Rankism: A Social Disorder

An undiagnosed disorder is at large in the world. It afflicts individuals, groups, and nations. It distorts our personal relationships, erodes our will to learn, taxes our economic productivity, stokes ethnic hatred, and incites nations to war. It is the cause of dysfunctionality, and sometimes even violence, in families, schools, and the workplace.

Over the course of history, the most common abuses of power have acquired special names:

  • tyranny
  • colonialism
  • slavery
  • racism
  • sexism
  • lynching
  • rape
  • bullying
  • child and elder abuse
  • domestic violence
  • sexual harrassment
  • corporate corruption
  • clergy misconduct
  • homophobia

Each of these practices is an abuse of the weak by the strong. Each of these familiar named offenses is an instance of bullying, of pulling rank, of putting people down. By analogy with abuses based on race and gender, abuse based on rank is called rankism.

1. n. abuse, discrimination, or exploitation based on rank
2. n. abusive, discriminatory, or exploitative behavior towards people who have less power because of their lower rank in a particular hierarchy

Once you have a name for it, you see rankism at the heart of many infringements of human rights, far away or close to home. Rankism is the root cause of indignity, injustice, and unfairness. Choosing the term rankism, places the goal of universal human dignity in the context of contemporary movements for civil rights. Reexamining racism, sexism, and ageism as examples of rankism breathes new life into the movements opposing them. Identifying rankism in all its guises and overcoming it is democracy’s next step.

Isn’t Pulling Rank Human Nature?

Sure it is. But changing attitudes toward racism and sexism suggest that we can also change our attitudes toward rank-based discrimination. If anything is human nature, it is the will to democracy, that is, the will to curtail abuses of rank by acting together to create systems of governance that circumscribe authority.

The first step is to become aware of rank as an excuse for abuse. As we become adept at distinguishing between the legitimate and illegitimate uses of rank, collective opposition to rank's abuses becomes possible.

Rankism’s Toll

On Personal Relationships
In personal relations, the abuse of rank is experienced as an insult to dignity. Our antennae are tuned to detect the slightest trace of condescension or indignity in others' treatment of us. Pulling rank takes the form of disrespect, insults, disdain, ‘dissing’, berating, snobbery, and humiliation. Even when not deliberately malicious, rank abuse can still warp and deform our interactions.

On Productivity
While on a visit to Philadelphia, George Washington noticed that free men there could do in “two or three days what would employ [his slaves] a month or more.” His explanation that slaves had no chance “to establish a good name [and so were] too regardless of a bad one” was that of a practical man concerned with the bottom line, not that of a moralizer, and therefore all the more telling.

Today, employers are not dealing with slaves, though it is sometimes argued that wage-earners are wage-slaves and salaried employees are only marginally more independent. Negative motivation – fear of demotion or job loss – is now dwarfed by the positive motivation that comes from being part of a team of responsible professionals. Eliminating malrecognition in the work place is proving as good for the bottom line as eliminating malnutrition was for the productivity of day laborers.

On Learning
The real and imagined threat of rank abuse pervades all our educational institutions – from kindergarten through graduate school. Finding and holding one's position in a hierarchy takes priority over all else. In any institution with gradations of rank, protecting one's dignity from insult and injury siphons attention and energy away from learning.

No child – no human being – is expendable. Everyone has something to contribute, and when that contribution is made and acknowledged, he or she feels like a somebody. Helping individuals locate that something and contribute it is the proper business of education.

On Leadership
In any institution, rank-based discrimination limits the access of potential high performers to better jobs by inhibiting movement among ranks. It also puts those holding high rank under the kind of stress that gradually undercuts the creativity that brought them success in the first place.

Repeating themselves gradually separates somebodies from their creative source, depleting them until they become empty shells. With enough repetitions, they begin to wonder why they ever thought they had anything to offer. Burnout is an occupational hazard of somebodyness.

On Spirit
Our passions are unique and personal. They grow out of our questions, out of the contradictions we feel with other people, with others' work, or with society. Initially we wonder Who's right? What's beautiful? What's fair? What's true? We're not sure. Our questions generate our individuality. Through our response to them, we define ourselves, we become someone in particular. Rank, social and otherwise, still keeps many from cultivating their questions into life-altering quests.

Read personal stories about the trickle-down consequences of rankism here.