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Issue No. 83 (February 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

“Rankism” (the abuse of rank)
last big barrier to a just and decent society?

When I lived in Washington DC, many people in my upper-middle-class apartment building saw me as a successful political author and writer, and whenever I came home I felt like a “somebody.” But now that I’ve moved to Oakland CA, and live in an inner-city apartment building full of economically strapped tenants, nobody in or around my building sees me as a somebody. If I’m not careful I’ll begin to feel like a “nobody.”

That’s the story of most of us these days, says Robert Fuller in his brave and politically potent book Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (which has sold over 30,000 copies in the last two years despite virtually no reviews). One minute we feel we’re “somebody,” another minute we fear we’re “nobody”; and since in contemporary society people and institutions are informing us we’re “nobody” at every turn, pretty soon we begin to feel like nobodies, and act accordingly.

Nearly all of us take it out on those perceived to be below us in rank, from subordinates at work to servers in restaurants to the family dog. But it can work the opposite way, too. Terrorists, for example, take it out on whole societies perceived to be above their own in rank.

How can you have a just and decent society made up of people who see themselves mostly as nobodies? You can’t, says Fuller, and that’s exactly his point.

Getting rid of sexism was (and is) important. Getting rid of racism was (and is) important. But behind and beyond most obvious abuse is what Fuller calls “rank abuse” -- our propensity to get what we want (psychologically or materially) by making those perceived to be below us feel like nobodies.

And if we don’t get a grip on that, he says, we can never have a just or decent society. Because the relationships within it will forever be poisoned. (And the relationships between it and other societies will be poisoned too.)

Somehow, says Fuller, we have to learn we’re all equal in dignity. We need nothing less than a “dignitarian movement,” aka a “nobody revolution.” Without that, all the good laws in the world won’t keep us from feeling one-down -- and being unreliable friends, unreliable co-workers, and unreliable global citizens.

Manna from heaven

At a time when neither Democrats nor Republicans are thinking fundamentally (see the last couple of articles in this newsletter), it is delightful to come upon a former Columbia University physicist -- and Oberlin College president -- and father of four -- who’s doing just that.

“This thesis is about as radical-middle as they come,” Fuller told me, and the blurbs on the book telegraph that. You’ll find conservatives (Francis Fukuyama), liberals (Studs Terkel), feminists (Betty Friedan), transformationalists (Riane Eisler), conflict resolvers (Roger Fisher) -- all of them known for taking the social and psychological dimension of politics seriously.

“For many centuries in China,” Fuller writes, “the worst form of torture was known as ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ What we have . . . today is ‘death by a thousand indignities,’ the stifling of the spirit of millions upon millions. . . . Somebodies and Nobodies is about the universal human desire for respect . . . and the aberrant and dangerous behaviors that arise when this desire is thwarted.”

A realist, not a politically correct drone

If I’ve made Fuller sound like just another politically correct drone, it is not his fault. True, he turns the word nobody into a verb, as in “to be nobodied” (a Bad Thing indeed), and there are some other turns of phrase that may remind you of the haute idealism of the 1970s. But superficialities aside, Fuller is admirably realistic about power and rank.

Power differences are inevitable in any society, he argues. And distinguishing degrees of excellence in various fields of endeavor is not only human nature, it’s conducive to progress.

The problem comes when people use their rank

(a) in one endeavor (“boss,” “champion,” etc.) to feel superior to others generally; and

(b) in ways that disrespect the dignity of those perceived to be beneath them.

Fuller is eloquent on the damage rank abuse (“rankism”) does, and on its ubiquitousness in contemporary America -- it is everywhere. According to Fuller, the disrespect that is our daily lot makes it harder for us to learn in the classroom, harder for us to be productive at work, and harder for us to be fully present with and vulnerable to friends and lovers.

In addition, many of us are “excessive[ly] fascinat[ed] with somebodies.” We bury ourselves in the sports pages or People Magazine, or try to act and even think the way They do. All this can “interfere with our own mature pursuit of due recognition,” Fuller writes.

“Dignity denied rankles, then embitters,” he writes. “People without it are like people without food. . . .

“For those who simply give up and accept the world’s view that they are indeed nobodies, Nobodyland becomes a sorry prison. . . . [T]hey may retreat into a private misery or proceed to make life miserable for others. Either way, the suffering of the nobodies in our midst radiates outward in ever-widening circles, like the sound waves of a tolling bell.”

What is to be done?

You can pass laws against racism and sexism. But how can you combat rankism?

The greatest strength of Fuller’s book is that he tries to give practical, even political, answers to that crucial question.

Enforcing political correctness won’t do it, he says. “To condemn people haughtily for rankism is to commit the very offense one is condemning. . . . The fact that you can’t overcome rankism with rankism explains the puzzling ineffectiveness of many progressive social groups.”

Instead, let’s recognize that a new social movement -- a “dignitarian movement,” a “nobody movement” -- has already spontaneously been launched in our midst. It is deeply concerned with two questions:

-- how people with power should treat those who lack it, and

-- which power-acquiring behaviors are acceptable, and which are not.

People already consciously (or subconsciously) caught up in this movement “want to see power’s credentials. From what does rank derive? . . . What are the prerogatives of a title, and where do those prerogatives stop? What is the proper role of height, looks, fame; of connections, know-how, and skill?”

People in this movement have begun to think deeply about the meaning of dignity. For them, dignity does not and cannot mean equal regard within our specialties as scientists, artists, administrative assistants, etc. However, it does mean equal recognition as human beings. Thus Fuller’s Golden Rule:

“Protect the dignity of others as you would your own.”

And Fuller’s “Nobody Manifesto,” which includes this passage:

“Dignity is innate, nonnegotiable, and inviolate. No person’s dignity is any less worthy of respect, any less sacred than anyone else’s. . . . Rankism is an indefensible abridgement of the dignity of nobodies, and a stain on the honor of somebodies. . . . Nobodies of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our shame.”

Fuller’s approach goes beyond the moral. In the Manifesto he notes that “Equal dignity requires equal opportunity.” Elsewhere he argues that the “non-negotiable demands” of the dignitarian movement should include “a living wage, universal health care, and quality education for all” (my book Radical Middle advocates innovative paths to all three - ed.).

If you’re beginning to sense that Fuller sees his approach as a full-blown alternative to the traditional far-left approach to social change, you’re right. In a dazzling last chapter, he argues that the far left hopes to equalize wealth -- but whenever that’s been tried it’s led to tyranny.

Better, far better, to smash rankism and work for a world of equal dignity. “A rank-based strategy . . . sees a world of equal dignity as [the necessary] steppingstone to the more just, fair, and decent societies that political philosophers and theorists . . . have envisioned.”  Once rankism goes, a better world can follow.

Home truths

As I said, Fuller is ultimately a realist, not a correct-liner, and some of his most powerful passages may surprise you because they explore the limits of somebodyness and the appeal of nobodyness.

He suggests that it’s healthy for somebodies to become nobodies from time to time, since “somebodies who can’t get down off their pedestals turn into statues.”

He suggests that nobodyness is a wonderful state to come home to after spending a stressed-out day as a somebody somewhere.

And he observes that moving between somebodyness and nobodyness is “a natural part of the life cycle of any contemporary questing person.”

I’ll remember that next time I come back to my apartment building in inner-city Oakland.



For sympathetic discussions and extensions of Fuller's ideas, see Melanie Hunt's Dignity Is Not Negotiable website, and Ann and Mary Lou Richardson's Dignitarian Foundation website.  See also the remarkable Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies website, run by a network of academics and practitioners from around the world (Fuller is on the Global Board of Advisors).


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