The Dignity of Work: Transforming the One-Size-Fits-All Workhouse into a Custom-Fit Workplace

The inefficiency of slavery is now obvious, but to George Washington it came as a revelation. While on a visit to Philadelphia, 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. Sadly for us, our first president did not draw the full implications of his insight. Had he done so, he might have used his immense prestige to end the indignity of slavery.

Today’s employers are not dealing with slaves, though it is often argued that wage-earners are wage-slaves, and that the dignity of salaried employees is only marginally more secure. Since Washington’s time, it has gradually become clear that negative motivation—fear of punishment—is less effective than the positive motivation that comes from being part of a team of trusted, responsible professionals.

Once a year, on Labor Day, the dignity of work is extolled from sea to shining sea. In the new book The Custom-Fit Workplace, authors Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas show how to turn that noble ideal into a year-round reality by providing a blueprint for employers intent on creating workplaces that unleash the full potential of employees.

The ill-effects of rigid work schedules, inequitable pay, and other demeaning practices are now the subject of a growing body of research documenting the damage done not only to individual employees but to the companies for which they work. It turns out that rankism—the rank-based discrimination and abuse to which most indignities can be traced—is no better for the bottom line than racism, sexism, and homophobia. All the discriminatory “isms” are self-inflicted wounds that drain away the life-blood of enterprises harboring them.

The indignities of rankism are not merely unfair, they are inefficient and counterproductive. Fear and humiliation work only so long as people lack options. The young are increasingly unwilling to put up with rankist environments, and soon these vestiges of the workhouse will become untenable throughout the economy. A culture of dignity in the workplace provides a competitive advantage because it means happier, healthier, more creative and productive employees. What does it matter if they work together in lockstep—so long as they get the job done? People who feel recognized as individuals and respected as human beings are more likely to give their best. Much as eliminating malnutrition makes for healthier workers, eliminating malrecognition makes for more reliable ones.

Customized workplaces respect employees’ dignity in ways that previous generations would have found astonishing and the next generation will take for granted. Great managers have long known that nothing motivates workers quite so consistently as pride in a job well done. In chapters on flextime, virtual and contract work, job and career lane changes, and childcare at work, Blades and Fondas provide a design for a dignitarian workplace that pays off in performance and profits.

Today, slavery has no defenders. As the liberating and empowering practices in this handbook spread through the global marketplace, the institutional indignities of the one-size-fits-all workplace will likewise be revealed as paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. When the history of the dignity movement is written, The Custom-Fit Workplace will stand as a beacon that lit the way.

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 Is Our Destiny (Or, what is rankism and why do we “do” it?)

Rankism is an assertion of superiority. It typically takes the form of putting others down. It’s what “Somebodies” do to “nobodies.” Or, more precisely, it is what people who think they’re Somebodies do to people they take for nobodies.

It turns out that rankism is the source of most man-made suffering. So, if we could get rid of it, we would be a lot happier. Let me explain.

Before you conclude that rankism is human nature—that we’re like the apes, and they do it, so we have no choice—and dismiss the possibility of overcoming it, consider this list of specific kinds of “put downs” that, not long ago, were deemed cool, but have become a sure way to embarrass yourself:

1. Racism—whites putting and keeping non-whites down
2. Sexism—males limiting and disadvantaging females
3. Ageism—patronizing the young, condescending to the elderly
4. Anti-Semitism—discriminating against Jews
5. Classism—putting down people on the basis of differences in class (more prevalent in former aristocracies like Britain than in America, but also known here)
6. Homophobia—heterosexuals demeaning gays and lesbians
7. Ableism—humiliating people with disabilities
8. Colonialism—subordinating and exploiting another society or nation
9. Workplace and schoolyard bullying; sexual harassment, child abuse, and domestic violence; corporate, bureaucratic, and political corruption
10. …

The list goes on. Once you have a word for it, you see rankism everywhere.

Although all of these familiar isms persist, none of them has the force it did fifty years ago. Most of them are now regarded as distinctly uncool, even grounds for dismissal. The burden of proof, which formerly fell on nobodies, now falls on Somebodies. That’s historical change, and that’s why it is not utopian to think that we might be able to give up putting people down, not just people bearing a targeted trait (such as color, gender, age, class, religion, sexual orientation, disability), but give up putting people down period. For any reason. Period.

You’re probably thinking, What if they deserve to be put down? What if they have screwed up?

