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Dignity for AllHow to Create a World Without Rankism
By Robert W. Fuller Pamela A. Gerloff
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Robert W. Fuller and Pamela A. Gerloff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDignity: What Everybody Really Wants
Dignity. Isn't that what everybody really wants? You, me, your parents, your children, your friends, your colleagues at work: All of us want to be treated with dignity.
The homeless person in the park; the elderly in nursing homes; students, teachers, principals; Christians, Jews, Muslims; taxi drivers, store clerks, waiters, police officers; prisoners and guards; immigrants; doctors, patients, nurses; the poor, the wealthy, the middle class; big nations, small nations, people without a homeland.
Dignity. Everybody wants it, craves it, seeks it. People's whole lives change when they're treated with dignity—and when they're not.
Evan Ramsey, now serving a 210-year prison sentence for shooting and killing his high school principal and another student in Bethel, Alaska, told criminologist Susan Magestro:
"I was picked on seven hours a day every day and the teachers didn't do anything to help me ... I told [my foster mother] and [my principal] more than a dozen times about all the bullying I was subjected to. They never did anything to help me.... If I can prevent someone from having the experience I went through, I want to do that. I killed people.... Don't respond with violence even if you're provoked. There's no hope for me now but there is hope for you."
—From"The Realities and Issues Facing Juveniles and Their Families, The Warning Signs: Evan Ramsey—Bethel, Alaska," by Susan Magestro, www.susanmagestro.com
Fundamentally, dignity is about respect and value. It means treating yourself and others with respect just because you're alive on the planet. It's recognizing that you and everyone else have a right to be here, and that you belong. It means valuing your own and others'presence and special qualities. It means honoring who you are and what you have to offer. It means creating a culture in which it is safe for everyone to contribute their own gifts and talents.
Dignity. It's a need so strong that people will give up their freedom to have it met; an inner drive so insistent that it can move people to shocking acts of revenge when the attempt to achieve it is thwarted; a human value so critical to happiness and well-being that people sometimes value it more than life itself.
A Human Need Ignored
Yet this craving for dignity is so commonly overlooked that most of us accept undignified treatment as "just the way it is." As victims, we may wince inwardly, but we bite our tongues ("Who am I to protest?" "What good will it do?"). As perpetrators, we excuse our behavior ("I'm the boss, aren't I?" "He deserved it." "I'm just evening the score."). Or we ignore our nagging conscience, failing to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we are violating another's dignity.
Every day, we witness dignity scorned in our personal relationships, families, businesses, schools, healthcare facilities, religious institutions, and governmental bodies. Routinely, we fail to accord dignity to those we perceive to be the weaker among us. They may be the old, the young, the poor, the unknown, the infirm, the female, the darker colored, the jobless, the less skilled, or the less attractive.
Yet experiencing indignity at the hands of others is not limited to those at the bottom of the hierarchy—as the wealthy, the famous, and the beautiful will attest. Anywhere and everywhere dignity is transgressed by others, with surprising regularity: A supervisor harasses an employee. A child taunts a classmate. A sports team hazes new members. A customer speaks rudely to a waitress. A teacher gives preferential treatment to a friend's child. An adult verbally abuses a child. An administrator fires a whistle-blower. A government official secretly circumvents the law. A prison guard torments an inmate. A dictator steals from the national treasury. A superpower pressures a smaller nation to commit to a loan that will damage its economy.
From intimate relationships to global relations, indignity is commonplace. Think of your own experiences: when have you not been treated with dignity? When have you failed to treat others with dignity?
So Why Are We Surprised?
If, every day, so many of us are not treated with the health-giving, life-affirming dignity we crave, then why are we so shocked when an employee "goes postal," a teenager goes on a violent rampage, a mild-mannered woman explodes in anger at a seemingly small provocation, or global tensions escalate into international crises? Why do we habitually fail to recognize, beneath the violent outbursts, the powerful impulse to lash out when a fundamental birthright has been denied: the right to be treated with dignity?
A Price to Pay
Of course, acts of revenge are never justified. But we ignore at great cost to ourselves and society the fundamental urge to be treated with dignity.
