Dignity is not negotiable.
– Vartan Gregorian
Dignity on the March
Across North Africa and the Middle East to South and East Asia, the hunger for dignity is driving unrest and heralding social transformation. Everywhere, people are refusing to be taken for nobodies; they’re demanding to be treated like somebodies.
A new dream is taking hold. Around the world, people are sensing the possibility of building societies in which dignity is universal and secure. Life is hard, yes, and we remain vulnerable to natural catastrophes, but couldn’t we disallow the indignities to which we subject one another?
Our Predatory Past
Skeptics are quick to point out that our species has a long predatory history. Archeologists report that, as a result of population growth outstripping local resources, prehistory was the scene of constant battles. Other tribes had just what we needed—food, water, land, child-bearers—and preying on the weak improved our tribe’s chances of survival.
Our histories are full of war, slavery, colonization, and tyranny. Many countries are still in the clutches of self-serving dictators. Human trafficking, child slavery, abuse of women, and the exploitation of subsistence labor persists. In developed countries, predatory lenders and bankers, politicians beholden to special interests, and abusive religious leaders put personal gain over the public interest.
The predatory strategy our species has pursued for millennia has brought us dominion over the earth. But that strategy appears not to be working as well as it used to—for two reasons.
An End to Predation?
What has changed is that, first, the weak are not as impotent as they once were. Using weapons of mass destruction and strategies of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is a time bomb; non-violent protest is more revolutionary than armed insurrection.
And, second, the power that dignitarian groups can mobilize exceeds that of groups driven by fear and force. When everyone has a respected place, everyone is aligned with his or her own interests as well as with group purpose. That’s why “dignity for all” is a more effective organizing principle than intimidation. It makes for closer cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just “nice”; they’re a formula for success.
This portends an epochal shift in the balance of power in favor of the formerly disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed. Opportunistic predation has reached its “sell-by” date. Going forward, the strategy of “dignity for all” trumps that of “preying on the weak.”
Why Dignity Is Fundamental
We know dignity through its absence—indignity. With our first taste of indignity, we begin a lifelong vigil to shield ourselves from putdowns, ridicule, and exploitation. Yet indignities are still widely condoned. Humiliation is the staple of television entertainment. For many viewers, watching the degradation of others helps them cope with the daily dose of indignity they are putting up with themselves.
Most people have no trouble recalling the taste of humiliation. Many spend decades nursing the wounds of teasing, bullying, and rejection.
For those on the margins of society, denigration never stops. These “nobodies” are seen as legitimate targets; on them, it’s always “open season.”
Dignity matters because it shields us from being seen as potential prey. It declares (so we don’t have to), “I belong, you belong. We acknowledge each other’s rightful place.”
Dignity is inclusive. There are no nobodies in a dignitarian society. Rather, dignity is democratized. It’s everyone’s birthright. It’s also everyone’s responsibility—to stop putting others down, however indirectly or subtly, and to affirm their dignity, regardless of their role or rank.
A barefoot boy selling popcorn on the congested streets of New Delhi gave me an image of dignity I’ll never forget. At a stoplight, he poked his arm through the open window of our taxi waving a little bag of popcorn. Our host passed him a ten-rupee note, but before the boy could hand her the popcorn, our taxi sped off.
Two blocks later, the boy ran up alongside the car and thrust the bag of popcorn through the window. With that gesture, he refused a hand-out and claimed his dignity.
Denying people their dignity sends the message that their membership in the “tribe” is in jeopardy. Indignity is a precursor to second-class citizenship if not banishment. Since for most of our history, banishment meant death, it’s no wonder that we are super-sensitive to insinuations of low regard.
The Dignity Movement
With few exceptions, our systems of governance have soft-pedaled dignity. Why? Because human societies the world over still bear the stamp of our species’ predatory origins. People no longer dispute that slave-based societies were exploitative. Better disguised, however, is that today’s minimum-wage workers have little choice but to subsidize the rest of us. When missing a paycheck means the indignity of homelessness, we toe the line.
Enter the Dignity Movement. To succeed, a movement must know two things: what it’s for and what it’s against. It’s obvious that the Dignity Movement is for dignity, dignity for all, no exceptions. But what exactly is it against?
Since indignities are usually perpetrated by those with a power advantage, one might jump to the conclusion that differences of power are the problem. And, since power is attached to rank, we might think that if we could eliminate rank, we could minimize indignity.
