Some people scolded me for wasting their time: "Everything in your book is in the Bible. It shouldn't take 150 pages to get to the golden rule." A couple of wary souls feared this was another cult. And a handful protested, "Not another "ism'!" and dismissed the idea of rankism as "just more political correctness," "radical egalitarianism," or "Fabian drivel." But most respondents--even the self-confessed cynics--welcomed the naming and spotlighting of rank-based abuse and expressed the hope that by targeting rankism we could consolidate our gains over the now-familiar isms--racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on--and eventually extend the sway of democratic principles so as to secure dignity for everybody. Here are a few remarks posted on the Web site or sent as e-mail:
Rankism is the ism that, once eradicated, would pretty much eliminate the rest of them.
Rankism is so ingrained, so common, that it's hard to even notice it.
Rankism gives a name to something we've all experienced but probably not given much thought to. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere.
It's comforting to know that a lot of the insults I've put up with in my life are being experienced by people everywhere. I for one am sick of being nobodied.
Recognizing rankism makes you more conscious of your dignity. I have begun using the term rankism, explained it to my friends, and now they are using it, too.
In the three years following the publication of Somebodies and Nobodies I learned that there is indeed an iceberg of indignation out there of which we're seeing only the tip. Below the waterline lies the bottled-up resentments of millions who are nobodied every day. I heard from kids, parents, teachers, nurses, physicians, managers, professionals, and workers of every stripe. The impotent rage they must contain--whether at home, in school, or on the job--exacts a toll on their health and happiness and hence on their creativity and productivity. Occasionally their repressed indignation erupts in what others see as a senseless act of violence.
But violence is rarely, if ever, senseless. If it seems so, we've simply failed to understand it. Like the original n-word, nobody is an epithet that packs a powerful punch. That is why we're so desperate to pass as somebodies and shield ourselves from rankism's punishing sting.
Another thing I've learned is that once people have a diagnosis for what ails them, they want a cure for it. Many asked me for more concrete strategies for fighting rankism. They also wanted a clearer picture of what a dignitarian society--a society in which rank-holders are held accountable, rankism is disallowed, and dignity is broadly protected--would look like and tools that could be used for building one. The purpose of this book is to address those requests.
For those of you who haven't read Somebodies and Nobodies, here's a little background.
Like most people who experienced the social movements of the sixties, my attention at the time was drawn to personal attributes such as color, gender, disability, or age, each of which was associated with its own form of prejudice. But as a college president in the early seventies, I found myself dealing with the women's, black, and student movements
all at once and from a position of authority at the vortex of the storms they were generating on campus. This gave me a vantage point from which I began to sense that something more than trait-sanctioned discrimination was going on, something deeper and more encompassing.
What struck me was that, despite changes in the cast of characters and differences in rhetoric, each of these movements could be seen as a group of weaker and more vulnerable "nobodies" petitioning for an end to oppression and indignity at the hands of entrenched,more powerful "somebodies."
From this point of view, it becomes obvious that characteristics such as religion, color, gender, and age are merely excuses for discrimination, never its cause. Indeed, such features signify weakness only when there is a social consensus in place that handicaps those bearing them. Anti-Semitism, Jim Crow segregation, patriarchy, and homophobia are all complex social agreements that have functioned to disempower whole categories of people and keep them susceptible to abuse and exploitation.
The personal traits that define the various identity groups are pretexts around which social stratifications are built and maintained. But at the deepest level, these arrangements foster and support injustice based on something less conspicuous but no less profound in its consequences: rank in the social hierarchy. All the various, seemingly disparate forms of discrimination actually have one common root: the presumption and assertion of rank to the detriment of others. Providing further evidence for this shift in perspective was my realization that just as some whites bully other whites, so also do some blacks exploit other blacks and some women demean other women.