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The Politics of Dignity: What’s at Stake

Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island (Bradley C Bower/AP)

This is the second part of the serialization ofAll Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006).The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree –currently free on Kindle.


Rankism explains a lot of the bad behavior we see in both institutions and cultures, as well as between individuals….Giving it a name empowers those on the receiving end to fight it, or at least to resist the corrosive effect it may have on their own souls.
–Esther Dyson, editor, Release 1.0

Seeing Rankism Everywhere

A common response to the notion of rankism is the one I had myself soon after I started using the word: I began seeing it everywhere. This surprised me at first, but not long afterward I realized this was a consequence of having defined rankism so broadly–as the abuse of the power attached to rank. It stands to reason that something defined this way would show up wherever power was in play–and that’s almost everywhere. Once I accepted the ubiquity of rankism, another question arose. Could a concept that lumped so many seemingly different phenomena together really be useful?

Despite such hesitations, I kept spotting new examples of rankism on a daily basis. What’s more, I felt as though I were seeing them through new eyes. Abuses I was resigned to, having long taken them for granted, suddenly began to appear open to challenge. It seemed possible that if we became more adept at identifying the common impulse from which these transgressions derive, we could recondition ourselves to forgo such behaviors.

Humans have managed to impose categorical illegitimacy on murder, incest, cannibalism, racism, and sexism. Some dominating, predatory behaviors that were the norm for centuries have diminished over time. As the consensus shifts about what’s acceptable, even the impulse to engage in certain behaviors dissipates. Why couldn’t this work with those that cause indignity, I wondered. Our species is learning to forgo racism.

Couldn’t we broaden the prohibition to all the various forms of rankism? I began to imagine a society in which targeting the dignity of others is no longer condoned, a world in which it gradually disappears in the same way that one can now begin to imagine racism becoming a behavior that utterly lacks social support.

Recently I read in the New York Times about a school teacher in rural China accused of serially raping the fourth- and fifth-grade girls in his class. His pupils had dared not protest the absolute authority traditionally held by teachers. The situation reminded me of the unquestioning esteem in which, at least until the recent sex abuse scandals, priests in the United States were typically held by their parishioners. As the article put it:

Parents grant teachers carte blanche, even condoning beatings, while students are trained to honor and obey teachers, never challenge them. “The absolute authority of teachers in schools is one of the reasons that teachers are so fearless in doing what they want,’ said an expert on Chinese education.

Of course, rape is already a crime in almost all societies. The point is not that seeing rape as a form of rankism reveals its criminality. Many kinds of power abuse have acquired particular names of their own–for example, cronyism, embezzlement, extortion, nepotism, blackmail, McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment. What identifying them all as rankism does is put them in a new light and reveal their commonality.

Having the word rankism at one’s disposal is a bit like putting on X-ray glasses that help you see through the many kinds of power abuse to the wrongful assertions of rank that figure in them all. Reframing the problem in this way also suggests a way out–namely, by adopting a variant of the strategy that’s already working against race and gender-based abuses. To overcome racism and sexism, the targets had to organize and then collectively oppose their tormentors with a commensurate, credible countervailing force.

There are obvious differences between a movement to overcome rankism in general and the identity-based movements. When it comes to the familiar varieties of discrimination, the victims and the victimizers are, for the most part, distinguishable and separate groups: black and white, female and male, gay and straight, and so on. The same thing that makes it easy to identify potential victims of these familiar isms–discernible characteristics like color and gender–facilitates the formation of a solidarity group to confront the perpetrators.

In contrast, the perpetrators and targets of rankism–the somebodies and the nobodies, respectively–do not fall neatly into distinct groups. As we’ve seen, most of us have played both roles, depending on time and place.

So the question is: Are we willing to forgo the potential advantages of exploiting weaker people in return for credible assurances that our own dignity will be secure should it ever come to pass that we find ourselves in their nobody shoes? To paraphrase the epigraph that appears at the beginning of this book, could we make dignity non-negotiable? The following chapters aim to show that we can. Before getting on with it, however, it’s important to get a clearer sense of just what’s at stake in taking on rank-based abuse.

Lethal Consequences

That rankism underpins all the trait-based forms of discrimination already makes it a far-reaching phenomenon, one that extends well beyond the realm of hurt feelings and bruised egos to the more destructive consequences of repression and oppression. But most people will be surprised to learn that there are many other ways–some of them quite sobering–in which rankism wreaks havoc in our lives. Consider the following examples in which national pride was damaged, lives lost, and billions of dollars wasted as a result of rankist mismanagement.

In the fall of 2004 at a talk I gave in New Jersey, a distinguished-looking gentleman, who everyone present knew had served as the director of both NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stood up and declared,”Rankism was a major contributing cause of both shuttle disasters.” In April 2005, Dr. Noel Hinners elaborated for my tape recorder:

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The Mars Climate Orbiter mission failure in 1979 was due in part to what might be called technological rankism. It starts with an unquestioning reverence for those who are anointed as experts or who assume that mantle on their own. All too often, they stifle discussion and quash dissension on technical issues–a form of technical intimidation.

