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.

What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?

s_300_upload_wikimedia_org_88554_800px-Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching_119What was the principal take-away from the 20th century?

Atomic energy? DNA? Penicillin? Or, something from the world of art or philosophy or psychology? The title question leaves plenty of room for debate.

My answer is that the most important learning of the century was disabusing ourselves of the notion that some people are inferior. Put the other way round, the most important misconception of the last century was the belief that some people were superior.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the existence of superior individuals and groups was widely accepted. Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors. Belief in the validity of such judgmental comparisons underlay much of the manmade suffering for which the 20th century is rightly known.

Well into the last century:

* Imperial powers believed themselves superior to the peoples they colonized and exploited.

* The doctrine of White Supremacy took many forms, including Jim Crow and Apartheid.

* Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.

* Ethnocentrism was the norm.

* The rich looked down their noses at the poor.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy were all but universal.

* Dominion over the Earth was defended as a God-given right.

* Co-religionists typically believed their faith superior to others.

* Heterosexuals regarded their moral superiority as self-evident.

* People with physical or mental disabilities were stigmatized.

* Native-born citizens felt superior to immigrants, and earlier immigrants felt superior to later arrivals.

* Traditional hierarchies of class and caste persisted. White collar workers looked down on blue.

* The academic world both mirrored and reinforced these valuations. Intelligence tests were regarded as certifying mental superiority and were used to justify consigning low-scorers to low-status jobs.

No doubt further examples will come to mind. But before going on, it is crucial to get one thing straight. I am not saying that differences do not exist or that performance cannot be judged, let alone that competition is bad. Of course some golfers are better than others, some musicians have more fans, some nations have higher income per capita, and some politicians outpoll their rivals.

What I’m saying is that ranking higher on a particular scale does not support a more general claim of superiority as a person. The winners of a race in a track meet are not superior human beings. If you insist, you can say that Mary was “superior” in the 400 meter dash on Saturday, but really all that means is that she crossed the finish line ahead of her competitors on that day in that event. The gold medal is her rightful reward, but it doesn’t mean that she’s a superior person. Larger, broader claims to superiority are unfounded, unseemly, and, as the 20th century amply demonstrates, treacherous.

The trouble with the superior/inferior distinction is that it’s used to confer or deny ancillary benefits, ones that go far beyond just rewards for winning a particular competition. Worse, claims to superiority are invoked to justify degradation, exploitation, and even the extermination of “inferior” individuals, groups, ethnicities, cultures, and peoples.

Because untold suffering has been licensed by presumed superiority, my nominee for the most important takeaway from the 20th century is the hard-won realization that applying the superior/inferior distinction to persons or peoples is specious. Such comparisons are odious. They present a grave danger not only to those deemed inferior, but also to those who pride themselves on their superiority.

This is not to say that imperialism, colonialism, exceptionalism, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, etc. have been eradicated. Hate-mongers and demagogues are constantly popping up and pandering to those who, doubting their own worth, hunger for assurances of superiority. American politicians, even those who know better, cultivate feelings of superiority by concluding their speeches with “America is the greatest country on Earth.” While such nationalistic puffery used to be music to patriots’ ears, it is increasingly cringe-making. To those who’ve come of age in a globalized world, exceptionalism rings false.

I can hear the objections already. Everywhere you look, some group, braced by a sense of its superiority, is demeaning or belittling those it regards as beneath it. Yes, such behavior persists into the 21st century, but increasingly it’s met with skepticism if not condemnation.

Here’s evidence of this change:

* Imperialism yielded to decolonization. The British, French, and others withdrew from Asia and Africa. Imperial designs of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese–intoxicated with their presumed ethnic superiority–led to the utter destruction of these would-be conquerors. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the final decade of the century punctuated the end of empire.

* White Supremacy has become indefensible; the N-word unspeakable.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy are in retreat.

* Environmental protection and animal rights are gathering support.

* Homosexuality came to be seen as inborn, like heterosexuality. Lady Gaga’s hit–“Born That Way”–sums it up.

* Disabilities were de-stigmatized and people with disabilities laid claim to equal dignity.

* By century’s end, reflexive acceptance of entitlement and authority was out. Public skepticism, if not cynicism, toward anyone or any nation pretending to superiority was the new norm.

The hateful epithets that fell easily from people’s lips until mid-century have lost legitimacy; they embarrass not their targets but those who utter them. The ethnocentrism of 1900 now seems myopic. In its place is the idea that different cultures, like different languages, are simply different. Each is a complex social system with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ethnic or sectarian differences are not grounds for exploitation or predation.