The consequences of violating others' dignity are evident: in widespread social problems such as high rates of school dropout, prison incarceration, violent crime, depression, suicide, divorce, and despair; in the business world in reduced creativity, lower productivity, or disloyalty to the organization. Even health and longevity are affected.
Dignity Not Yet Won
In 1775, American patriot Patrick Henry boldly declared, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Americans won their freedom, but more than two centuries later have not yet secured their dignity; nor has the rest of the world.
But that may be changing.
Today, the age-old cry for liberty appears to be morphing into a heartfelt cry for dignity. Worldwide, we see dignity-denying dictatorships transforming into democracies. In democratic elections, we see growing voter enthusiasm for candidates who offer a vision of dignity for all. If we look carefully, we can see in terrorist assaults the craving to be treated with dignity; and the spate of school shootings in recent years has led adults to counteract the devastating effects of bullying among children through school-sponsored anti-bullying programs. As overwhelming as the problem of indignity may seem, historically, humans have grown more tolerant and respectful as a species than we once were. Equal rights protections for people of different genders, skin colors, physical abilities, and sexual orientations are just some examples of progress toward greater dignity for all.
The time is ripe for dignity.
We Can Lead the Way
Each of us plays many different roles in life: we are parents, relatives, friends; we are employers and employees; we are participants in religious, school, or municipal governing bodies; we are citizens of the world in a community of nations. In each of these roles, we yearn to be treated with dignity, and in each of these roles, we have the opportunity to show what it looks and feels like to give dignified treatment to others.
We can begin to create a "dignitarian" world by simply asking ourselves: How can I help create a culture of dignity wherever I am?
If we hope to ever live in peace with one another;
if we wish to live in a world where people of differing opinions and beliefs, differing experiences and cultures, differing languages, lifestyles, expectations, and aspirations can co-exist in harmony;
if we aspire to realize the potential of our young people, our senior citizens, our work force, our political leadership;
if we aim to harness the resources of talent, purpose, creativity, and joy lying right at our fingertips;
if we dream of finding creative, life-affirming solutions to age-old problems,
then together, let us take the first step. Let us begin to acknowledge and respect the innate human yearning for dignity.
Let each of us lead the way.
Dignity as a Universal Right
This book is a beginning: it is a primer, a handbook, a manifesto. It aims to outline a pathway into a bold new world—a world where dignity is the norm, the natural and expected way of being; a world where violations of dignity are regarded as unacceptable; a world where, in the words of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, "Dignity is not negotiable." Since dignity is a basic human need, dignity in a "dignitarian society" will be treated as both a human right and a responsibility. Dignified treatment will be just the way it is.
A Dignitarian World Emerging
What would such a world look like? What would home and family, school, work, religious, medical, social, political, environmental, and governmental life look like, sound like, feel like? How can we create such a vision? What steps can we take to get there?
Dignity for All provides a roadmap for a dignitarian world emerging. It is an invitation to journey to a new and tantalizing land, where a society that truly lives the value of dignity for all no longer asks the question "Could such a world be possible?" The question asked instead is "How soon can we make it happen?"
Dignity is a basic human need. Therefore everyone has a right to be treated with dignity.
People routinely violate others' dignity, in large and small ways, throughout the world.
When people's dignity is not respected, negative feelings and unhealthy consequences result, for individuals and society.
If we want to achieve our potential, we must make dignity a primary value.
Each of us can help build a dignitarian world.
Chapter TwoNaming the Problem
"At the core of every humiliation and indignity is a mental error, not just a habit ... Nothing can be done until it is noticed, until it is named. Naming creates distinctions, distinctions create the capacity to change. Naming rankism transforms everything." —Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism
Humans have been violating others' dignity for millennia. We have raped and pillaged, trafficked in slavery, and otherwise abused our fellow creatures. Colonialism; segregation; apartheid; torture; ethnic cleansing; corporate corruption; monopolistic pricing; sexual harassment; discrimination based on race, gender, age, appearance ... The list of ways we have violated the dignity of members of our own and other species goes on and on.
So why would we think we can stop it now?
The reasons are simple:
We have already made progress in this area as a species.
As bad as things may sometimes seem, in much of the world we now have laws that disallow such behavior. Compared to the world of even a few hundred years ago, modern humanity does have a few things going for it when it comes to dignity.
