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(image by Berrett-Koehler 2006)

This is the thirteenth 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.


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.

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What are the next steps for the dignitarian moveme... by Robert Fuller on Tuesday, Dec 3, 2013 at 5:38:53 PM