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This is the fourth 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.

CHAPTER 2: DIGNITY AND RECOGNITION (Continued)

What Would a Dignity Movement Look Like?

In both business and government, many people act as if finding the right leadership is an adequate solution to rankism. That is like hoping the next king will be more benevolent than the last one. A more realistic assessment recognizes the need for broad popular opposition to rankism, just as the emergence of the civil rights and women’s movements was required before substantive legislative inroads against racism and sexism could be made.

While the goals of the emerging dignity movement support and reinforce those of earlier social movements, the movement for dignity is unlikely to resemble the iconic televised images of movements past. That is because rank is defined within the various social and civic organizations. Therefore, attempts to overcome rankism are apt to arise within these separate institutions rather than “in the streets” in the form of an easily visible, unified social movement whose members share some trait.

The subordinate social rank once officially enforced on people of color in the United States is a prime example of rank illegitimately held. Rankism of this kind usually acquires a name of its own–racism, in this case–and is overcome by public demonstrations that defenders of the status quo perceive as a threat to the social order. In contrast, when the dignity movement targets illegitimate uses of rank, it is likely to manifest not in million-man marches in the nation’s capital, but rather in millions of schools, businesses, health care facilities, churches, and families across the country–that is, within the relationships and organizations in which rank is being abused.

The specificity of rank–parent, coach, boss, teacher, doctor, rabbi, roshi, imam, or priest–means that a

dignitarian society will be built relationship by relationship, organization by organization. The focus on rank–the locus of power–is exactly what gives this framework transformative power. The Greek mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, and I will move the world.” Our lever is the will to dignity. Our fulcrum is a stance against rankism. Together, they can generate a force strong enough to change the world.

Contributing to the success of the trait-based liberation movements was support and leadership from individuals who were themselves not among the afflicted but who understood that it was in their own interest to help secure rights for those who were. Seminal roles in these movements, especially in their early stages, were played by fair-minded managers, unbigoted gentiles, white liberals, and non-chauvinist males, motivated perhaps by memories of having been nobodied themselves at some point in their lives. Regardless of their motivations, the dignity movement is also likely to depend heavily on help from a few enlightened leaders during its infancy. People of lower rank are reluctant to speak up unless it has been made safe for them to do so by someone with the authority to protect them if they take the risk.

Stages of the Movement

The history of the women’s movement for enfranchisement and liberation could well predict the stages of the dignitarian one. Movements usually begin, as did the nineteenth-century and modern women’s movements, with the formation of small groups of people who share a sense of injustice. In the 1960s, these consciousness-raising sessions occurred in homes, schools, offices, and churches, primarily among women. Within a few years, large numbers of women, along with their male supporters, joined together in protest and mounted demonstrations on behalf of specific policy goals such as equal pay for equal work, a woman’s right to choose, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Title IX (of the Education Amendments of 1972), which established school athletic programs for girls and women on a par with those for boys and men.

Progress toward nonrankist, dignitarian values is likely to follow a similar path. Much of the change will be set in motion in relatively private interpersonal conversations among victims and between victims and victimizers within specific organizations. Through such discussions, those guilty of rankism will come to understand the impact of their behavior on their targets, and some will be convinced to modify it. Part of the incentive to change arises from empathy and an innate sense of fairness, but by itself empathy is seldom enough. Also necessary to produce real change is a vivid prospect of the negative consequences of not doing so.

In the workplace, worker malcontent due to rankism inevitably results in foot-dragging, which eventually

shows up as reduced profits. But the threat that the enterprise will lose out competitively is insufficient to change a culture of rankism if a leader is willing to sacrifice the well-being of his organization to his privilege and stubborn pride.  

People of a certain age will remember Alabama’s Governor George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse

door defiantly shouting, “Segregation yesterday; segregation today; segregation tomorrow!” to a national television audience. Likewise, the heads of some companies have preferred to ruin their firms’ reputations rather than give up the right to disrespect or exploit their employees. What it takes to get many leaders to alter their ways is the imminent prospect of forfeiting their jobs.

In another parallel with the identity-based liberation movements, the dismantling of rankism will be furthered by each of us examining our personal relationships with relatives, friends, co-workers, teachers, physicians, and religious leaders. The larger transgressions we complain about–corporate and governmental corruption; bullying in the workplace, the marketplace, and among nations–differ in scale but not kind from the “little” abuses of power most of us permit ourselves. As we prune our individual relationships of rankism we create the understanding, will, and confidence to challenge the broader forms of it that afflict society and the world at large.

As already noted, to create a movement you need to know both what you’re for and what you’re against. That is why the concept of rankism is essential. Without it a movement for dignity is toothless. Try to imagine a civil rights movement absent the concept of racism, or a women’s movement without the concept of sexism. Until the targets of injustice have a name for what they’re suffering, it is difficult to organize a resistance.

In some situations, they may even blame their predicament on themselves and each other, never achieving the solidarity necessary to compel their tormentors to stop. Rankism begets rankism, so as surely as somebodies visit it upon nobodies, so too do nobodies inflict it on each other. A panhandler, spotting a copy of Somebodies and Nobodies I was carrying, insisted on telling me, “I’m not a nobody; I’m a somebody.”

Then, pointing to another street person about fifty yards away, she sneered, “See her? Now that’s a nobody.” Interpersonal rankism among the rank and file undermines their willingness to cooperate and unite against the more insidious forms of institutional rankism that marginalize them all.

As making the distinction between rank and rankism becomes second nature, and as rank is delineated and rankism disallowed, families will become more harmonious, schools will improve, and businesses will see greater productivity. When dignitarian institutions are the norm, those that remain rankist will handicap themselves in the same way that an avowedly racist institution disadvantages itself today.

