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

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Abolishing distinctions of rank that facilitate cooperation can also weaken a society to the point that it becomes vulnerable to existing enemies or invites new ones. History suggests that political and social models that try to do away with rank altogether are naïvely utopian and that societies that adopt them court catastrophe. The nineteenth-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville devoted a chapter of his classic Democracy in America to the connections between equality and despotism. (Vol. II, Part IV, ch. 6)

When legitimately earned and properly used, rank is an important--often indispensable--organizational tool for accomplishing group goals. The more central rank is to achieving an organization's mission--for example, in the military--the more critical it is to distinguish it from rankism and to honor the former while eliminating the latter. Not every assertion of rank is rankist--only those that put the dignity of the high-ranking above that of those they serve.

We rightfully admire and love authorities--parents, teachers, bosses, political leaders--who hold their rank and use the power that comes with it in an exemplary way. Accepting their leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity on the part of subordinates. It is when people abuse their power to demean or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown.Over time, indignity turns to indignation, and smarting victims may be left thirsting for vengeance. The consequences can range from relatively benign foot-dragging all the way to genocide.

Organization of this Book

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Somebodies and Nobodies concluded with a vision of a dignitarian society. Such a society does not aim to abolish or equalize ranks, but rather holds that regardless of our rank,we are all equal when it comes to dignity.

The word dignitarian is introduced to set this model apart from utopian egalitarian ones. The dignitarian approach sees the establishment of equal dignity as a stepping-stone to the more fair, just, and tolerant societies that political thinkers have long envisioned.

This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: In building a dignity movement to overcome rankism, what should be the first objective--cultural or institutional change? In other words, should we focus on eradicating the rankism within ourselves and our culture or target the rankism "out there" in organizations and society? Some hold that we can't change our institutions until we change our personal attitudes; others insist that the institutions must be changed first because only then are the people affected by them at liberty to change.

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The argument is unproductive. Certain people are drawn to personal psychology and cultural values, while others focus on reforming institutional policy or electoral politics. An advance on either flank makes possible an advance on the other.

Although the dynamics of social transformation are nonlinear, exposition is not. A writer has to choose an order in which to present ideas. The first three chapters of this book lay the groundwork by sketching the scope and impact of rankism, envisioning a dignity movement to overcome it, and introducing a key tool we'll use along the way: model building. The notion of model building may at first sound technical, perhaps even esoteric. But the use of this instrument is not limited to scientists and philosophers; on the contrary, as we'll see, it's commonplace in social situations as well.

Once we have this tool in our repertoire, we'll apply it first to explore how we can reshape our primary social and civic institutions so they become dignitarian. Chapters 4 through 8 examine what workplaces, schools, health care organizations, the economy, and politics would look like if they embodied dignitarian values.

Next, we'll use modeling to better the odds of establishing ourselves as dignitarians. The concluding chapters 9 through 12 develop a philosophical perspective that supports a dignitarian world. The afterword gives suggestions on how to get started.

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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