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.



17 thoughts to “Rankism”

  1. Just a quick response to say that I just discovered this site a few minutes ago and am glad that I did. I’m teaching a graduate course on leadership and managing change this summer and have already begun to think of ways that I might be able to integrate this topic (more fully than I already do) into the course.



  2. I am teaching this concept in my Critical Perspectives course. I find it to be a really important concept for teachers to be aware of.

    Thank you.

  3. I’d like to call your attention to a problem that has been getting worse over a period of about 20 years. Auto plant unions are strong because of the long history of united efforts among auto workers. The women who participated, however, were being abused to the 90th power in these auto plants by so other so called members (males)”brotherhood”. Today it is even worse. This “brotherhood” (after indulging in some of the most, confrontational, retaliatory, harassing, harmful (death by design) of female co-workers, has the nerve to say “as brothers and sisters we have to stick together on the strikeline! This galls me to no end. Worse, women are turning upon other women. It is an infestation of self destruction. The disunity of auto workers is destroying their own work place. All of this will ultimately have contributed to the nearing destruction of this very country! I am very, very, very upset by this. Don’t think for a moment that I have not tried to initiate a cessation of this ‘organized’ chaos. For my efforts I was silenced . Surely you can imagine what this entailed.

  4. Having been on all sides at one time or another during my 38 years of work history and being female, I have absolutely seen it all. There is one thing for certain – daily, there will always be one person (at least) in management or co-workers who will make your life uncomfortable or miserable. Mr. Fuller is “right on”! Rankism exists, always has and it’s time to educate all workers/management, male and/or female.

    The next thing for certain is that trying to stay alive and well in a non-union workplace definitely can be hard on your health. If you have no one to stand up for and assist you, trust me, I’ll take the union work every time. No one is perfect but it’s better being in numbers than alone.

  5. I don’t want to put my last name on here because it is very unusual and easily recognizable. Not that I am going to say anything I wouldn’t want repeated. I, too , am female and have worked for years in construction and in a shipyard. there is definitely rankism among the male union members. Not all of them but enough to make earning a living a tough struggle. Such a tough struggle that I am looking for something else to do. It’s bad enough that union construction workers get abused by contractors and our own officers; it’s doubly bad when I can see that I am discounted and ignored even though I have talent to contribute. Discounted and ignored by the very “brothers” that feel betrayed and abused by the union officials they elected and the contractors we work for.
    Good luck with this site. I am looking forward to reading more of it as I have only read two pages so far. Hang in there, P. Tall. You are not alone. Nor you G. Ford.
    They(the perpetrators of rankism) try to keep us women apart so we cannot work together for change.

  6. RANKISM: just the info i needed as i continue to struggle with a non-profit corporation to fufill its contract with my low income housing complex in california. with murders, stabbings, vandalism, burglaries, domestic violence, arson, you name it – i’ve been trying to address it with management for years now. being poor, past middle age, disabled and a woman, i often feel powerless and want to throw my hands in the air and say F it! but i will never stop advocating for social order and promises kept. i must remember i am a person, not a problem.

  7. It seems the moment we go looking for the help we need in our lives, all manner of topics cross can our paths anymore. Synchronicity is really getting noisier and noisier to recognize!
    The word “Rankism” looks like many things to me at a distance, since, I have not looked much deeper at the intention or context of this idea, or of a ‘Dignity Movement.’ I have just encountered “Rankism,” and “The Dignity Movement” as subjects due to an email list I am on… Impressionistically, I believe I can grasp the basic concepts here, as being another facet in the larger discussion on conscious human evolution.

    Is there room inside this topic for the complicated relationships inside families who have the legacy of unhealed abuses? Specifically where a female predecessor has been a childhood victim of sexual trauma, and remaining unconscious to the memories, has passed a lifetime of unspoken, unrecognized and consequently unmet needs for deep healing down to her children, creating a pattern of targeting behaviors that are pointed negatively at her own daughter, as well as manipulative behaviors for protection that have utilized sons as “husbands of convenience?” These patterns are terrifically polarizing in a family of origin over the course of a life, and have debilitating emotional and psychological consequences that most people commonly seem to ignore as ever existing. It seems that only the targeted are left with the brunt end of consequences that are harder to ignore, or avoid.

  8. Rankism can limit productivity, abilities or desires of people, including the productivity of a nation.

  9. I had my first “ah ha” moment shortly after reading your books, regarding the flap around Rush Limbaugh and Rahm Emanuel tossing around the “retard” epithet:
    It seems like there’s always some group that is “fair game” to put down, whether it’s blacks, gays, Jews, fat people, or the mentally retarded. But what is acceptable behavior one day becomes unacceptable the next (do to awareness, education, or simply social pressure). We need to come to a place where no person and no group is fair game. And that, to me, is the mission of the Dignity Movement.

  10. I am so glad I finally have a name for what I have been fighting my entire life. I have had to fight against all kinds of ism’s from day one. I must explore this site and topic a lot more. Thank you, Robert.

  11. I am very great full for your work it is extremely seminal. I am currently working on a manuscript on Scientism and the new Atheism. I believe the whole phenomenon is well rank with rankism,intellectual elitism classism based on education and alleged superior intelligence(I am not a theist by the way)
    Dennet,Dawkins,Hitchens and the founder of Mensa all Oxonian.as was the late Anthony Flew.
    Of course there is a direct correlation to religiosity and economic insecurity and lack of education.
    Thank You again for your Work

  12. This is so true and real in this world. Socially we can’t seem to also escape condensension among peers.In Asia,human perception could be so warped and distorted to the point of self-centredness. Everything seems to steem from comparision, jealousy and narrow-mindedness. Asian has very low threshold for differing views (unless you’re caucasion foreigner).Subconciously, we exercise such prejudice among our own folks and inflict pain on one another. Confidence is a good thing but if he or she thinks that others are less deserving then it becomes a scourge in the so-called “friendship”, the other would also start to retaliate and it becomes a cycle. There seems to be the tendency to put others down so as to allevate self-importance unless the others are useful to you…

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