One person is no more superior to another than a dachshund to a poodle, a dog to a cat, or a butterfly to a rose. Persons, groups, nations are incommensurate.

Individuals and groups react negatively to being labeled inferior, and sooner or later they will get even with those who abuse them. As Shakespeare slyly points out in The Merchant of Venice, the victimized, once they gain the upper hand, are usually inclined “to better the instruction.” To put it bluntly, condescension is a time bomb.

It cost millions of lives, but it seems to have dawned on us that a vital part of a good defense is not giving offense in the first place. What’s more offensive than claiming superiority for your religion or country, and expecting others to welcome your tutelage?

Postscript and Preview

Learning from the past is hard enough. Foretelling the future is impossible. Still, we must take the long view if only because a glimpse of where we’re headed can persuade us to change course to avoid a calamity.

So I conclude with another question and hazard another guess:

Which of the ideas that we now take for granted will do us the most damage over the course of this century? Or, putting it the other way round, for which of our delusions will our descendants most pity us?

To encourage you to formulate your own answer, I’ll give you mine.

The 21st century will reveal that, like superiority, selfhood is illusory.

What I’m suggesting is that there really are no separate selves. The word self is itself a misnomer. Autonomous, stand-alone selfhood is an illusion. Not only are we not better than anyone else, our selves are so entangled and enmeshed with other selves as to make individual selves indistinguishable. Separate selves, like superior selves, are a dangerous delusion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pleased some and angered others when she pointed out that none of us can do anything by ourselves. That “it takes a village.” That’s an understatement. Actually, each of us is a village. We’ve been internalizing our “village” since our first stirrings in the womb.

Not only can no one do anything by him or herself, no self can even be by itself. To exist is to co-exist. Absent human interaction, minds do not develop or they break down. That’s why solitary confinement is torture. Our selves are either continually, communally co-created or they disintegrate.

During the current century we’ll have to reconceive our relationship to smart machines as their creative intelligence overtakes our own. Dealing with this humbling development will change our sense of self even more profoundly than the 20th-century realization that we’re not as special as we thought.

Reimagining human selfhood will take the combined efforts of philosophers, theologians, psychologists, neuroscientists, artists, and others. I’m sure that the answer I’ve broached here will give way to a succession of better ones. Coming to a new understanding of the relationship between individuality and collectivity–between self and other–and then reorganizing our social and political relationships accordingly will be the defining challenge and crowning achievement of the 21st century.

By 2100, we’ll have very different answers to the age-old questions: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Our new answers will cause us, in partnership with the intelligent machines we build, to remake the world.

An expanded version of this exploration of the future of the Self–and how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics–is available as a free e-booklet here.

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.

Dignity – A Unifying Value for American Politics

Both political parties know that a unifying core value expressed in a pithy slogan translates into votes. FDR’s Democrats had “The New Deal”; LBJ’s party advanced “The Great Society.” Republicans rally to “lower taxes,” “smaller government,” “strong defense,” and “family values.”

What core value, what slogan, could move us beyond the toxic standoff that paralyzes American politics today?

The answer lies in a single word – Dignity.

This core value takes wings on the inclusive slogan: “Dignity For All.” The bumper sticker reads “Dignity4All,” and it will soon begin appearing on cars across America.

The idea of a universal right to dignity may at first seem too simple to pull together the disparate elements of this divided nation, but it’s not. Dignity is what people want, on the left, on the right, and most importantly, in the vast, non-ideological middle.

Dignity is not negotiable. People will stand up for their dignity, and once they’re on their feet, it’s usually not long before they’re marching for justice.

Two hundred years of bloody world history have shown that there is no direct path from Liberty to Justice. But if we interpose a steppingstone, we can build a bridge to justice. The name of that stone is not “Equality,” it’s “Dignity.” By establishing the right to dignity, and then enacting legislation that protects everyone’s dignity equally, we can give concrete meaning to Thomas Jefferson’s evocative claim that “All men are created equal.”

A “dignitarian society” pulls together what’s best from the three broad strands of civic culture dominating politics since the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The polarizing stranglehold these ideals exert on the contemporary imagination, when any one is prioritized over the others, is a major source of the incivility that infects our politics today.

Conservatives see themselves as Liberty’s defenders; progressives pride themselves as the champions of equality. Both parties promise Fraternity, but neither delivers it.

Dignity is more encompassing than Liberty, Equality, or Fraternity. It’s the missing link that when restored will yield an electoral mandate to make good on America’s founding promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

The politics of dignity puts the “We” back in “We the People.” It spans the conservative-liberal divide. It closes the ideological fissures that separate libertarian, egalitarian, and fraternitarian ideologies and breaks the stalemate that has stalled the advance of justice since the 1960s.