During the flight to Mars there were early warning signs that something was wrong in the trajectory analysis, but the navigation team wouldn’t listen. When problems were pointed out they essentially said, “Trust us. We’re the experts.”Due to a software error, the spacecraft entered too low in the Martian atmosphere and consequently burnt up. This was foreseeable during the flight and could have been corrected, but we caved in to the insistence of the navigation team that everything would be all right. That’s technological rankism.

A similar dynamic is well documented in the shuttle disasters. Prior to the Challengerflight,…engineers had warned that the unusually low temperature [in Florida the night before the launch] could be a problem for the O-rings. In this case, pressure by management to launch on time silenced engineering concerns. This wasn’t technological rankism; rather, it was garden-variety managerial rankism that led to one of our most vivid national disasters.

The Columbia accident investigation report shows a similar phenomenon: “As what the board calls an “informal chain of command’ began to shape [the flight's] outcome, location in the structure empowered some to speak and silenced others.”

These incidents, Dr. Hinners concluded, show that rankism can have lethal consequences.

Examples of rankism at the corporate level have been making headlines since the Enron collapse. Usually, they take the form of high-ranking executives enriching themselves at the expense of employees, shareholders, and lenders. But as the following instance makes clear, corporate rankism can kill.

After Somebodies and Nobodies appeared in print, people in the nuclear power business wrote to me about the rankist culture they saw in their industry, worried that if it wasn’t changed, a disaster was inevitable. In the fall of 2005 the New York Times ran a story that supported their fears. It reported that employees at the Salem nuclear power station, near Salem, New Jersey, were reluctant to express concerns about safety because they were afraid of retaliation from their superiors.

Experts in the field warn that the rankist culture that pervades the nuclear industry poses a far graver risk to public safety than do the nuclear reactors themselves. Tish B. Morgan, with Booz Allen Hamilton, is an expert on nuclear power who has more than thirty years of experience in nuclear licensing and regulatory issues, safety analysis, and advanced reactor design. In a recent conversation, she stated categorically that “rankism was the primary factor in what could have been America’s worst nuclear disaster.” She began her account with the accident at Three Mile Island and then went on to describe an even more serious near-meltdown at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, in 2002.

In 1979, just twelve days after the movie The China Syndromecame out, an accident at Three Mile Island seemed to be an example of life imitating art. During the several-day course of the crisis, rankism revealed itself in several forms–corporate rankism (which gave priority to profits over safety procedures), technological rankism (hands-on operators bowing to outside nuclear “experts” who, it was later learned, were actually mistaken in their analysis), and regulatory rankism, wherein “desk-jockeys” from the all-powerful Nuclear Regulatory Commission took control of the moment-to-moment operation of the plant and proceeded to make a bad situation far worse. Catastrophe was averted in the nick of time. But without rankism there would have been no incident and no stain on the reputation of the nuclear industry.

For more than twelve years, the management at the Davis-Besse plant dictated shortcuts and hurry-ups to keep it running (and thus making money). The result, discovered by accident during an oft postponed inspection, was a rust hole caused by chronic leakage of boric acid into the reactor vessel head. Because management allowed only a preset number of hours for removing the acid, it had accumulated over time. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later estimated that if the plant had continued to run without intervention, it would have suffered a meltdown within two to thirteen months.

Why, at Davis-Besse, did employees who had reported problems for years in the end just go along with what they believed to be unsafe operations? The answer is rankism, pure and simple, as in, “You do what I say, or else your replacement will.”

The company, whose rankist practices almost gave us another Chernobyl, passed the costs of the near-meltdown–$800 million for a new vessel head and replacement power for the two years the plant was shut down for repairs–on to consumers. In addition, the parent corporation–FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company–has been identified as being primarily responsible for the wide-scale Midwest/ Canadian blackout of August 14, 2003. Bowing to rankist orders, instead of disconnecting from the grid and trying to stabilize their own system, workers took other utility systems down with them. The economic impact of the blackout reached into the billions.

This chapter concludes with the mention of two very different, but no less deadly, forms of rankism: imperious fundamentalism and environmental depredation. When fundamentalist proselytizers, convinced that their doctrine bears the stamp of higher authority, adopt a superior stance toward nonbelievers, that’s rankism. Fundamentalism’s most familiar face is that of “true believers” who claim to know what’s right for everybody. An extreme form of this is the kind of crusade or jihadism that those targeted call terrorism.

But fundamentalism has many faces. Others include scientific fundamentalism and its bullying insistence on the preeminence of purely technological considerations, and political fundamentalism, with its paternalistic certainty that it knows the needs of others better than they do. Other varieties of fundamentalism will be discussed in chapter 9.

Rankism’s reach also extends to the environment–an arena in which rankist presumptions now threaten the very health of our planet. As creatures who exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth,” will we continue to sanction environmental degradation, or will we assume the role of responsible stewards? Will we exercise our “dominion” over animals in a manner that recognizes that they, too, are entitled to a measure of dignity, or will we tolerate their abuse and exploitation? Our responses to these questions hinge on our attitude toward rankism.

A Way Out?

The issue at hand is not the seriousness of the problems humanity now faces–upon which most agree–but rather whether reframing them in a dignitarian perspective can give us new leverage in resolving them. The following chapters will show that building a dignitarian society by targeting rankism can indeed be an effective way to deal with the challenges confronting us. But first we need to take a closer look at human dignity and what form a movement to secure it might take.

robert fuller

Robert Fuller