Even then, being put down is not what’s needed, nor is it justified. Correction, maybe; put downs, never. Indignity and humiliation have no place in human relations. That is where the above sequence—of no-longer legitimate putdowns—is tending. That is how humans are evolving behaviorally.

Some will think of this direction as long-prophesized. Isn’t this just the Golden Rule? they will say. Well, yes, it is the Golden Rule. But with a difference, a very significant operational difference. This Golden Rule has teeth. In this framework, “Do unto others …” becomes operative. Why? Because many behaviors that violate the Golden Rule can be understood as rankism. The perpetrators of these behaviors are rankists. Once you put a label on ignoble behavior, it is much harder to get away with.

In the same way that sexism and sexists rapidly lost legitimacy once they were named, so, too, will rankists find themselves in untenable positions once a label can be pinned on them. Not overnight. It has taken decades to delegitimize sexism and the other isms, but once the process of de-legitimizing indignifying behaviors begins there is no stopping it until we reach an equilibrium characterized by equal dignity for all.

The title to this piece promised an explanation of WHY we practice rankism. If we look at the kind of “reasons” used to justify the familiar isms, we see that they are now all regarded as specious. Not one of the “reasons” that people trotted out fifty years ago flies today.

So, there must be some hidden reason, something other than the traditional ones, that causes humans to behave in ways prejudicial and inimical to others. Why do we demean, marginalize, and disenfranchise others? Why do we subject others to indignity? Why do we do to others what we would not want them to do to us?

In short, why do we put others down? Or, in this language, why do we tolerate rankism? You’ve probably sensed where this line of questions is going: Why do we sometimes engage in rankism ourselves?

Rankism is a residue of predation. Our species, Homo sapiens, has a long history of predation. We’re not only good at it, we’re the top of the food chain. Of course, we do more than prey on animals and on each other. We also cooperate with each other, we love each other, we have shown ourselves to be capable of living in peace and harmony.

But through recorded history, we have preyed on other tribes, other states, religions, classes, races, etc. Everyone alive today has predatory ancestors and, what’s equally important, ancestors who managed to avoid becoming the prey of other human predators.

The twentieth century may go down as the bloodiest of all centuries, but it will also go down as the century in which many millions of human beings threw off centuries of colonial exploitation by a handful of relatively small nation states. And what is colonialism but one group putting another group down for purposes of exploitation.

Colonialism was long justified (as we once justified racism) in terms of a “superior” people ruling an “inferior” people. Colonialism was an example of people who regarded themselves as “Somebodies” putting down people they took for “nobodies.” And once one group has got another down, it can exploit it until its victims—the nobodies—organize and marshal a commensurate, if not surpassing, power.

We “do” rankism to institutionalize and normalize predation. THAT is why we “do” all the subspecies of rankism (racism, sexism, etc.). We practice rankism to put ourselves in a position to prey on others without exposing ourselves to risk. Predators all target the weak, and humans are no exception.

The reasons we’ve given to justify the familiar isms are bogus. They’re actually not reasons at all, they are excuses. They are excuses for putting people down and keeping them down so we can more safely exploit them in future. Or, so they will not compete with us. Or, simply to feel superior.

When I was a student at Oberlin College in the 1950s, the student body was one percent black and there were virtually no women majoring in math or physics. I’d not have made the basketball team if the college had accepted African-Americans in numbers anywhere near their national percentage. The competition for places in graduate school would have been stiffer if women had been encouraged to pursue careers in science. I was the unwitting beneficiary of a number of rankist practices.

Discrimination disadvantages targets by denying them equal opportunity, and it advantages those not targeted. THAT is why we do it—to give ourselves an advantage. THAT is the real reason. We’ve kept it a secret because it diminishes our achievement to admit the game was rigged in our favor.

Fixing the game is the real reason for rankism. If we can handicap or eliminate the competition, we improve our chances of coming away with the spoils.

But isn’t that just what any animal has to do to survive? Isn’t rankism just “survival of the fittest” at work? In short, isn’t rankism nature’s way?

Yes, rankism is what we’ve done through recorded history—one person to another, one group to another, one tribe to another, one nation to another. Until recently, the gains were judged to exceed the costs. But rankism has now become counterproductive. Instead of giving groups or individuals an advantage, rankism backfires in the same way that racism, sexism, and homophobia do. It undermines group solidarity and hampers cooperation. Rankism stifles creativity, inhibits learning, and taxes productivity. Rankism causes unhappiness and illness. Rankism corrodes organizations and societies that condone it.