A dignitarian society does not tolerate indignity – towards anyone. When this principle is translated into policy, it rules out acceptance of a permanent underclass. It disallows prejudice and discrimination toward all the groups that have rallied around the various flags of identity politics. It transforms the stalemate over abortion and gay marriage into a civil discussion of whose rights to dignity are being abridged. It proclaims everyone’s right to a sustainable environment.

Like liberty and justice, dignity is most easily defined in the negative. As a precursor to banishment or enslavement, we’re all attuned to pick up on the slightest hint of indignity.

What causes people to experience indignity? The precise and universal cause of indignity is the abuse of power. Make a list of the most distressing issues of recent years: corporate corruption, the Katrina catastrophe, sexual abuse by clergy, Abu Ghraib, domestic spying, etc. Every one of them can be traced to an abuse of power by individuals of high rank. Often the abuses had the blessing of people of even higher rank.

To effectively oppose the full range of abuses of power vested in rank, we need a word that identifies them collectively. Abuse and discrimination based on color and gender are called “racism” and “sexism,” respectively. By analogy, abuse and discrimination based on the power inherent in rank is “rankism.” This coinage provides a vitalizing link between the methods of identity politics and the moral values of democratic governance. Having a generic name for abuses of power makes them much easier to target, and targeting them is precisely what’s called for if democracy is to resume its evolution.

However principled the cause, no party can present itself as a champion of dignity so long as its members reserve the right to indulge in rankism. This includes treating political opponents with indignity. Humiliation and condescension – toward domestic opponents or foreign enemies – are inherently rankist postures, and as such they have no place in a dignitarian politics.

How would a society that makes dignity its linchpin differ from ones shaped by ideologies that accentuate liberty, equality, or fraternity? The difference is one of nuance, not opposition, for a dignitarian society combines the strengths of all three traditions.

A dignitarian society promotes individual freedom, while at the same time tempering the uninhibited free market with institutions of social responsibility that insure that economic power does not confer unwarranted educational or political advantages. For example, you shouldn’t have to be rich to attend good schools, or command a fortune to stand for office.

A dignitarian society provides genuine equality of opportunity. In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into master and servant classes, is unacceptable. There’s a way out of poverty in a dignitarian society. Everyone earns a living wage and has access to quality health care.

The politics of dignity sees democracy as a work in progress. Democracy’s next step—one that will enlarge liberty, deliver justice, and foster fraternity—is to overcome rankism and build a dignitarian society.

Dignity is an idea whose time has come. The party that takes dignity as its core value can mobilize the energy not merely to win at the polls, but to win with a mandate to fulfill our nation’s implicit promise of “Dignity For All.”

*This article was a featured column on Huffington Post on June 15, 2006.

A Dignitarian Manifesto

This post is a follow up to a conversation initiated by Doc Searls.

When it comes to politics, new language and new thinking are different things. Whatever new language progressives used in 2004 failed to change the electoral outcome, and at most it’ll help them eke out a few victories in the coming years. New language is like changing the window treatment, not the window, not the view, not the perspective.

What’s required for social change, and it could come from either party, is the kind of political realignment we get once every 50 years. Such realignment pulls a sizeable majority from the vast non-ideological, sensible middle of the political spectrum, and creates a real mandate for fundamental social change. Like those that FDR and LBJ presided over. Like the universal health care and campaign finance reform that we need now.

America may well be approaching another such tipping point. To actually tip, we need a core unifying idea to rally around, and equally we need a name for the situation we’ll no longer put up with. For the unifying idea I suggest the slogan “Dignity For All.” (The bumper sticker goes ‘Dignity4All’ and they’re being created by a woman in Kansas.) The constellation of behaviors and practices “up with which we will not put” all fall under the heading of rankism.

Rankism is defined as abuse of the power inherent in rank. It’s the culprit. It’s the cause of indignity. It’s the source of the most vexing political problems troubling Americans, from Katrina to Abu Ghraib to corporate corruption to bought politicians and elections. But most disturbingly, it is the cause of the emergence of an entrenched class locked in permanent poverty. America without the American Dream is not America … and the Dream is fast becoming a mirage. This trend must be reversed, and it’s going to take once-a-generation political realignment to do it.

