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Dignity and Recognition

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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Here's an example describing how a Seattle-area firm was transformed--in this case, from the top down--into a dignitarian institution.

In the early 1970s, residential real estate sales could charitably be called a predatory business. It was not quite as rapacious as in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, but definitely not for the faint of heart. The tone was set by the principle of caveat emptor, which allowed sellers and their agents to misrepresent properties to buyers.

That license characterized the conduct of the entire industry: agents abused not only buyers but sellers and each other as well; brokers in turn abused their agents. It was rankism at its rankest.

In 1972 John Jacobi bought a small local office in Seattle called Windermere Real Estate. A young man, he had resigned from a promising career in banking to escape the coils of bureaucracy. He had no brokerage experience but he brought a model of cooperation, not exploitation, and of dignity, not rankism.

Jacobi began dealing with his agents as equals and upgraded the appearance of their work spaces. He insisted that they conduct themselves with honesty and respect for all parties. He increased the agents' share of commissions and did nothing to encourage competition among them or, as the company grew, between offices.

These anti-rankist policies worked. Growth continued even in the grim years of the early 1980s, and today Windermere is a network of over 250 offices and some 7,500 agents throughout the West.

Jacobi's changes did not occur in a historical vacuum, however.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, consumerism caught up with the real estate business and court decisions ended the practice of caveat emptor. The Federal Trade Commission forced profound changes in the industry, removing the stain of rankism from the relationship between agents and buyers.

Although the analysis of rankism may at first seem more complex than that of the familiar isms, there is one way in which tackling it is actually easier: we all have known its sting. Not everyone has a personal experience of racism or sexism or the other isms, but because at one time or another each of us has been nobodied, there's a sense in which we've all set foot on the same boat.

But we are not yet all fully in that boat. Only as we opt to forgo the short-run gains of abusing a power advantage in exchange for a guarantee that our own dignity will be secure when the tables are turned do we align ourselves with others who've made this same choice. In time that solidarity group will assume the proportions of a movement which, as it swells, will force a renegotiation of the social contract predicated on the rejection of rankism. The result will be the creation of a legal framework for a dignitarian society analogous to that created by the U.S. Congress with passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965, which paved the way for a multicultural society.

A second way in which targeting rankism simplifies matters is in the effect it has on the principle of political correctness. All of this doctrine's various, specific (and too often tedious) preachings can be replaced by one simple, comprehensive tenet: protect the dignity of others as you do your own.

Does this maxim sound familiar? The golden rule has been around for two millennia, but for the most part its observance has been optional and haphazard. Giving rankism a name and building a dignitarian society holds the promise of making adherence to the golden rule the norm rather than the exception. The reason this precept has always sounded unrealistically utopian is that there has not been a mechanism of accountability. Anyone could suspend it, at a moment's notice, to take advantage of a difference in power. This will be far more difficult, and hence far more rare, in a dignitarian society that expressly disallows rankism.

Even when people have the best of intentions, the feelings and interests of others are invariably hurt at times. We're constantly overreaching in our uses of power--stepping on others' toes if not their necks--and experiencing injury ourselves. But it's one thing to do this inadvertently and quite another to claim the prerogative to do it. Slavery and its segregationist aftermath were not defended as unintended deviations from the norm; they were defended in principle by whites who asserted their innate superiority and therefore their absolute right to dominate and exploit people of color.

So, too, rankism is now supported by many in principle. There will probably always be lapses, but once the burden of proof shifts from victims to perpetrators, we'll know that rankism has lost its sanction and a dignitarian consensus is in formation.

How can we hasten that day? First, by learning to anticipate which uses of power will cause indignity. We can do this by building a model of each proposed use of power in advance so as to predict its ripple effects. By interviewing those likely to be affected, we can avoid what would otherwise be attacks on their dignity. We keep revising the model until we find one that does no harm, and only then do we green-light the project. Today, environmental impact studies are routine. Why not "dignity impact studies?"

Second, we can take steps to eliminate rankism from our existing social and civic institutions. This means creating models of the organizations in which we live, work, learn, heal, worship, and govern ourselves, and then testing them in practice and adjusting them until they succeed in safeguarding the dignity of both those who staff and those who are served by them.

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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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