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All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Chapter 1)

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During the flight to Mars there were early warning signs that something was wrong in the trajectory analysis, but the navigation team wouldn't listen. When problems were pointed out they essentially said, "Trust us. We're the experts."Due to a software error, the spacecraft entered too low in the Martian atmosphere and consequently burnt up. This was foreseeable during the flight and could have been corrected, but we caved in to the insistence of the navigation team that everything would be all right. That's technological rankism.

A similar dynamic is well documented in the shuttle disasters. Prior to the Challenger flight,...engineers had warned that the unusually low temperature [in Florida the night before the launch] could be a problem for the O-rings. In this case, pressure by management to launch on time silenced engineering concerns. This wasn't technological rankism; rather, it was garden-variety managerial rankism that led to one of our most vivid national disasters.

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The Columbia accident investigation report shows a similar phenomenon: "As what the board calls an "informal chain of command' began to shape [the flight's] outcome, location in the structure empowered some to speak and silenced others."

These incidents, Dr. Hinners concluded, show that rankism can have lethal consequences.

Examples of rankism at the corporate level have been making headlines since the Enron collapse. Usually, they take the form of high-ranking executives enriching themselves at the expense of employees, shareholders, and lenders. But as the following instance makes clear, corporate rankism can kill.

After Somebodies and Nobodies appeared in print, people in the nuclear power business wrote to me about the rankist culture they saw in their industry, worried that if it wasn't changed, a disaster was inevitable. In the fall of 2005 the New York Times ran a story that supported their fears. It reported that employees at the Salem nuclear power station, near Salem, New Jersey, were reluctant to express concerns about safety because they were afraid of retaliation from their superiors.

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Experts in the field warn that the rankist culture that pervades the nuclear industry poses a far graver risk to public safety than do the nuclear reactors themselves. Tish B. Morgan, with Booz Allen Hamilton, is an expert on nuclear power who has more than thirty years of experience in nuclear licensing and regulatory issues, safety analysis, and advanced reactor design. In a recent conversation, she stated categorically that "rankism was the primary factor in what could have been America's worst nuclear disaster." She began her account with the accident at Three Mile Island and then went on to describe an even more serious near-meltdown at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, in 2002.

In 1979, just twelve days after the movie The China Syndrome came out, an accident at Three Mile Island seemed to be an example of life imitating art. During the several-day course of the crisis, rankism revealed itself in several forms--corporate rankism (which gave priority to profits over safety procedures), technological rankism (hands-on operators bowing to outside nuclear "experts" who, it was later learned, were actually mistaken in their analysis), and regulatory rankism, wherein "desk-jockeys" from the all-powerful Nuclear Regulatory Commission took control of the moment-to-moment operation of the plant and proceeded to make a bad situation far worse. Catastrophe was averted in the nick of time. But without rankism there would have been no incident and no stain on the reputation of the nuclear industry.

For more than twelve years, the management at the Davis-Besse plant dictated shortcuts and hurry-ups to keep it running (and thus making money). The result, discovered by accident during an oft postponed inspection, was a rust hole caused by chronic leakage of boric acid into the reactor vessel head. Because management allowed only a preset number of hours for removing the acid, it had accumulated over time. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later estimated that if the plant had continued to run without intervention, it would have suffered a meltdown within two to thirteen months.

Why, at Davis-Besse, did employees who had reported problems for years in the end just go along with what they believed to be unsafe operations? The answer is rankism, pure and simple, as in, "You do what I say, or else your replacement will."

The company, whose rankist practices almost gave us another Chernobyl, passed the costs of the near-meltdown--$800 million for a new vessel head and replacement power for the two years the plant was shut down for repairs--on to consumers. In addition, the parent corporation--FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company--has been identified as being primarily responsible for the wide-scale Midwest/ Canadian blackout of August 14, 2003. Bowing to rankist orders, instead of disconnecting from the grid and trying to stabilize their own system, workers took other utility systems down with them. The economic impact of the blackout reached into the billions.

This chapter concludes with the mention of two very different, but no less deadly, forms of rankism: imperious fundamentalism and environmental depredation. When fundamentalist proselytizers, convinced that their doctrine bears the stamp of higher authority, adopt a superior stance toward nonbelievers, that's rankism. Fundamentalism's most familiar face is that of "true believers" who claim to know what's right for everybody. An extreme form of this is the kind of crusade or jihadism that those targeted call terrorism.

But fundamentalism has many faces. Others include scientific fundamentalism and its bullying insistence on the preeminence of purely technological considerations, and political fundamentalism, with its paternalistic certainty that it knows the needs of others better than they do. Other varieties of fundamentalism will be discussed in chapter 9.

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Rankism's reach also extends to the environment--an arena in which rankist presumptions now threaten the very health of our planet. As creatures who exercise "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth," will we continue to sanction environmental degradation, or will we assume the role of responsible stewards? Will we exercise our "dominion" over animals in a manner that recognizes that they, too, are entitled to a measure of dignity, or will we tolerate their abuse and exploitation? Our responses to these questions hinge on our attitude toward rankism.

A Way Out?

The issue at hand is not the seriousness of the problems humanity now faces--upon which most agree--but rather whether reframing them in a dignitarian perspective can give us new leverage in resolving them. The following chapters will show that building a dignitarian society by targeting rankism can indeed be an effective way to deal with the challenges confronting us. But first we need to take a closer look at human dignity and what form a movement to secure it might take.

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

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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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