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.
For further background on the connection between rankism and indignity, listen to Rob Kall's interview with me here.
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