All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignityby Robert W. Fuller
In his groundbreaking book Somebodies and Nobodies, Robert Fuller identified a form of domination that everyone has experienced but few dare to protest: rankism, abuse of the power inherent in rank to exploit and humiliate someone of lower rank. It plays a role in just about every form of social oppressionÑracism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance all have a significant element of rankism in them.
Most everyone has felt the sting of rankism--at the hands of a dictatorial boss, a condescending teacher, an arrogant doctor, or an imperious bureaucrat. But, equally, most everyone has inflicted it on someone of lower rank. That we are, all of us, both victims and perpetrators of rankism mandates a novel, multifaceted strategy for confronting it.
Fuller isn't proposing that we do away with rank--without it organizations become dysfunctional. He's not advocating an egalitarian society where all are equal in rank but rather a "dignitarian" one where all are equal in dignity: a society in which rankholders are held accountable, rankism is shunned, and dignity is broadly protected.
Read an Excerpt
All RiseSomebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity
By Robert W. Fuller
Berrett-Koehler PublishersCopyright © 2006 Robert W. Fuller
All right reserved.
IntroductionWhat Is Rankism?
WHY DO YOU SMILE? CHANGE BUT THE NAME, AND IT IS OF YOURSELF THAT THE TALE IS TOLD. -HORACE, ROMAN POET AND SATIRIST
A Once and Future Nobody
None of us likes to be taken for a nobody. In order to protect our dignity, we cultivate the skill of presenting ourselves as a somebody. But despite our best efforts, it may come to pass that we wake up one morning and find ourselves in Nobodyland.
At midlife that happened to me, and for quite some time I couldn't seem to get out. Then one morning I heard new words to an old slogan buzzing in my head: "Nobodies of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our shame."
A slogan like that calls for a manifesto. In a few frenzied months I wrote a first draft, which I called The Nobody Book. It argued that nobodies are not defenseless against the put-downs of somebodies and showed what they can do in response to such attacks.
I made a half-dozen copies and foisted them on my friends. The first thing I heard from them was, "Change the title! No one would want to read something called The Fat Book and no one will want to read The Nobody Book either." But everyone insisted on telling me about the times they'd been "nobodied." I started collectingtheir stories and recalled a few of my own.
I remembered Arlene in second grade, exiled to the hall as punishment for having dirty fingernails. I winced at the memory of Burt, who had bullied me and my friends at summer camp. I recalled with chagrin how my playmates and I had tormented a kid with Down syndrome, and how Professor Mordeau had made fun of my faulty French accent. Memories of the Sunday school teacher who threatened us with eternal damnation returned.
I began to see stories of humiliation and indignity in the news as well as close at hand: abuse scandals in churches and prisons, corporations defaulting on employee pensions, hypercompetitive parents berating child athletes, the staff at my parents' retirement home patronizing residents.
The Abuse of Rank
One day all these behaviors came into a single focus: they could all be seen as abuses of rank-more precisely, the power attached to rank. I recognized myself as a once and future nobody, and wondered if that wasn't everyone's fate. As the anecdotes multiplied, I incorporated them into the manuscript. After numerous reorganizations of the material, I printed a dozen copies, passed them around and awaited the verdict. People still hedged their bets, but they all wanted me to hear about their own attempts to get out of Nobodyland.
The reframing and rewriting continued. A third draft. The analysis was extended and gained in clarity. A fourth. After a few years, I submitted a version to several publishers. They responded with boilerplate rejections. One editor opined that the material was compelling and might even have broad appeal, but saw an insurmountable problem: "Nobodies don't buy books!"
A friend suggested creating a Web site where I could at least give the book away. So I hired a college math major to design one. Her creation gave oxygen to the project. We dubbed the site breakingranks.net, and it's still going strong on the Web.
Overnight, it got thousands of hits. On an online forum, strangers shared their stories of abuse and discrimination. Two thousand visitors to the site downloaded the free manuscript. One of them put a copy into the hands of a small publisher, and just when I'd about given up hope of ever seeing it appear between two covers I received an e-mail inquiring about rights to it. A meeting was arranged, a contract signed, and in the spring of 2003 New Society Publishers in British Columbia brought out a hardcover edition of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.
