I have just re-read Robert Fuller’s Somebodies and Nobodies(2003) and am struck again by the immense value of his analysis of rank in American life.
While acknowledging the essential role that rank plays in any organization, he explores the ways in which the abuse of rank—what he refers to as “rankism”—threatens the future of democracy in America. Rank, however achieved, confers power. Rankism develops whenever the power of rank is expanded outside its proper sphere, as when a supervisor transforms proper power over the work of a subordinate into demands for sexual favors.
Fuller’s central insight is that rankism is “the mother of ‘Isms.’” He notes that the “motivating principle” of democracy is “circumscribing rank,” of preventing those with power from abusing that power. All of us, in some situations, have some power over others—parents over children, teachers over students, doctors over patients, the experienced over the novice—and we are all at risk of abusing those powers, of practicing rankism..
The practical consequences of rankism are many. Fuller cites the ways in which rankism in work environments reduces efficiency and quality of work. He shows how rankism in the classroom obstructs learning and how rankism damages personal relationships.
The most damaging aspect of rankism, however, is psychological. Rankism is always an assault on the dignity of its victims. It is always a denial of equality between perpetrator and victim, a denial of the victim’s essential humanity. The assertion of human equality is not a delusion that all are of equal ability, nor is it an argument for a leveling of the human condition. It is, rather, a recognition of the equal dignity each possesses as a human being.
The language of the Declaration of Independence asserts that we all possess fundamental rights—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In modern terms, the pursuit of happiness is best understood as “living a life of dignity.” Democracy, Fuller argues, demands that individuals—all individual—be able to live with dignity.
Living with dignity is not an individual project. Dignity is a social experience. Our dignity must be secure in the presence of others, and the dignity of others must be secure in our presence. For Fuller, American democracy can realize its full potential as a humane way of life through the creation of a culture that actively resists rankism and nourishes the dignity of each of us—what he calls “a Dignitarian society.”
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