This is not just another moment in history. We stand on the threshold of an epochal change. Humans are on the verge of giving up intra-species predation. Not just because preying on other people is bad and causes suffering. No. We are giving it up, wherever we can identify it, for a more compelling reason. Rankism is no longer working. Wars aren’t being won anymore. Trade wars hurt more than they help. Slavery is universally condemned. Wage slavery will not for long outlast its brutal antecedent. Nations that disallow rankism will outperform and out produce those that do not, and lead the world in the 21st century.

As we target rankism, we create a world of dignity for all, not just for some at the expense of others. As we disallow rankism, we build a dignitarian world, a world in which, regardless of rank, everyone experiences equal dignity.

Rankism wins, wins, wins, and then one day it loses. In the end, it loses because organizations and societies grounded in dignity for all trump those driven by the threat of indignity.

Dignity is our destiny. Why not embrace it?

Obama’s Nobel Honors His Dignitarian Politics

Some will say that Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize is premature. “What has he done?” they’ll ask.

Obama got the prize not for doing, but for being. Not for making peace, but for exemplifying something new on the world stage–the politics of dignity.

The Nobel Committee has simply made explicit what many have sensed. President Obama is the herald of dignitarian politics. Not libertarian, not egalitarian, but dignitarian.

Dignitarian politics represents a modern synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics. War between these two battle-scarred, exhausted ideologies shaped both national and international politics throughout the twentieth century. Obama is the first politician of world stature to identify and model an alternative that can meet the challenges of the twenty-first. Awarding him the Nobel Prize is an expression of the hope that our best chance for world peace lies in the dignitarian politics of which Obama is an exemplar.

What is dignitarian politics? It is the recognition that people the world over actually want dignity more than either liberty or equality. In policy terms, it means ensuring dignity for all–within and among nations.

Obama’s dignitarianism manifests in his inclusiveness, his style, and his manners. Domestically, dignitarian politics supercedes identity politics to embrace blacks and whites, men and women, gays and straights, young and old, rich and poor, immigrants and the native-born. The president has also made a point of reaching out to those who disagree with him both domestically and internationally.

The Nobel Prize will put pressure on Obama to make explicit his reasoning for what has been, up till now, a largely instinctive pursuit of the politics of dignity. Dignitarian politics means not condescending to Americans or citizens of other countries. It means not treating political opponents, whether at home or abroad, with indignity. It also means extending dignity in concrete ways, both political and economic, throughout the world. In programmatic terms, the quest for dignity is usefully conceived of as overcoming rankism–the abuse of a power advantage to demean, hold at a disadvantage, or dehumanize those with less power.

Globally, Obama’s politics of dignity makes Americans safer, in contrast to policies that, by humiliating others, leave us vulnerable to retaliation. Indignities inflicted on others make them indignant and so predispose them to side with our enemies, if not turn against us themselves. President Obama understands that part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. He realizes that in an interdependent world, muscular exceptionalism is a losing strategy.

Dignitarian politics has a host of immediate, practical consequences for international affairs. If President Obama is seen as reacting defensively to indignities served up by his opponents, he will appear weak. But if he goes on the offensive, not against those opponents themselves, but rather in favor of the emergent politics of dignity, at which he is a natural, he will prevail. Awarding President Obama the Peace Prize is a bet on the Nobel Committee’s part that the honor will support him in implementing the politics of dignity that he heralds.

How Nobodies Can Be Somebodies (FAQs re The Dignity Movement against Rankism)

Q: What do you mean by “somebodies” and “nobodies”?
A: “Somebodies” are the relatively powerful and successful, “nobodies” the relatively weak and vulnerable. Somebodies with higher rank and more power in a given context can maintain an environment that is hostile and demeaning to nobodies with lower rank and less power in that context. Taken together, those of low rank vastly outnumber those of high rank. If they were to stand together against rank-abuse, they could overcome it. But it’s not that simple because nobodies may also abuse their rank by putting down those of still lower rank. There is usually someone weaker on whom you can pull rank, even if it means kicking the dog.

Q: How can “nobodies” stand up for their dignity?
A: The same way women did in the 1960s. They broke the taboo on discussing gender and initiated a process of consciousness-raising about gender issues. In the process they coined the term “sexism,” which served to identify their grievances and put men on the defensive. In like manner, we must (1) break the taboo on discussing rank, (2) give a name to rank-abuse, and (3) replace the prevailing social consensus, which tacitly sanctions abusing and exploiting the weak, with a new consensus in which rank-abuse is regarded as uncool.

