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

Message Robert Fuller
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/>by Berrett-Koehler, 2006

This is the second 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.


Rankism explains a lot of the bad behavior we see in both institutions and cultures, as well as between individuals....Giving it a name empowers those on the receiving end to fight it, or at least to resist the corrosive effect it may have on their own souls.
--Esther Dyson, editor, Release 1.0

Seeing Rankism Everywhere

A common response to the notion of rankism is the one I had myself soon after I started using the word: I began seeing it everywhere. This surprised me at first, but not long afterward I realized this was a consequence of having defined rankism so broadly--as the abuse of the power attached to rank. It stands to reason that something defined this way would show up wherever power was in play--and that's almost everywhere. Once I accepted the ubiquity of rankism, another question arose. Could a concept that lumped so many seemingly different phenomena together really be useful?

Despite such hesitations, I kept spotting new examples of rankism on a daily basis. What's more, I felt as though I were seeing them through new eyes. Abuses I was resigned to, having long taken them for granted, suddenly began to appear open to challenge. It seemed possible that if we became more adept at identifying the common impulse from which these transgressions derive, we could recondition ourselves to forgo such behaviors.

Humans have managed to impose categorical illegitimacy on murder, incest, cannibalism, racism, and sexism. Some dominating, predatory behaviors that were the norm for centuries have diminished over time. As the consensus shifts about what's acceptable, even the impulse to engage in certain behaviors dissipates. Why couldn't this work with those that cause indignity, I wondered. Our species is learning to forgo racism.

Couldn't we broaden the prohibition to all the various forms of rankism? I began to imagine a society in which targeting the dignity of others is no longer condoned, a world in which it gradually disappears in the same way that one can now begin to imagine racism becoming a behavior that utterly lacks social support.

Recently I read in the New York Times about a school teacher in rural China accused of serially raping the fourth- and fifth-grade girls in his class. His pupils had dared not protest the absolute authority traditionally held by teachers. The situation reminded me of the unquestioning esteem in which, at least until the recent sex abuse scandals, priests in the United States were typically held by their parishioners. As the article put it:

Parents grant teachers carte blanche, even condoning beatings, while students are trained to honor and obey teachers, never challenge them. "The absolute authority of teachers in schools is one of the reasons that teachers are so fearless in doing what they want,' said an expert on Chinese education.

Of course, rape is already a crime in almost all societies. The point is not that seeing rape as a form of rankism reveals its criminality. Many kinds of power abuse have acquired particular names of their own--for example, cronyism, embezzlement, extortion, nepotism, blackmail, McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment. What identifying them all as rankism does is put them in a new light and reveal their commonality.

Having the word rankism at one's disposal is a bit like putting on X-ray glasses that help you see through the many kinds of power abuse to the wrongful assertions of rank that figure in them all. Reframing the problem in this way also suggests a way out--namely, by adopting a variant of the strategy that's already working against race and gender-based abuses. To overcome racism and sexism, the targets had to organize and then collectively oppose their tormentors with a commensurate, credible countervailing force.

There are obvious differences between a movement to overcome rankism in general and the identity-based movements. When it comes to the familiar varieties of discrimination, the victims and the victimizers are, for the most part, distinguishable and separate groups: black and white, female and male, gay and straight, and so on. The same thing that makes it easy to identify potential victims of these familiar isms--discernible characteristics like color and gender--facilitates the formation of a solidarity group to confront the perpetrators.

In contrast, the perpetrators and targets of rankism--the somebodies and the nobodies, respectively--do not fall neatly into distinct groups. As we've seen, most of us have played both roles, depending on time and place.

So the question is: Are we willing to forgo the potential advantages of exploiting weaker people in return for credible assurances that our own dignity will be secure should it ever come to pass that we find ourselves in their nobody shoes? To paraphrase the epigraph that appears at the beginning of this book, could we make dignity non-negotiable? The following chapters aim to show that we can. Before getting on with it, however, it's important to get a clearer sense of just what's at stake in taking on rank-based abuse.

Lethal Consequences

That rankism underpins all the trait-based forms of discrimination already makes it a far-reaching phenomenon, one that extends well beyond the realm of hurt feelings and bruised egos to the more destructive consequences of repression and oppression. But most people will be surprised to learn that there are many other ways--some of them quite sobering--in which rankism wreaks havoc in our lives. Consider the following examples in which national pride was damaged, lives lost, and billions of dollars wasted as a result of rankist mismanagement.

In the fall of 2004 at a talk I gave in New Jersey, a distinguished-looking gentleman, who everyone present knew had served as the director of both NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stood up and declared,"Rankism was a major contributing cause of both shuttle disasters." In April 2005, Dr. Noel Hinners elaborated for my tape recorder:

The Mars Climate Orbiter mission failure in 1979 was due in part to what might be called technological rankism. It starts with an unquestioning reverence for those who are anointed as experts or who assume that mantle on their own. All too often, they stifle discussion and quash dissension on technical issues--a form of technical intimidation.

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