In both business and government, many people act as if finding the right leadership is an adequate solution to rankism. That is like hoping the next king will be more benevolent than the last one. A more realistic assessment recognizes the need for broad popular opposition to rankism, just as the emergence of the civil rights and women's movements was required before substantive legislative inroads against racism and sexism could be made.
While the goals of the emerging dignity movement support and reinforce those of earlier social movements, the movement for dignity is unlikely to resemble the iconic televised images of movements past. That is because rank is defined within the various social and civic organizations. Therefore, attempts to overcome rankism are apt to arise within these separate institutions rather than "in the streets" in the form of an easily visible, unified social movement whose members share some trait.
The subordinate social
rank once officially enforced on people of color in the United States is a
prime example of rank illegitimately held. Rankism of this kind usually
acquires a name of its own--racism, in this case--and is overcome by public
demonstrations that defenders of the status quo perceive as a threat to the
social order. In contrast, when the dignity movement targets illegitimate uses
of rank, it is likely to manifest not in million-man marches in the nation's capital,
but rather in millions of schools, businesses, health care facilities, churches,
and families across the country--that is, within the relationships and
organizations in which rank is being abused.
The specificity of rank--parent, coach, boss, teacher, doctor, rabbi, roshi, imam, or priest--means that a dignitarian society will be built relationship by relationship, organization by organization. The focus on rank--the locus of power--is exactly what gives this framework transformative power. The Greek mathematician Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, and I will move the world." Our lever is the will to dignity. Our fulcrum is a stance against rankism. Together, they can generate a force strong enough to change the world.
Contributing to the success of the trait-based liberation movements was support and leadership from individuals who were themselves not among the afflicted but who understood that it was in their own interest to help secure rights for those who were. Seminal roles in these movements, especially in their early stages, were played by fair-minded managers, unbigoted gentiles, white liberals, and non-chauvinist males, motivated perhaps by memories of having been nobodied themselves at some point in their lives. Regardless of their motivations, the dignity movement is also likely to depend heavily on help from a few enlightened leaders during its infancy. People of lower rank are reluctant to speak up unless it has been made safe for them to do so by someone with the authority to protect them if they take the risk.
Stages of the Movement
The history of the women's movement for enfranchisement and liberation could well predict the stages of the dignitarian one. Movements usually begin, as did the nineteenth-century and modern women's movements, with the formation of small groups of people who share a sense of injustice. In the 1960s, these consciousness-raising sessions occurred in homes, schools, offices, and churches, primarily among women. Within a few years, large numbers of women, along with their male supporters, joined together in protest and mounted demonstrations on behalf of specific policy goals such as equal pay for equal work, a woman's right to choose, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Title IX (of the Education Amendments of 1972), which established school athletic programs for girls and women on a par with those for boys and men.
Progress toward nonrankist, dignitarian values is likely to follow a similar path. Much of the change will be set in motion in relatively private interpersonal conversations among victims and between victims and victimizers within specific organizations. Through such discussions, those guilty of rankism will come to understand the impact of their behavior on their targets, and some will be convinced to modify it. Part of the incentive to change arises from empathy and an innate sense of fairness, but by itself empathy is seldom enough. Also necessary to produce real change is a vivid prospect of the negative consequences of not doing so.
In the workplace, worker malcontent due to rankism inevitably results in foot-dragging, which eventually shows up as reduced profits. But the threat that the enterprise will lose out competitively is insufficient to change a culture of rankism if a leader is willing to sacrifice the well-being of his organization to his privilege and stubborn pride.
People of a certain age will remember Alabama's Governor George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door defiantly shouting, "Segregation yesterday; segregation today; segregation tomorrow!" to a national television audience. Likewise, the heads of some companies have preferred to ruin their firms' reputations rather than give up the right to disrespect or exploit their employees. What it takes to get many leaders to alter their ways is the imminent prospect of forfeiting their jobs.
In another parallel with the identity-based liberation movements, the dismantling of rankism will be furthered by each of us examining our personal relationships with relatives, friends, co-workers, teachers, physicians, and religious leaders. The larger transgressions we complain about--corporate and governmental corruption; bullying in the workplace, the marketplace, and among nations--differ in scale but not kind from the "little" abuses of power most of us permit ourselves. As we prune our individual relationships of rankism we create the understanding, will, and confidence to challenge the broader forms of it that afflict society and the world at large.
As already noted, to create a movement you need to know both what you're for and what you're against. That is why the concept of rankism is essential. Without it a movement for dignity is toothless. Try to imagine a civil rights movement absent the concept of racism, or a women's movement without the concept of sexism. Until the targets of injustice have a name for what they're suffering, it is difficult to organize a resistance.
In some situations, they may even blame their predicament on themselves and each other, never achieving the solidarity necessary to compel their tormentors to stop. Rankism begets rankism, so as surely as somebodies visit it upon nobodies, so too do nobodies inflict it on each other. A panhandler, spotting a copy of Somebodies and Nobodies I was carrying, insisted on telling me, "I'm not a nobody; I'm a somebody."
Then, pointing to another street person about fifty yards away, she sneered, "See her? Now that's a nobody." Interpersonal rankism among the rank and file undermines their willingness to cooperate and unite against the more insidious forms of institutional rankism that marginalize them all.
As making the distinction between rank and rankism becomes second nature, and as rank is delineated and rankism disallowed, families will become more harmonious, schools will improve, and businesses will see greater productivity. When dignitarian institutions are the norm, those that remain rankist will handicap themselves in the same way that an avowedly racist institution disadvantages itself today.
A Dignitarian Business Model