Curing the Poison of “Rankism”

I got a close look at the poison of “rankism” at the age of seven, when my classmate Arlene was sent to the hall for the whole school day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school each day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher, Miss Belcher, began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day she told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how she could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene out there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us.

Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed – hiding her face against the wall as I remember it, and trying to make her­self look small. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as safe targets for abuse included Frank, who was shamed as a “faggot”; Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome and was ridiculed as “retarded”; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased about their weight. The N-word was used only warily, typically from the safety of the bus that carried our all-white basketball team home in the wake of defeat to a school that fielded players who were black.

Not belonging to any of the groups that were targeted for abuse, I was spared – until I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing another pecking order. I found myself caught up in games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmates once again.

The toxic relationships described above are all based on traits that mark people out for abuse, whether in terms of class, sexuality, disability, body shape, color or academic standing. And even if you fall on the privileged side of these traits you can still be treated as a nobody by people who want to make themselves feel superior. I call this “rankism”, and it’s the cancer that’s eating away at all our relationships.

Emily Dickinson spoke about this problem in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

As she notes, nobodies look for allies, and stand on constant guard against potential banishment. As social animals, banishment has long been tantamount to a death sentence for us. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to even the slightest of indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that there’s a place for us, that we’re not in danger of being ostracized or exiled. Dignity is the social counterpart of love.

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had indeed acquired a name – it was “sexism” – and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and inequality). That’s why pinning a name on any behavior that poisons relationships is the first step towards delegitimizing it.

NoRankismAs president of Oberlin College in Ohio during the early 1970s, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and lay claim to equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was challenged and came to be seen as groundless, though clearly discrimination of all these kinds remains widespread. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over generations. The process typically begins with martyrdom and culminates in legislation. In between come years of nitty-gritty organization. But once enough people stand up for their dignity it’s not long until they become a force to be reckoned with.

The task confronting us today is to delegitimize “rankist” behaviors just as we are doing with other forms of oppression. That means all of us – you and me – giving up our claims to superiority. It means no more putting down of other individuals, groups or countries. It means affirming the dignity of others as if it were our own. Sounds familiar? It’s the “golden rule” of dignity which rules out degrading anybody else. When denigrating behaviors are sanctioned, potential targets (and who isn’t one at some point?) must devote their energy to protecting their own dignity. A culture of indignity takes a toll on health, creativity and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The cancer of rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more. First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less secure. Using weapons of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

Second, the power that “dignitarian” groups can marshal exceeds that of groups that are driven by brute force and fear. When everyone has a place that is respected, everyone can work for the group as well as for themselves. “Dignity for all” is a winning strategy because it facilitates cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just nice things to have, they are a formula for group success, and their opposites are a recipe for infighting, dysfunctionality and failure. If we can put the spotlight on rankism and purge our relationships of this poison, then not only we will spare people from humiliation, we’ll also increase the creativity of ourselves and our communities.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who protests when one of his classmates is “nobodied” is another, all the more so if he or she is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the perpetrator. When victims of rankism respond in kind to their abusers, they’re unwittingly perpetuating a vicious cycle. The only way to end such cycles is to respect the dignity of the perpetrators while leaving no doubt that their behaviors are unacceptable.

In a dignitarian society, no-one is taken for a nobody. Acting superior – putting others down – is regarded as pompous and self-aggrandizing. Rankism, in all its guises, is uncool.

Our age-old survival strategy of opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. A vital part of our defense against this strategy is not to give offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.


Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His recent novel The Rowan Tree is now available as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. The Rowan Tree is also available in paperback as well as Kindle and other ebook formats.

Ten Ways To Stop Rankism in the Professions

1. Work: Take the trouble to understand how co-workers contribute to getting the job done and acknowledge their contribution.
If you are a boss, it’s not enough to avoid treating your employees in a rankist manner (though the example you set will reverberate through the entire organization) ; you are also responsible for making sure that your subordinates treat their subordinates with dignity. Dignitarian companies are not only happier workplaces, they are also healthier, more creative, and more productive ones.

2. Education: Create “Indignity Free Zones.”
Teachers are increasingly sensitive to the harm done to students by indignity. If you’re an educator, you can bring this awareness into the open and communicate it to those students whose bullying and humiliation of peers unconsciously mirrors that of adult society. A threat to a student’s dignity is more than a discourtesy. It is an attack on one’s status in the “tribe,” and carries an implicit threat of ostracism and exclusion. Status has historically been a matter of life and death and remains a determinant of whether we prosper or decline, so an attack on status is experienced as a threat to survival. Rankism poisons the learning environment.

