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All Rise for Dignity

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This is the fourteenth 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.


If there is no struggle, there is no progress....This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
--Frederick Douglass

Getting Started

The dignity movement is in its infancy. Yet for every example described in this book, there are thousands more. Taken together, they illustrate that the place to stand up for dignity is right where you are. For those who are ready to do this, I conclude with a list of some simple suggestions drawn from the full text of this book.

Break the Taboo on Rank

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If you run an organization, make it safe for everyone involved to question the rightful role of rank, the authority vested in specific positions, and the prerogatives associated with the various gradations of rank. Explain to them that you're not doing this to unleash hostility or incite jealousy, but rather to create fairness, and that this may well take multiple "passes" spread over several years' time. Transparency, particularly in the form of open budgeting, is an invaluable tool for reducing rankism, which thrives in dark places. Freedom to speak up or "blow the whistle" without fear of retaliation is essential to dignitarian organizations. Mutual accountability--everyone to everyone else--is their hallmark.

Understand the Roles of Others and Support Equitable Compensation

Wherever you find yourself in the ranks, take responsibility for knowing what others do and understanding how their job fits into the whole. Then recognize their contributions and support compensation that acknowledges the part they play in fulfilling the organizational mission. There aren't many rules yet for determining the monetary worth of one job as compared to another, but clearly rankist self-dealing over the years has produced a gap between rich and poor that is incompatible with the values of a dignitarian society.

Keep Your Promises to Somebodies and Nobodies Alike

One way to tell if you are using the somebody-nobody distinction invidiously as a rationalization for rankist behavior is to notice to whom you keep your promises. In a post-rankist world,we'd all feel as obliged to keep our promises to those whom we outrank as we do to those who outrank us. If you're not sure you'll keep a promise, don't make it.

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Create "Indignity-Free Zones"

Teachers are increasingly sensitive to the harm done to students by indignity. If you're an educator, you can bring this awareness into the open and communicate it to those students whose bullying and humiliation of peers unconsciously mirrors that of adult society.An insult to a student's dignity is more than a mere discourtesy. It's an attack on one's status in the "tribe" and carries the implicit danger of ostracism and exclusion. Status has historically been a matter of life and death and remains a determinant of whether we prosper or decline, so an attack on status is experienced as a threat to survival. Schoolchildren begin the school day by reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Perhaps it should be amended to conclude "with liberty, justice, and dignity for all."

Enlist Your Patients as Partners

If you are a health care provider, you can help your clients make the awkward transition from patients to partners. Ridding health care of its legacy of dehumanization and infantilization is simply good medical practice. You can also insist on respect throughout the organization in which you work. If you are a patient, have compassion for your doctors. It's not easy to give up one's "deity status," and many of them are doing so with remarkable grace.Moreover, remember that they're victims of rankism themselves at the hands of HMOs that often treat them less like the professionals they are and more like pieceworkers on an assembly line.

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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