The goal then is to build a dignity movement that provides grassroots support for democracy to make its next evolutionary step. In the sixties the step we needed was to overcome racism; in the seventies we trained our sights on sexism; now the challenge is to target rankism—in all its guises. And they are many: bully bosses, sexually abusive clerics, professors who “borrow” research results from graduate students or exploit them as assistants, politicians who threaten privacy and liberty, condescending doctors, arrogant bureaucrats, coaches who humiliate players. Wherever there is a hierarchy, it’s susceptible to abuse by power-holders of high rank.

But neither rank nor hierarchy are inherently, necessarily abusive. Actually, we admire, even love, people who earn high rank and handle it with grace and respect for those they outrank. What we cannot abide, what causes indignity, is abuse of rank. In a word, rankism. And we do need a word. It wasn’t until the women’s movement had the word “sexism” at its disposal that it made the gains it’s now known for: equal pay for equal work; the right to choose; Title IX, etc.

To bring about social change, it’s not enough to know what you’re for; you also have to know what you’re against. The dignity movement is for a dignitarian (not an egalitarian) society and it is against rankism.

That’s it in a nutshell. Like any far-reaching analysis of social justice, the full story is a longer, more complex one. This web site is a primer on the dignity movement. There’s a 1 minute video for those in a hurry. The full treatment (interpersonal and institutional rankism and how to confront them) can be found in my book All Rise.

The goal is to make rankism as defendable as racism has become, which is to say, not very. It didn’t used to affect your career advancement to be identified as racist or sexist, but now it stops you in your tracks. As the dignity movement gains momentum, it will be equally disadvantageous to be known as rankist. If you’re interested in joining the movement to help us bring that day closer, please let us know.

Dignity – A Core Unifying Value for American Politics

Democrats acknowledge the need to clarify their core values. Crashing the Gate by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulistas Zuniga calls for a conceptual breakthrough, but the grassroots/netroots process it describes falls short of providing the unifying idea that Democrats seek.

What basic, compelling idea can do for Democrats today what “The New Deal” did for FDR; what “The Great Society” did for LBJ? Can progressives create a slogan to match the conservatives: “lower taxes”, “less government”, “strong defense”, “family values”?

They can do so with a word. That word is “Dignity.”

From that word comes a unifying slogan: “Dignity For All.”

The idea of a universal right to dignity seems too simple to pull together the disparate elements of this divided nation, but it’s not. Dignity is what people want, on the left, on the right, and most importantly, in the vast, non-ideological middle.

Dignity is not negotiable. People will stand up for their dignity and once they’re on their feet, they’ll insist on justice.

Two hundred years of blood-soaked history have shown that there is no direct path from Liberty to Justice. But if we interpose a steppingstone, we can build a bridge to justice. The name of that stone is “Dignity.” By establishing the right to dignity, and then enacting legislation that protects everyone’s dignity on equal terms, we can deliver on this country’s founding promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

A dignitarian society pulls what’s best from the three broad strands of civic culture that have dominated politics since the French Revolution—Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The stranglehold that these ideals exert on the contemporary imagination is a major source of the incivility that infects our politics today.

Conservatives see themselves as Liberty’s defenders; progressives pride themselves as the champions of Equality. Both parties promise Fraternity, but neither delivers.

Dignity is more encompassing than Liberty, Equality, or Fraternity. It’s the missing link that restored will yield an electoral mandate that heralds an historic extension of “liberty and justice for all.”

The politics of dignity puts the “We” back in “We the People.” It spans the conservative-liberal divide. It closes the ideological fissures that separate libertarian, egalitarian, and communitarian philosophies, breaking the stalemate that has stalled the advance of justice since the 1960s.

A dignitarian society does not tolerate indignity—towards anyone. When this principle is translated into policy, it rules out acceptance of a permanent underclass. It disallows prejudice and discrimination toward all the groups that have rallied around the various flags of identity politics. It makes a woman’s right to choose and gays’ right to marry self-evident. It proclaims everyone’s right to a sustainable environment.

The disparate interest groups that make up the Democratic Party will not be able to unite until they have identified their common foe. That foe is not conservatives or conservatism. It is indignity.

What is the source of indignity? The precise and universal cause of indignity is the abuse of power. Make a list of the most distressing issues of recent years: corporate corruption, the Katrina catastrophe, sexual abuse by clergy, Abu Ghraib, domestic spying, persistent poverty, etc. Every one of them can be traced to an abuse of power by individuals entrusted with high rank.

However principled their cause, progressives can’t present themselves as the party of dignity so long as they reserve the right to treat their opposite numbers with indignity. Treating political opponents in a condescending manner is counterproductive and self-sabotaging. A great many of those who’ve been voting Republican feel that political elites, intellectuals, liberals, and the media look down on them. It’s a charge that sticks because there’s truth in it.