Q: What shall we call rank-based abuse and discrimination?
A: When discrimination and injustice are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re gender-based, we call it sexism. By analogy, rank-based abuse and exploitation are rankism. We won’t be able to confront rankism until we overcome our fear of seeming uppity by using the word in public. Following in the footsteps of uppity women, expect to see more uppity nobodies as the dignity movement gains momentum.

Q: Are you proposing to do away with rank?
A: Not at all. When earned and exercised appropriately, rank is a legitimate and virtually indispensable tool of organization. We rightly admire and respect those who attain it. But when those of higher rank abuse their authority, those of lower rank experience indignity not different in its material and psychological effects from the indignities we now disallow when victims are black, female, elderly, gay, or have a disability. People do not object to legitimate differences in rank, only to rank abuse. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender.

Q. Isn’t rankism human nature?
A: One of the hard-earned lessons of the twentieth century was that racism and sexism are not immutable. While it is virtually inevitable that a power advantage will be exploited initially, it is just as inevitable that such abuse will eventually be resisted. In this sense, rankism, of whatever sort, is no more part of human nature than are racism or sexism. If anything is human nature, it’s that human beings resist abuses of power. Racism, sexism and rankism may be hard to uproot, but they are not immutable. The first two were put on the defensive in the late twentieth century, and rankism itself is no more likely to survive scrutiny than the now-familiar isms.

Q: Why focus on rank instead of class?
A: In modern democracies we interact with authority in terms of rank, not class. In contrast to aristocratic societies, it no longer matters whether your superior has blue blood or blue collar ancestry. What matters is that he or she is your boss, your professor, your doctor, a police officer, or a president.

Q: What are the dynamics of rankism?
A: Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at others’ expense. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement and demeaning and exploiting subordinates. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders eschew rankism; bad ones indulge in it.

Q: Where is rankism found?
A: Although it is not necessary to abolish rank to eliminate the abuse of rank, it is true that hierarchies are breeding grounds for rankism. When authorities are not held accountable to those served by the hierarchy, rankism invariably develops. Thus, rankism can be found in bureaucracies, corporations, businesses, workplaces, families, schools and universities, as well as religious, nonprofit, and healthcare organizations. It can be especially hard to confront in non-profits, which see themselves as “doing good,” and may become blind to malpractice within their ranks. Rankism, however, is an equal opportunity malady, and will infect any organization where accountability is lax.

Q: What are the effects of rankism?
A: Rankism distorts personal relationships, erodes the will to work and to learn, taxes productivity, fosters ill-health, and stokes ethnic tensions.

Q: Who are the victims of rankism?
A: Although racism and sexism target specific identity groups, we are all potential victims of rankism. This is because rank is not fixed, but relative. You can be a nobody in one context—and as such vulnerable to rankism—but a somebody in another—and thus a potential perpetrator. Likewise, you can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next. Like racism in the era of segregation, rankism is pervasive and enjoys the support of a tacit social consensus. Rankism afflicts no group more than the working poor, whose hand-to-mouth subsistence makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes a compelling case that the working poor are in effect unacknowledged benefactors whose labor subsidizes the better off.

Q: What are some examples of rankism?
A: Examples include a boss harassing an employee, a customer demeaning a waiter, a coach bullying a player, a doctor humiliating a nurse, a teacher disparaging a student, a parent belittling a child. The civil rights and women’s movements have managed to put racists and sexists on notice. But there has been no corresponding outcry against abuses that occur within a race or gender, in part because until now we haven’t had a name for them. Blacks insult and exploit other blacks of lower rank, whites do the same to whites, and women to women, all with confidence that such behavior, which does not fit the definition of racism or sexism, will pass for business as usual and escape censure.

Q: Do we really need another “ism”?
A: Yes, but rankism, which includes the other ignoble isms as special cases, is the last of the lot. Identity politics, because of its exclusive focus on the rights of particular groups, can foster resentment in those who feel that its concerns and protections don’t extend to them. But no one is immune to rankism. Everyone has experienced it in some context or other (and most of us have dished it out). So overcoming rankism is an inclusive, unifying goal that reduces the myriad injunctions of political correctness to just one: Protect the dignity of others as you would have them protect yours. Sound familiar? The concept of rankism puts teeth in the golden rule.

Q: Does the dignity movement have a slogan?
A: To succeed a movement needs to know what it’s for and what it’s against. The dignity movement is for dignity and against rankism. Imagine the bumper sticker. Better yet, design one.