Getting the word out that spring was made more difficult by the Iraq war, the start of which coincided to the day with the book's publication. Round-the-clock coverage of the conflict lasted about a month, but during the blackout I got a break: Oprah's magazine featured the book in an article titled "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," and suddenly my phone started ringing. Twelve cities and a hundred interviews later, the book had found its audience. For a few heady days, it even managed to edge out the latest Harry Potter book at Amazon.com. It seems that nobodies do buy books after all!
Nobodyland isn't really such a bad place, so long as you aren't trying to get out. You can do a lot of good work there, and since you're out of sight, you are free to make mistakes, explore new ideas, and develop them until you're ready to try them in public. When, at long last, I did get the chance to do so, I got an earful in response.
Some people scolded me for wasting their time: "Everything in your book is in the Bible. It shouldn't take 150 pages to get to the golden rule." A couple of wary souls feared this was another cult. And a handful protested, "Not another 'ism'!" and dismissed the idea of rankism as "just more political correctness," "radical egalitarianism," or "Fabian drivel."
But most respondents-even the self-confessed cynics-welcomed the naming and spotlighting of rank-based abuse and expressed the hope that by targeting rankism we could consolidate our gains over the now-familiar isms-racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on-and eventually extend the sway of democratic principles so as to secure dignity for everybody. Here are a few remarks posted on the Web site or sent as e-mail:
Rankism is the ism that, once eradicated, would pretty much eliminate the rest of them.
Rankism is so ingrained, so common, that it's hard to even notice it.
Rankism gives a name to something we've all experienced but probably not given much thought to. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere.
It's comforting to know that a lot of the insults I've put up with in my life are being experienced by people everywhere. I for one am sick of being nobodied.
Recognizing rankism makes you more conscious of your dignity.
I have begun using the term rankism, explained it to my friends, and now they are using it, too.
In the three years following the publication of Somebodies and Nobodies I learned that there is indeed an iceberg of indignation out there of which we're seeing only the tip. Below the waterline lies the bottled-up resentments of millions who are nobodied every day. I heard from kids, parents, teachers, nurses, physicians, managers, professionals, and workers of every stripe. The impotent rage they must contain-whether at home, in school, or on the job-exacts a toll on their health and happiness and hence on their creativity and productivity. Occasionally their repressed indignation erupts in what others see as a senseless act of violence. But violence is rarely, if ever, senseless. If it seems so, we've simply failed to understand it. Like the original n-word, nobody is an epithet that packs a powerful punch. That is why we're so desperate to pass as somebodies and shield ourselves from rankism's punishing sting.
Another thing I've learned is that once people have a diagnosis for what ails them, they want a cure for it. Many asked me for more concrete strategies for fighting rankism. They also wanted a clearer picture of what a dignitarian society-a society in which rank-holders are held accountable, rankism is disallowed, and dignity is broadly protected-would look like and tools that could be used for building one. The purpose of this book is to address those requests.
For those of you who haven't read Somebodies and Nobodies, here's a little background.
Like most people who experienced the social movements of the sixties, my attention at the time was drawn to personal attributes such as color, gender, disability, or age, each of which was associated with its own form of prejudice. But as a college president in the early seventies, I found myself dealing with the women's, black, and student movements all at once and from a position of authority at the vortex of the storms they were generating on campus. This gave me a vantage point from which I began to sense that something more than trait-sanctioned discrimination was going on, something deeper and more encompassing. What struck me was that, despite changes in the cast of characters and differences in rhetoric, each of these movements could be seen as a group of weaker and more vulnerable "nobodies" petitioning for an end to oppression and indignity at the hands of entrenched, more powerful "somebodies."
From this point of view, it becomes obvious that characteristics such as religion, color, gender, and age are merely excuses for discrimination, never its cause. Indeed, such features signify weakness only when there is a social consensus in place that handicaps those bearing them. Anti-Semitism, Jim Crow segregation, patriarchy, and homophobia are all complex social agreements that have functioned to disempower whole categories of people and keep them susceptible to abuse and exploitation.
The personal traits that define the various identity groups are pretexts around which social stratifications are built and maintained. But at the deepest level, these arrangements foster and support injustice based on something less conspicuous but no less profound in its consequences: rank in the social hierarchy. All the various, seemingly disparate forms of discrimination actually have one common root: the presumption and assertion of rank to the detriment of others.