A "right idea" at the "right time" with the "right tools" to make it a reality can change the world. And we now have a new idea and new tools to stop indignity.
Think of the invention of the airplane and the state of commercial flight today, or the manufacture of the first telephone and the complexity of global communications now, or the progress made in the United States toward equal rights for women since the 1960's. When a new idea is introduced into the collective consciousness of a people along with the tools to make it easily accessible to many, that new idea or phenomenon has a decent chance of taking hold.
In this book we'll be introducing a word that has recently entered our language—a new "tool" that allows us to address with unprecedented effectiveness the age-old tendency of humanity to infringe on others' dignity. We also have new mass communication tools, as well as experience with non-violent social movements to uplift humanity. Which is to say, we now have the right tools at our disposal and enough experience as a species to really change the world.
The Crucial Tool: A Single Word
In 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as "the problem that has no name." Within a few years, the problem had acquired one: sexism. Only after naming the source of gender inequality did the movement to disallow gender-based discrimination grab hold of the collective consciousness. Once named, the problem was identifiable, visible, discussable—and actionable. And, ultimately, it became preventable.
Rankism: Abuse of the Power Attached to Rank
The word for the source of dignity violation is rankism. Rankism is abuse of the power attached to rank. When a boss shouts at an employee, that's rankism. When a doctor demeans a nurse, that's rankism. When a customer is rude to a waitress, that's rankism. When a professor exploits a graduate student, that's rankism. When a company executive has an intimate relationship with an intern and she loses her job over it, but he doesn't, that's rankism.
On a societal scale, rankism may take the form of political and corporate corruption, sexual abuse by clergy, maltreatment of elders in nursing homes, humiliation of prisoners by guards, large nations intimidating smaller nations into serving the larger country's interests, or genocide. In short, rankism is when those of higher rank, i.e., those with power over another, treat those of lower rank in ways that violate their dignity.
Sometimes rankism is unconscious; a simple, unwitting misuse of power. But often, the misuse of power occurs because the perpetrator feels "special" or "better than" someone else and believes that this position of superiority carries with it license to diminish the other person's dignity. Common, everyday snobbery falls into this category, as do racism, sexism, classism, and other "isms." Feeling superior to others for any reason usually gives rise to rankism.
The Root of All "Isms"
The word rankism gets at the heart of what all the other "isms" in our lives are about. Rankism is an umbrella term that encompasses racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and any other ism that sets one group or individual apart from another and then claims superiority. These more specific "isms" are subspecies of rankism. With all "isms," one person or group believes itself to be "better than" another, and uses its perceived rank to deprive others of their dignity.
Some people, upon hearing the word rankism, reflexively exclaim, "We don't need another' ism!'" That's understandable, given the proliferation of "isms" and the fact that they have sometimes been used to label or attack others. But what if, as explained above, this "ism" is not in competition with the others, but instead encompasses all of them? Rankism may well be the overarching "ism" that finally allows us to liberate ourselves from the entire range of specific problems the other "isms" describe.
Some people at first object to the concept of rankism because they fear it may undermine progress in eradicating other forms of social prejudice. But rankism need not undermine any of the groundbreaking, often painstaking, work that so many are doing on behalf of those who suffer discrimination of particular kinds. Instead, the concept of rankism can be a powerful tool to help solidify gains humanity has already made in those areas, while simultaneously helping to make dignity for all a new standard for the human species.
Why the Concept of Rankism Is Important
The concept of rankism is important because it allows us to change attitudes and behaviors that cause suffering—in ourselves and in society .
Suffering occurs in the world, with or without rankism, but rankism produces unnecessary and avoidable suffering. Starving children suffer, but they suffer needlessly when corrupt government officials divert food shipments to the children in exchange for cash for their own personal gain. A school child may feel hurt by a classmate's inadvertent slight, but greater suffering is inflicted when one child deliberately bullies another and nothing is done about it. Teenagers grapple with the challenges of entering adulthood, but their struggles become all the more painful when other teens ridicule, ostracize, or demand conformity to group norms.
Rankism causes suffering, and rankism can be stopped.
Excerpted from Dignity for All by Robert W. Fuller Pamela A. Gerloff Copyright © 2008 by Robert W. Fuller and Pamela A. Gerloff. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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