not be denied. Indeed, liberty and dignity go hand in hand and neither will be secure until both of them are.

As dignitarian societies demonstrate greater creativity, productivity, fidelity, resourcefulness, and satisfaction than the alternatives, the ideal of dignity for all will become harder and harder to oppose. In the eighteenth century, few would have foreseen that the United States would turn out to be the beacon of democracy that it became for many during the twentieth. Likewise, it’s now difficult to identify which nation will first establish a dignitarian society that the rest of the world will come to emulate.

As has already been pointed out, searching for the one “correct” strategy for the dignity movement is futile. Institutional and cultural change are both essential, and individuals gravitate where they will. It’s not uncommon for someone to focus on personal change one day and later pursue organizational reform. Cultural advances prepare the ground for institutional ones, and vice versa.

In addition to cultural and institutional fronts, there are local, national, and international arenas. Rankism exists up and down the ladder, operating between nations in much the same way as it does within them. This book has tried to make the case that tolerating rankism in our national affairs is no less corrosive to the American spirit than was our long, sorry accommodation of racism. As we prune rankism from our domestic institutions, attention will turn to exorcising it from our relationships with other nations. As discussed in chapter 10, we must avoid those behaviors that others experience as attempts to dominate, thereby sparing ourselves “blowback” in the form of terrorism and other untoward reactions. This means systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relationships with other cultures and nations. There is nothing more important to global peace and prosperity than becoming alert to international rankism in all its forms and weeding them out of national policy.

The ability to carry dignitarian principles beyond national boundaries will be furthered by the development of a national dignitarian culture. This is yet another reason to focus on cultural change in conjunction with institutional reform. It almost never happens that one culture treats another better than it treats itself. Nor is any society inclined to enforce international laws that would criminalize what is in fact common practice among its own citizens.

Absent cultural support, simply having laws on the books is not enough to bring about compliance. Consider the American South after the Civil War. Though there were statutes against vigilante justice, it was virtually impossible to convict a white person of lynching. And since passage of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, there has been a lot of foot-dragging when it comes to according equal dignity to people of color. Similarly, there has been considerable resistance to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

But as a dignitarian culture takes hold, this situation will change. When juries become less reluctant to convict executives on charges of corporate corruption, the penalties for defrauding people of billions will no longer be milder than those for petty theft. The public will be more likely to hold celebrities to the same standards as ordinary people, and voters will shoo rankist politicians into retirement.

An example of the interplay between institutional and cultural change can be found in our attitudes toward political correctness. No one defends the use of epithets now deemed politically incorrect, at least not out loud. Yet almost everyone finds people annoying who make a show of enforcing political correctness. That may be because the “PC police,” as they are derisively called, sometimes assume a posture of ethical superiority, and we resent the rankism inherent in that stance.

It has never been easy for targets of abuse and discrimination to confront their tormentors, and to do so without pulling moral rank on them is doubly difficult.

When formalities and legalities get ahead of popular culture, people continue to have prejudicial thoughts, but they bite their tongues to avoid being caught crossing the PC line. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what my parents did instinctively with regard to race. My grandparents’ generation openly used the n-word but my parents never did–at least not in front of me and my brothers–so we didn’t pick it up and have to unlearn it as adults. Political correctness may feel burdensome to the generation under pressure to break old habits, but it can be liberating to the next.

Democracy’s Next Step

Right now, dignitarian changes are occurring every day, in every walk of life and in all parts of the world, and people are absorbing them without even noticing. Thousands of workers are standing up to rankism in the workplace and increasing numbers of them are doing so without losing their jobs. Anti-bullying projects are springing up in schools the world over and anti-bullying Web sites proliferate. The conviction and incarceration of priests for sexual abuse and executives for corporate misdeeds could herald the beginning of the end for two kinds of rankism that have long been condoned if not encouraged.

To take hold, such changes need the support of a broad dignitarian culture, one that is as different from today’s status quo as the current consensus on race is from that of the Jim Crow era. One can’t imagine the social changes of recent years apart from cultural milestones like the films To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, with Love. Or television shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show, and Ellen.

No society has offered a more stark example of the complementarities of political and cultural change than South Africa. Without Nelson Mandela to personify post-apartheid multiculturalism, South Africa’s political transformation would most likely have been violent.

Many ordinary people are manifestly dignitarian. They not only take care to protect the dignity of those with whom they interact, but also bear witness to, and protest, the indignities they see around them in the world. Such enlightened individuals correspond to the few whites who spoke out against racial bigotry during the era of segregation. Everyone knows a dignitarian or two and, famous or not, they are treasured. But there are those who still act as if rankism is the norm and an indelible part of human nature. The purpose of this book is both to show that this attitude is unwarranted and to suggest a more effective and fulfilling alternative.

Human beings are model builders. Give us a little time and we’re shrewd enough to understand that we can harness more power via cooperation than through domination. We’re clever enough to reconcile our partisan political positions within a larger,more effective synthesis.

We’re wise enough not to impose our personal religious beliefs on others. And we’re intelligent enough to discern where our nature, social, and self models apply and where they do not, thereby avoiding fruitless conflicts between religion and science and perilous clashes between one religion and another.

In ever greater numbers, people are standing up for their dignity, and once they’re on their feet, it won’t be long until they march for justice. Targeting rankism is the conceptual bridge that joins the liberation strategies of identity politics to the age-old quest for equity and justice. Building a dignitarian society is democracy’s next evolutionary step.

This is the eighteenth 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.]