Crashing the Gate notes that progressive interest groups can and do pay employees less than conservative groups because they compensate with a moral premium. But when the coin of the progressive realm is moral superiority, the result is disdain for the very people progressives seek to represent, and this undercuts their message.

How would a society that prioritizes dignity differ from ones shaped by ideologies that accentuate liberty, equality, or fraternity? The difference is one of nuance, not opposition, for a dignitarian society combines the strengths of all three traditions.

A dignitarian society promotes individual freedom, but it tempers the uninhibited free market with institutions of social responsibility that insure that economic power does not confer unwarranted educational or political advantages. For example, you shouldn’t have to be rich to attend good schools, or command a fortune to stand for office.

A dignitarian society provides real equality of opportunity. In a dignitarian society, loss of social mobility, let alone division into master and servant classes, is unacceptable. There’s a way out of poverty in a dignitarian society. Everyone earns a living wage and has access to quality health care.

The politics of dignity sees democracy as a work in progress. Democracy’s next step – one that will enlarge liberty, deliver justice, and foster fraternity – is building a dignitarian society.

Dignity is an idea whose time has come. Under its flag, we can mobilize the energy not merely to win at the polls, but to win with a mandate to fulfill our nation’s promise – “Dignity For All.”

Uplifting Vision of Eldercare

During the 1990s, I worked my way though graduate school as a live-in eldercare assistant. My employer was a fascinating person who had come to California in a covered wagon, and who had spent many of his glory years exploring the world. My job was to help him maintain his independence in the community where he’d lived for over 50 years and to save him from the nursing home, which he regarded as a fate worse than death. I had more than an inkling of what he feared because I’d worked as a stopgap maid for a rural nursing home one summer as a teenager. The environment wasn’t abusive, but it was coldly institutional. It wasn’t the place I’d want to spend the culminating years of my life. Many elderly people tolerate horrific abuse rather than even entertaining the thought of joining a “home”.

This constituted my entire understanding of eldercare before I had the opportunity last week to visit the Summerville (Villa del Rey) retirement community in Napa last week. First, the facilities were stunning. The dining room reminded me of a Victorian resort, and the chef was widely praised as well. I caught a glimpse of an on-site beauty parlor, which included manicures. The entire staff seemed to be involved in spending social time with the residents and participating in fun, creative, and educational activities.

I was most impressed by the Executive Director, Becky Givens. She actively fostered an environment that acknowledged everyone has value, no matter where they fall in the staff hierarchy. She sought out opportunities to praise unsung heroes and encouraged employees to treat each other with understanding and respect. The employees seemed genuinely happy to work there. This general sense of well-being was surely passed along to the elderly residents. Givens put her outlook in a nutshell: “This is their home – we’re here to serve them.”

It’s wonderful to know some people are working toward a world where elderly people don’t have to be terrified about being dumped in a “home”.

Bodhisattvas Could be Anywhere

Today I was checking out the asian sculpture at the wonderful Ring of Fire Imports in Berkeley, and it reminded me that I once had a brush with what may be a bodhisattva. A few years ago I moved to a new place. Moving is especially difficult for me: I was working sporadically as a temp, I had no savings, I had no family and few friends in the area, and I don’t drive. After making some elaborate arrangements for exchange of services, I put together a group of friends who were supposed to help me move. Since helping someone move is one of the top ten most onerous duties of friendship, everyone who had agreed to help found an excuse to back out. Since someone else was supposed to be moving into my old place that week, I had no idea what to do.

Then a miracle happened. Another temp that I barely knew, heard me calling my friends and begging for help – and out of nowhere, he volunteered to help me. He had a car, and he spent a day doing a lot of heavy lifting and making multiple trips. I asked him what motivated him to help a stranger this way when all my supposed friends had ducked out of it. He explained that he was a Buddhist, and his religious beliefs guided him to act selflessly and reach out to anyone who needed his help.

After I met this person, I read a bit about Buddhism, and one of the things I learned is that the role of the Bodhisattva is to help other people reach enlightenment. The person who helped me move certainly played that role for me. To this day when I’m faced with a difficult ethical question, I ask myself what this guy would do. He’s the person who represents what it means to Do the Right Thing in my mind.

I’m bringing up this story because this is one model for building a dignitarian society. Rankism often results from people putting their own convenience before anything else and excluding the people who most need their help. The Bodhisattva seeks out those who need help and embraces the inconvenient as an opportunity for selflessness. Look for the potential Bodhisattvas around you and recognize that they are the leaders in creating a dignitarian way of life.