3. Healthcare: Enlist your patients as partners.
If you are a healthcare provider, you can help your clients make the awkward transition from patients to partners. Ridding healthcare of its legacy of dehumanization and infantilization is good medical practice. You can also insist on respect throughout the organization in which you work. If you are a patient, have compassion for doctors, too. It’s not easy to give up one’s “deity status,” and many physicians are doing so with remarkable grace. Moreover, remember that they’re victims of rankism themselves at the hands of HMOs that often treat them less like the professionals they are and more like pieceworkers on an assembly line.

4. Sports: Have respect for the other team.
If you’re a coach, you can forbid trash talk, on and off the court, among your players and to your opponents. Show your team that they are capable of more—not by humiliating them but by teaching and inspiring them. Rent the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly and show it to your athletes. Its punch line—“I rag on nobody”—puts it in the anti-rankist hall of fame.

5. Religion: Exemplify rather than exhort.
If you’re a religious leader, you can refrain from pulling spiritual rank. You can do more for your flock by listening and providing them with a personal example worthy of emulation than you can by invoking higher authority, which is often little more than a claim that God shares your politics.

6. Guardian professions (policing): Bring dignity to law enforcement.
If you’re a policeman or woman, protect citizens’ dignity as you already protect their lives. Any kind of profiling is rankism.

7. Military: One part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place.
Indignity is the source of indignation, so to avoid escalation or revenge, take care to spare your foes gratuitous indignities.

8. Politics: Restore civility to politics
If you’re in electoral politics you can point the way to a dignitarian society, even if your colleagues aren’t yet ready to embrace your ideas. Treat your opponents with dignity. Don’t sneer, mock, or condescend. Avoid patronizing or posturing. When politicians lay claim to moral superiority, they extend rankism’s lease. Since rankism is an attack on both liberty and dignity, denounce it along with the other isms. Explain to your constituents why you’re against it—in all its forms—and then go after them one by one. Be the leader you wanted to be when you first imagined running for office. Be willing to lose an election for your dignitarian convictions. If you do lose, run for office a few years later, and win! To paraphrase Victor Hugo, dignity is an idea whose time has come.

9. Other professions: Show the world dignity through your profession.
If you’re an artist, expose rankism; put dignity on exhibit. If you’re a philosopher, define and deconstruct dignity. If you’re a psychologist, demonstrate the consequences of malrecogntion. If you’re a comedian, make us laugh at the double standards that apply to somebodies and nobodies. If you’re a filmmaker, give us heroes who overcome rankism without resorting to rankism. If you’re a songwriter, write an anthem for the dignity movement. If you’re a TV producer, stop exploiting humiliation and celebrating rankism. Sooner than you think, the staple of TV entertainment—humiliation—is going to feel as off-key as racism, sexism, and homophobia do today.

10. Be a Susan B. Anthony of the Dignity Movement.
In the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony traveled a million miles by train and gave 20,000 speeches advocating the enfranchisement of women. Sadly, she did not live to see the success of the suffragette movement she spearheaded (but her image is on the dollar coin). If you’re an organizer, create a chapter of the dignitarian movement in your area. Coordinate with other chapters and make them a national force under the slogan “no rankism” and the banner “dignity for all.” Programs to help the poor or end poverty will continue to fall short until those trapped in the underclass have found their voice and together insist on respect and equity. Do what Susan B. Anthony did for women and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. did for African-Americans: help the victims of chronic indignity find an effective way to give voice to their plight and change the status quo.

Hazing Rampant

If the results from a University of Maine study can be construed as representative of university life in the U.S., more than one in five students have witnessed hazing. A quick glance at the news reveals a surprising number of hazing incidents (including the hazing murder of an Iraq veteran), and efforts to protect the victims through enlightened policies and legislation. Here is a good general resouce on hazing.

Apart from protecting the victim, I think the high numbers of witnesses who apparently do little or nothing call for a renewed public discussion about the bystander effect. This is a difficult topic to bring up, especially if you’re trying to point out and prevent the Bystander Effect in progress. In my experience, anyone who is part of the Bystander group will have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the implied accusation rather than using the information to redirect their attention and help the victim. Perhaps what we also need is a social pact that makes it safe for people to bring up a Bystander issue: i.e., no hostility, retaliation, ostracization, or attempts to turn the group against the person who dares to point out Bystander behavior. The Bystander Effect is real, and a quick glance at all the news stories about hazing shows that people are getting hurt and even killed because of the social obstacles to intervention.

Bully Video Game, Yet Again!

An interesting Wisconsin State Journal article argues that the Left and the Right are uniting in opposition to the Bully video game. It would be interesting to see if there’s a line between supporters and opponents that can be drawn elsewhere. For instance, would the positions reflect a generational divide? Or perhaps the battle over Bully is defined by economic as opposed to political positions: is this a free market vs. planned economy showdown?

I’m personally still in favor of parents choosing not to buy the game instead of banning it. I think it’s providing a terrific focus for conversation about bullying.

