Democracy’s Next Step: Building a Dignitarian Society
By Robert W. Fuller
To suggest an analysis-complete with bumper stickers-that will galvanize Americans who are victims of social injustice to voice and vote for their own political and economic self-interests.
Social justice is never just handed to those who lack it. Only when the victims of unfairness are aroused and demand dignity and equity for themselves does the status quo change. Not until blacks found their voice and protested the injustice of racism did Americans outlaw segregationism. Not until women built the modern women’s movement and targeted sexism were they able to win a measure of equity. What primarily marks people for mistreatment and exploitation in America today is not race or gender but low rank and the powerlessness it signifies. In plain language, what matters is whether you’re a “somebody” or a “nobody.”
Q: What do you mean by “somebody” and “nobody”?
A: Somebodies are the relatively powerful and successful, nobodies the relatively weak and vulnerable. Somebodies with higher rank and more power in any given context can maintain an environment that is hostile and demeaning to nobodies with lower rank and less power in that context, much as whites used to be at liberty to mistreat blacks and males were not obliged to treat females equitably. Taken together, those of low rank vastly outnumber those of high rank. They constitute a latent progressive majority.
Q: How can this majority be awakened?
A: The same way women were 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 proved instrumental in building the modern women’s movement. In like manner, to transform the latent progressive majority into a political force, we must break the taboo on discussing rank, give a name to rank-based abuse and discrimination, and replace the prevailing social consensus that tacitly sanctions these practices with one that repudiates them.
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 can be called rankism. Identifying and naming rankism, putting it in the spotlight, is half the battle.
Q: Are you proposing that we do away with rank?
A: Not at all. The idea of abolishing rank makes about as much sense as the idea of doing away with race or gender in order to fight racism or sexism. When earned and exercised appropriately, rank is a legitimate, virtually indispensable tool of organization, and we rightly admire and respect those who attain it. But when those of higher rank abuse their authority, those of lower rank experience discrimination and injustice not different in their material and psychological effects from the discrimination and injustice we now disallow when their victims belong to the familiar identity groups. People do not object to differences in rank, only to abuses of those differences.
Q: Why focus on rank instead of class?
A: In America we interact with authority in terms of rank, not class. In contrast to aristocratic societies, in this country it does not matter whether your superior is a native or an immigrant, wealthy or not, white collar or blue. What matters is that he or she is your boss, your professor, your doctor, your commanding officer, your 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. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement and exploitation of subordinates. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders eschew rankism; bad ones indulge in it. Since rankism is an impediment to meritocracy, overcoming it is a strategy for equalizing opportunity and securing social justice.
Q: Where is rankism found?
A: Any hierarchy is a breeding ground for rankism because hierarchies are built around rank and power. Thus, rankism can be found in government, corporations, businesses, workplaces, families, schools and universities, as well as religious, nonprofit, and healthcare organizations, and any other kind of bureaucracy. It also occurs at the global level between nations.
Q: What are some of the effects of rankism?
A: Rankism distorts personal relationships, erodes the will to work and to learn, taxes productivity, undermines public trust, fosters disease, stokes ethnic hatred, and incites revenge. Current anti-Americanism is indicative of instances of international rankism just as the domestic racial protests of the 1960s were of American racism.
Q: Who are the victims of rankism?
A: Although racism and sexism target specific groups-primarily non-whites and females-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. You can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next, increasing or decreasing your exposure to rank-based abuse overnight. Like racism in the era of segregation, rankism is pervasive and sanctioned by a tacit social consensus. And like the other “isms,” it takes both interpersonal and institutional form.
Q: What are some examples of interpersonal rankism?
A: Examples of interpersonal rankism are a boss harassing an employee, a customer demeaning a waiter, a coach bullying a player, a doctor disparaging a nurse, a teacher humiliating 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 rankist 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 will pass for business as usual.
Q: What are some examples of institutional rankism?
A: Institutional rankism is the rankism we encounter when we deal with bureaucracies, nonprofit organizations, schools, hospitals, churches, and governments. In police states it takes the form of exploitation and oppression of the citizenry. In democracies it consists of the daily indignities of dealing with institutions whose de facto goal is self-preservation and aggrandizement rather than service. When bureaucratic, corporate, or governmental corruption rises to the level of scandal, revulsion for institutional rankism can cause indignant shareholders or voters to turn against incumbents.
Q: Who are the principal victims of institutional rankism in America today?
A: In terms of the demographics of electoral politics, rankism afflicts no group more than the working poor. 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 those who are more advantaged. In Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Kevin Phillips explores how the rich and politically powerful create and perpetuate privilege at the expense of the middle and lower classes. As described in the October 12, 2003 New York Times Magazine the chronic stress suffered by those of low socioeconomic status is a significant public health problem.
Q: Everyone is sick of political correctness and “isms.” Do we really need another?
A: Yes, but it will be the last of the lot. For one thing, much of what is now labeled racism, sexism, etc. is actually not triggered by a difference in color, gender, or other such trait, but rather by a perception that the target lacks the protection of rank. It is rankism. Secondly, identity politics 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 a universal and unifying goal that reduces the myriad injunctions of political correctness to just one: Protect everyone’s dignity equally.
Q: What would be the slogan-the bumper sticker-of a movement against rankism?
A: End Rankism, or just the single word Rankism with a diagonal line through it. Once there’s a word for what galls them, people will use it to put their tormentors on the defensive, just as women used the label “sexist.” Providing such a term has the benefit of shifting the burden of proof from victims to perpetrators.
Q: What exactly does the latent majority want?
A: A dignitarian society. People do not really want or expect an egalitarian society because everyone recognizes how different we all are. But they feel they have a right to equal dignity. As a central tenet of every religion, dignity would not be easy to campaign against.
Q: What does a dignitarian society look like? What are the policy implications?
A: At a minimum a dignitarian society means universal healthcare, equal access to quality education (including adult education and retraining), an equitable tax structure, affordable housing, and compensation compatible with living in dignity. The dignitarian framework encompasses all existing identity groups, spans old divisions, and takes aim at what still divides us-the dignity gap sustained by rankism. A dignitarian society embodies the promise our nation’s founders imprinted on the American psyche-the right to both liberty and justice.
Q: What are the political requirements for building a dignitarian society?
A: Transforming America into a significantly more equitable society would require the election of significant numbers of progressive legislators. It’s hard to imagine this happening except in the context of national political realignment.
Q: What would it take to effect national political realignment?
A: Political realignment follows the success of any movement that overcomes the exploitation of one social group by another. The previously subordinated group shifts its support to the party that has championed its cause, whereas the previously dominant group takes refuge in the party that has defended the status quo. For example, the civil rights movement brought about political realignment as it overcame racism: African-Americans went Democratic and the South turned Republican. Likewise, the women’s movement effected political realignment as it overcame sexism: women shifted to the Democratic Party while men moved to the Republican Party. As rankism is challenged and overcome, the beneficiaries will support the party that has fought on their behalf. In a dignitarian society, rank and file voters will not easily be persuaded to vote against their own economic interests in the name of defending the existing order.
Q: A final statement?
A: The road to social justice does not pass by way of equality; it goes by way of dignity. Putting rankism on notice is a strategy for effecting political realignment. The idea, the goal of overcoming rankism and ending the dignity gap reframes American politics. A dignitarian society is democracy’s next step.