A Dignitarian Business Model

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 younman, 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.

In building a dignitarian society, no tool will prove more valuable than modeling. Modeling has enabled humans to harness power and it can equally help us to limit its damages. The following chapter begins a discussion of models and their transformational role in human affairs.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 12:43 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  hi (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller, Brecht

    I will republish you at 8:00 PM EST, tonight and add tags, now.  

    This is really important and interesting.  Thank you!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 01:40:55 PM PST

  •  Another thought-galvanizing, perspective-altering (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cfk, Robert Fuller

    diary - thank you. I like it when my mind is effervescing. Only a third of the way through so far.

    "a dignitarian society will be built relationship by relationship . . . the dignity movement is also likely to depend heavily on help from a few enlightened leaders during its infancy."
    Seems to me a bit like Sufism, with the idea that a few enlightened souls swim among all the other fishes, preparing the way for other souls to advance along the path. It has to be that way, I think. In building a "dignity movement", you want the opposite of fascism: instead on beating people into serried ranks, you're feeding people's individualities, so they can each grow into a larger, stronger, unique whole. Or am I getting a bit Romantic here?

    Nevertheless, enlightened organizations can enable the conditions for individual enlightenment and empowerment. As I mentioned in your last diary, this should be the central aim of the Democratic Party (clearly, I want a less Third Way, more Progressive Democratic Party).

    So we need, as you've said, to strengthen and support others in every fight against rankism: women, every race, disabled, LGBT, all who are oppressed (which is most of us in the 99%) need to attend to and fight for the rights of every other. And I like the Clintons' Communitarianism, as far as I understand it. Democracy starts at the grass roots, locally, in clubs, organizations, city politics etc. We have a very top down system, designed to minimize the voice of the people at the bottom. Yeah, maybe I'm a bit starry-eyed Romantic.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 05:34:46 PM PST

    •  Oh, that's what you were saying. Perhaps I should (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Robert Fuller

      read your whole diary before commenting. But my brain was already full, so I spoke.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 05:37:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And a thought-provoking comment (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, cfk

      Romantic, yes, perhaps, in the short run. But, in the long run, dignity for all is a necessity. Why? Because indignity causes indignation and we can't co-exist with indignation writ large. This will become clearer as other dimensions of a dignitarian world, and its opposite, are added to the picture.

      •  Indeed, this nation is choking and turning purple (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Robert Fuller, cfk

        on its backed-up bile and bitterness.

        When you're in a broken-down place in your life, everything is heavy and hard. The simplest tasks exhaust you. But if you can  walk away from there, and find the grit to build new opportunities, and the tenderness to trust after living in hurt - well, things open up after a year or three, and you find you have more sap in your branches.

        It will take a lot of determined individuals, and a new culture of teamwork and respect, to walk away from all these cycles of oppression and ossification. But after that, people will be larger with hope and hunger: dignity will feed us, and we will share with each other.

        William Blake was right.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 06:49:35 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I'm sorry for poor luck and my fellow kossacks. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    These diaries (as cfk said) so deserve more readers. I see people throwing a quick slice of the pie-du-jour in a box, and riding to the top of the rec list.

    Maybe this is more than people have the attention span for? No doubt many factors play into it. But you write well, clearly, deeply, and you have ideas that are both inspiring and very relevant to many of our present crises.

    You haven't asked for my advice, but here it is. I think people respond most to individual human stories. In my own diaries, I find that when I bare my soul, I get a strong emotional response from my audience. So I rarely bare my soul - I'd rather get them to think analytically about books.

    Nevertheless, human stories engage our attention. I enjoyed the whole diary - but my two warmest responses were to the lovely panhandler put-down, and to the tale of Windermere Real Estate.

    My second piece of advice is, it would be nice to get more kossacks onboard for the rest of this series. Perhaps you could write one catch-up diary, giving the gist of what we've covered so far, and links to the previous installments? If you combined it with a bit of your own story (which is both intellectually inspiring and emotionally engaging), that might get more readers.

    But only if you're interested in writing such a diary, and are comfortable with it. Just my two cents. This seems like such healthy stuff for kossacks to be thinking about.

    Good luck whatever you do. I'll keep reading you, and cfk will keep republishing you.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 09:23:25 PM PST

    •  good advice (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, cfk

      In a book that was published before the one being serialized in these posts, there are many concrete examples of rankism. That book -- Somebodies and Nobodies -- introduces the notion of rankism and focuses on how it damages interpersonal relations. This one -- All Rise -- is more analytical and focuses on institutional rankism. I don't expect anyone to delve into the prequel, but if they did they'd find that in it I come much closer to following your advice. I know you're right, but having written it out before as best I could, I'm reluctant to repeat myself.

      Your comments are most welcome. I see the struggle to identify rankism, call it by name, and organize to overcome it as being at about the stage that fighting racism and sexism were in the 1950s. There's a long way to go. I've given about 500 talks all over the world on the subject. Next up: 7 talks to different groups at the Univ. of Minnesota in March. There's a website devoted to overcoming rankism.

      •  Thanks for the link to 'Breaking Ranks' website - (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cfk

        there's a lot of good stuff there. Especially the articles which tease out strands of your thought. 'The Myth of Meritocracy' answers an issue I raised in your last diary, and then goes much further.

        Fair enough, that you're more interested in All Rise right now, and don't want to return to ground you've travelled at length. Somebodies and Nobodies sounds appealing to me; but between this series and the website, I have plenty to chew on for the nonce.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Mon Jan 13, 2014 at 12:26:03 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

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