Also, I learned today that 160,000 students have reported skipping out on school because they fear being bullied. I wonder how this number would look if other strategies to avoid bullying were factored in. For instance, my father drove me every day to a school in another town for my senior year in high school to dissuade me from dropping out of my hometown school. I was bullied extensively as a classic chess nerd – though it was probably more of a problem that the social status of my family and my dollar store clothes didn’t match my upper class-ish abilities and interests. Nothing drives people crazier than a person that’s difficult to categorize.

I often wonder if the mass unsettling of categories isn’t the root of a lot of reactionary politics today. A lot of people have attempted to assert equality without any financial ground to stand on since the 60s: this probably looks like chaos from the perspective of the traditionally privileged. No wonder our government and the media are looking for any rationale – scientific or religious or judicial – to put people “in their place”. A banner example is Tom Delay’s shifty agenda for moral fitness. For the reader’s benefit, here’s a defition of “moral fitness” from a philosophy web site:

Moral fitness theory is a rationalist theory that includes the notion that the human mind is able to grasp the various moral relations that result from the essential natures of things in the universe; e.g., the nature of humans and God creates a relation that necessitates the allegiance of humans to their superior (this view was made most famous by Samuel Clarke).

The idea of “moral fitness” probably sounds comforting to the people dismayed by the confusion and contradictions of the modern world. However, I imagine it’s a lot more comforting for those who deem themselves to be the “superiors” than those who are shoved into the class obliged to proffer a natural “allegiance.”

When the Bullied Fight Back

In Britain there’s currently a debate about whether a tough-talking celebrity should be leading the effort to stop bullying. The case of Jodie Marsh brings into focus a number of questions that usually get sidestepped in public conversation about bullying. First, is the person who fights back also a bully? My sense is that there is considerably social pressure not to fight back. Most of the conceptualizations are patently negative: “two wrongs don’t make a right”, “you can’t fight rankism with more rankism”, “revenge”, and even “terrorism”. It seems to me that this predictable social response supports bullying.

What happens when bullying occurs, and the public fails to support the target when the target fights back? This sends the message that it’s better to take the initiative in a conflict because the public will help pin the victim down. This invigorates bullies with the confidence that they will get away with aggressive action. Also, when other victims see that they will be punished with social disapproval and ostracism if they try to fight back, they will be less inclined to try: their only choice will be to comply. This is exactly the situation that bullies want.

Another question is whether a person who fights back is a good role model for children. It seems to me that there are different kinds of role model. Jodie Marsh is not a role model for turning the other cheek and passively accepting bullying. She is a role model for assertive responses to bullying, and at this point she can provide the victims of bullies with some insight to the bully’s point of view. It all comes down to how society views role models: are they there to reinforce hierarchy or are they there to help children think for themselves and stand up for themselves? Jodie Marsh is obviously a flawed human being. But we are all flawed human beings. Maybe children would be better off talking about the decisions Jodie made than feeling obliged to live up to the example of someone who is presented to them as perfect.

The ideal situation would be to explore at least three scenarios: the person who triumphs by repaying bullying with generosity, the person who repays bullying with more bullying, and the person who ended up in the hospital because they internalized the social pressure not to fight back. Without incorporating at least those three points of view, the anti-bullying movement will soon be mired in platitudes, without a sliver of hope for effective policy or social change.

Bullying as Wedge Issue to Expand Government Control and Censorship

A few days ago I touched on how the press was exploiting parental anxieties by only presenting the case against the videogame Bully. Yesterday I read another article portraying a mom’s plea against cyberbullying. I’ve also seen a lot of articles lately where HR gurus warn that people are being denied jobs because of Google, bolstered by the frenetic scare-mongering over privacy.

I want to stop bullying as much as anyone, and I’ve also had my experiences with cyberbullying, but it seems to me that corporate and government interests are now manipulating the issue of bullying to shut down or censor the Internet. Politicians and PR departments know that nothing creates an emotional climate for “safety” measures like the image of abused children or grieving parents.

What gives me the chills here is that the Internet is also one of the last frontiers of free speech and public participation. An environment of free speech may include bullies, but it also gives people a platform to speak out against bullies. In the offline world bullies often enjoy enormous control, and victims are easily silenced. On the Internet, the victim can speak out from behind the shield of screenname: this enables the victim to find other people that share his or her experience and may even sow the seeds of public protest, or even a social movement.

If the government establishes control of the Internet in the name of “public safety”, it will be the weakest and most vulnerable members of society who will be stopped from speaking. The powerful will continue to injure and abuse with the same impunity they enjoy in the real world social structure. When protest is contained in free speech zones, there’s no point in bothering to protest. The action is ineffective and the threat fails to inhibit. Power with no effective challenge is totalitarian power.

I’m starting to suspect that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to stage a governement coup against Internet. It will probably work: our country has a sad history of giving away freedoms in the name of security. When it finally happens though, I think the true victims of bullying will be the first to see the mistake.