This is the first 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.
INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS RANKISM?
Why do you smile? Change but the name, and
it is of yourself that the tale is told.
-- Horace, roman poet and satirist
A Once and Future Nobody
None of us likes to be taken for a nobody. In order to protect our dignity, we cultivate the skill of presenting ourselves as a somebody. But despite our best efforts, it may come to pass that we wake up one morning and find ourselves in Nobodyland.At midlife that happened to me, and for quite some time I couldn't seem to get out. Then one morning I heard new words to an old slogan buzzing in my head:"Nobodies of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our shame."
A slogan like that calls for a manifesto. In a few frenzied months I wrote a first draft, which I called The Nobody Book. It argued that nobodies are not defenseless against the put-downs of somebodies and showed what they can do in response to such attacks.
I made a half-dozen copies and foisted them on my friends. The first thing I heard from them was, "Change the title! No one would want to read something called The Fat Book and no one will want to read The Nobody Book either." But everyone insisted on telling me about the times they'd been "nobodied." I started collecting their stories and recalled a few of my own.
I remembered Arlene in second grade, exiled to the hall as punishment for having dirty fingernails. I winced at the memory of Burt, who had bullied me and my friends at summer camp. I recalled with chagrin how my playmates and I had tormented a kid with Down syndrome, and how Professor Mordeau had made fun of my faulty French accent. Memories of the Sunday school teacher who threatened us with eternal damnation returned.
I began to see stories of humiliation and indignity in the news as well as close at hand: abuse scandals in churches and prisons, corporations defaulting on employee pensions, hypercompetitive parents berating child athletes, the staff at my parents' retirement home patronizing residents.
The Abuse of Rank
One day all these behaviors came into a single focus: they could all beseen as abuses of rank--more precisely, the power attached to rank. I recognized myself as a once and future nobody, and wondered if that wasn't everyone's fate. As the anecdotes multiplied, I incorporated them into the manuscript. After numerous reorganizations of the material, I printed a dozen copies, passed them around and awaited the verdict. People still hedged their bets, but they all wanted me to hear about their own attempts to get out of Nobodyland.
The reframing and rewriting continued. A third draft. The analysis was extended and gained in clarity. A fourth. After a few years, I submitted a version to several publishers. They responded with boilerplate rejections. One editor opined that the material was compelling and might even have broad appeal, but saw an insurmountable problem: "Nobodies don't buy books!"
A friend suggested creating a Web site where I could at least give the book away. So I hired a college math major to design one. Her creation gave oxygen to the project. We dubbed the site breakingranks.net, and it's still going strong on the Web.
Overnight, it got thousands of hits. On an online forum,
strangers shared their stories of abuse and discrimination. Two thousand
visitors to the site downloaded the free manuscript. One of them put a copy
into the hands of a small publisher, and just when I'd about given up hope of
ever seeing it appear between two covers I received an e-mail inquiring about
rights to it. A meeting was arranged, a contract signed, and in the spring of
2003 New Society Publishers in British Columbia brought out a hardcover edition
of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming
the Abuse of Rank.
Getting the word out that spring was made more difficult by the Iraq war, the start of which coincided to the day with the book's publication. Round-the-clock coverage of the conflict lasted about a month, but during the blackout I got a break: Oprah's magazine featured the book in a 2003 article titled "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," and suddenly my phone started ringing. Twelve cities and a hundred interviews later, the book had found its audience. For a few heady days, it even managed to edge out the latest Harry Potter book at Amazon.com. It seems that nobodies do buy books after all!
Nobodyland isn't really such a bad place, so long as you aren't trying to get out. You can do a lot of good work there, and since you're out of sight, you are free to make mistakes, explore new ideas, and develop them until you're ready to try them in public. When, at long last, I did get the chance to do so, I got an earful in response.