The reason this logic has not worked—the failures of communes and communism come to mind—is because egalitarian ideologies have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Rank is an indispensable tool of organization. Without it, groups soon become ungovernable and uncompetitive, and, not infrequently, rank reappears in a storm-trooper’s uniform.
The truth is, we admire—we may even love—people of high rank who have earned it and who serve us wisely and well. We want the professor to teach chemistry, not the freshman. We want the surgeon to perform the operation, not the nurse. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. We admire George Washington for rejecting the crown and for not hanging on to power. The source of indignity is not rank itself, but rank abuse. To effectively combat this abuse, we must pin a name on it.
Rankism: What the Dignity Movement Is Against
To have a name is to be.
– Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractals
Rankism is what people who consider themselves somebodies do to people whom they regard as nobodies. Think of it as a degrading assertion of rank.
Examples of rankism include a customer demeaning a waitress, a boss humiliating an employee, a teacher mocking a student, a religious leader abusing followers, a doctor patronizing a patient, a coach shaming a player, executives using the powers of their office to enrich themselves or prolong their tenure. Prototypical forms of rankism are bullying, corruption, cronyism, and insider trading. The world got a look at rankism’s ugly face in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in the degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Although it’s often taken for granted and overlooked, rankism is everywhere. Blacks demean and exploit other blacks of lower rank. Whites do the same to whites, and women to women, all with confidence that such behavior, since it does not cross a color or gender line, will escape censure. Now, we can label it “rankism,” and de-legitimize it.
Rankism is the primary source of the indignities we inflict on one another. It’s what the Dignity Movement is against. Once the malady has been diagnosed, we’re in a position to seek a cure.
Rankism, Malady of Hierarchies
Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted benefits for themselves. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement: for example, higher compensation for executives than the market requires, and perpetual job security. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders do not tolerate rankism; bad ones indulge in it and their example infects the organization.
Rankism occurs in families, in the workplace and the boardroom, in schools, and in the doctor’s office. It can be especially hard to confront in nonprofits, whose leaders may blur the distinction between saving the world and saving their own jobs.
Rankism differs from the familiar “isms” in that most of us are both victims and perpetrators. This is because rank is relative. You can be a nobody in one context and a somebody in another. You can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next.
Rankism poisons relationships and saps the will to work and to learn. The attention that students give to defending their dignity diminishes that available for learning. Rankism takes years off lives and it incites revenge. Yet it’s hard to imagine a world without it, just as, not long ago, it was difficult to imagine an America without racism and sexism.
But Isn’t Rankism Human Nature?
Racism and sexism were long regarded as human nature, but in more and more places, these “isms” are losing legitimacy. To be racist or sexist today is to disqualify yourself from professional advancement, if not to forfeit your job.
If we can learn to stop putting people down on the basis of race, gender, or disability, we ought to be able to stop putting people down, period, for any reason. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender. Rank itself is not the culprit; rankism is.
Past movements hold valuable lessons for confronting rankism. In the early years of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan famously described “the problem without a name.” A few years later, the problem had acquired one—sexism— and the movement had a target. Likewise, putting “rankism” in the lexicon will help us oppose abuses of power.
As in the long fight against sexism and the other ignoble “isms,” getting rid of rankism is a multi-generational task. It can take a half-dozen generations to discredit an “ism.” That’s a long time, but it’s not forever.
Overcoming rankism is an inclusive, unifying goal that reduces the injunctions of political correctness to just one: “Protect and defend the dignity of others as you would have them protect and defend yours.”
This does not and can not mean countering one indignity with another. We can only bring about a net reduction of rankism by interrupting the rankism-begets-rankism cycle. This means protecting the dignity of the perpetrators even as we reject their rankist behavior. While this Is not easy to do—because it means stifling the impulse to get even—it does prove possible.
The familiar “isms” are not gone, but they are on the defensive. The next step is to make rankism as uncool as racism and sexism. Granted, that’s a tougher challenge. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Once people stand up for their dignity, it is not long before they’re marching for justice.
The Dignitarian Era
Rankism is the residue of predation, and as we recognize that predatory uses of power are counterproductive, we’ll put it aside, like the toy soldiers of childhood. We’ve been inching away from our predatory past for millennia, and the twenty-first century finds us on the threshold of a dignitarian era. We’ll know we’ve claimed that future when rankism is considered indefensible.
In building a dignitarian world, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.