Q: What would a dignitarian society look like?
A: A dignitarian society would provide universal healthcare, equal access to quality education and retraining, an equitable tax structure, affordable housing, campaign finance reform that prevents vote-buying by special interests, and compensation compatible with living in dignity. In short, a dignitarian society does not tolerate a dignity gap, as created and maintained by rankism, and that, in turn, will require us to make good on the promise that the Founding Fathers imprinted on the American psyche—liberty and justice for all.

Somebodies and Nobodies: Understanding Rankism

What is rankism? First, some examples; then, a definition.

An executive pulls into valet parking, late to a business lunch, and finds no one to take his car. He spots a teenager running towards him and yells, “Where the hell were you? I haven’t got all day.”

He tosses the keys on the pavement. Bending to pick them up, the boy says, “Sorry, sir. About how long do you expect to be?”

The executive hollers over his shoulder, “You’ll know when you see me, won’t you?” The valet winces, but holds his tongue. Postscript: That evening the teenager bullies his kid brother.

The dynamic is familiar: A customer demeans a waitress, a boss humiliates an employee, a principal bullies a teacher, a teacher mocks a student, students ostracize other students, a parent beats a child, a coach bullies a player, a professor exploits a graduate student, a doctor insults a nurse or patronizes a patient, a priest abuses a parishioner, a caregiver mistreats an elder, executives award themselves perks and bonuses, police use racial profiling, politicians serve the special interests. Surely, you can add to the list.

Most such behaviors have nothing to do with racism, sexism, or other discriminatory isms. Yet perpetrators of these insults, like racists and sexists, select their targets with circumspection. In every case, a disparity of power and rank figures in the choice of target and higher rank shields perpetrators from retaliation.

Rank signifies power. Sometimes rank is abused, as in these examples, but often it’s simply an organizational tool used to get a job done in a timely manner. Many bosses, coaches, doctors, priests, and professors interact with their subordinates without insulting or exploiting them. Yet in the hands of a sadistic bully, rank is a cudgel if not an instrument of torture. What can victims of rank abuse do to protect their dignity?

Those abused on the basis of color unified against racism. Women targeted sexism and the elderly took aim at ageism. By analogy, “rankism” denotes abuses of power associated with rank. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere. More importantly, once you call it by name, everyone else will see it too, and perpetrators will find themselves on the defensive.

“To have a name is to be,” said Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractals. As “sexism” gained a foothold, men’s desire to avoid being labeled “sexist” caused them to modify their treatment of women. Likewise, the desire of perpetrators to avoid being labeled rankist will make them think twice about insulting the dignity of subordinates.

Rankism is what people who take themselves for “somebodies” do to those they mistake for “nobodies.” Whether directed at an individual or a group, rankism aims to put targets in their place and keep them weak so they will do as they’re told and submit to being taken advantage of.

In the examples above, rankism consists of abuse of the power attached to rank. Another expression of rankism occurs when the abuse lies not in how rank is used, but in the very fact of ranking in the first place. There are lots of hierarchies whose only purpose is to justify privileging one group over another. Then, high status is used by the creators of these fabricated hierarchies to rationalize the privileges they’ve arrogated unto themselves. Contrariwise, the inferior status of the less powerful is invoked to justify their on-going exploitation. The irony is that while the less powerful are forced to serve as benefactors to those of higher rank, they are routinely depicted as dependent and inferior.

Examples of rankism based on pseudo rankings include the illicit hierarchies maintained by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexualism (or, homophobia)–in short, the familiar isms that plague societies and that, one by one, are being discredited and dismantled.

Like abuses of legitimate rank, the use of illegitimate rank is a source of humiliation and indignity. Both expressions of rankism are indefensible violations of human dignity. Rankism is simply an umbrella name for the many ways that people put others down to secure advantages for themselves. All forms of rankism have their roots in predation and have evolved from the practice of slavery.

The relationship between rankism and the specific isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as varieties of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific cancers all had their origins in cellular malfunction.

In this metaphor, racism, sexism, and homophobia are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malignancy analogous to cancer itself. Rankism is the mother of all the ignoble isms.

Now that rankism has a name, we must learn to say it aloud. It was not easy to use the word “sexism” at first. Men utterly refused, and women demurred for fear of seeming “uppity.” As we overcome our reluctance to be uppity nobodies, and gain the confidence to stand up for our own and others’ dignity, rankism will become insupportable.

The demise of rankism in all its guises will mark the dawn of something new in human affairs–dignitarian societies. In a dignitarian society, no one is taken for a nobody and, regardless of role or rank, everyone is accorded equal dignity.