Providing further evidence for this shift in perspective was my realization that just as some whites bully other whites, so also do some blacks exploit other blacks and some women demean other women. Clearly, such intraracial and intragender abuses can't easily be accounted for within the usual trait-centered analyses. One approach is to account for black-on-black prejudice-sometimes called colorism-in terms of the "internalization of white oppression." But this explains one malady (black racism) in terms of another (white racism) and brings us no closer to a remedy for either. If the goal is to end racism of all kinds, it's more fruitful to see both inter- and intraracial discrimination as based on differences in power-that is, on who holds the higher position in a particular setting and therefore commands an advantage that forces victims to submit to their authority.
Viewing things in terms of power instead of color, gender, and so on is not intended to divorce the dynamics of racial or other forms of prejudice from the specific justifications that particular groups of somebodies use to buttress their claims to supremacy. But it does direct our attention to the real source of ongoing domination-a power advantage-and suggests that we'll end social subordination of every kind only as we disallow abuse stemming from simply having high enough rank to get away with it.
As the implications of all this sank in I realized that, as with the familiar liberation causes, abuse of the power associated with rank could not be effectively addressed so long as there was no name for it. Absent one, nobodies were in a position similar to that of women before the term sexism was coined. Writing in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as "the problem that has no name." By 1968, the problem had acquired one: sexism. That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power abuse linked to gender.
A similar dynamic has played out with other identity groups seeking redress of their grievances. Those discriminated against on the basis of their race unified against racism. The elderly targeted ageism. By analogy, I adopted the term rankism to describe abuses of power associated with rank.
The coinage rankism is related to the colloquialisms pulling rank and ranking on someone, both of which bear witness to the signal importance of rank in human interactions. It is also worth noting that as an adjective, rank means foul, fetid, or smelly, and the verb to rankle means to cause resentment or bitterness. Although there is no etymological relationship between these usages and the word rank in the sense of position in a hierarchy, it's fitting that the word rankism picks up by association the malodor of its sound-alikes.
Rank can refer to either rank in society generally (social rank) or rank in a more narrowly defined context (such as within an institution or family). Thus, rankism occurs not just between and within social identity groups but in schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies as well. Indeed, since most organizations are hierarchical and hierarchies are built around gradations of power, it comes as no surprise that they are breeding grounds for rank-based abuse.
Examples from everyday life include a boss harassing an employee, a doctor demeaning a nurse, a professor exploiting a graduate student, and students bullying each other. On a societal scale are headline-making stories of political and corporate corruption, sexual abuse by members of the clergy, and the maltreatment of elders in nursing homes.
Photos of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by their guards gave the entire world a look at rankism's arrogant face. Hurricane Katrina made visible its most common victims. The wealthy and connected, even those of moderate means, got out of New Orleans ahead of time. The poor, the sick, prisoners, the old, and those lacking transportation were trapped by nature's fury and then left to cope on their own during days of inaction by government officials and agencies. The inadequacies of the initial government response have since been compounded by another, deeply ingrained form of rankism-the regionalism that, since the Civil War, has manifested as the North holding itself superior to the South.
In addition to its universality, rankism differs from the familiar trait-based abuses because rank is not fixed the way race and gender generally are, but rather changes depending on the context. Someone can hold high rank in one setting (for example, at home) and simultaneously be low on the totem pole in another (at work). Likewise, we can feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we move from childhood to adulthood and then from our "prime" into old age, or when we experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.
In summary, rankism occurs when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others. It is the illegitimate use of rank, and equally, the use of rank illegitimately acquired or held. The familiar isms are all examples of the latter form. They are based on the construction and maintenance of differences in social rank that violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.
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 all 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 a similar kind of cellular malfunction. In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malady analogous to cancer itself. The familiar isms are subspecies of rankism. Just as medicine is now exploring grand strategies that will be applicable to all kinds of cancer, so too it may be more effective at this point to raise our sights and attack rankism itself rather than focusing on its individual varieties one by one.
Excerpted from All Rise by Robert W. Fuller Copyright © 2006 by Robert W. Fuller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Fuller taught physics at Columbia University in New York. He later served as president of Oberlin College.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >