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Dignity for All

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In his books Somebodies and Nobodies and All Rise, Robert Fuller exposed rankism—abuse of the power inherent in rank to exploit or humiliate someone of lower rank. In Dignity for All, Fuller and Pamela Gerloff offer a concise, action-oriented guide to the concrete steps we can take to eradicate it. They focus on us as individuals—how we can recognize rankism in our own experiences, even in ourselves, and how, on a day-to-day basis, we can help others to see its insidious influence and work with them to create a better world.

Fuller and Gerloff offer advice on the best ways to forcefully but compassionately bring rankist behavior to light. They include examples of rankism in action as well as the often surprisingly simple things people have done to counteract it. Perhaps most importantly, they show how we can prevent rankism from taking root in the first place. Dignity for All will help you map out your own personal strategy for creating a society in which every human being feels truly valued and respected.

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Chapter One: Dignity: What everybody Really Wants

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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.”

 

Chapter Two: Naming the Problem

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“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:

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.

 

Chapter Three: Naming the Solution

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Let’s face it. Humans are predatory animals. Throughout history, the stronger or more powerful members of our species have preyed upon the weaker among us. Because this predatory—i.e., rankist—behavior has such deep historical roots, it can be hard to imagine a world that has rank without rankism. It can be hard to envision a world where rank holders use their rank to protect the dignity of all.

But we can begin to imagine such a world. In fact, moving beyond our predatory instincts may well be the only sane course of action if we want to have a chance at species survival. We live today in a world with massive societal challenges—poverty, famine, crime, disease, climate change, and war. We possess weaponry that cannot be reliably confined or controlled. As rankism begets further rankism, cycles of rankism escalate. If ever we are to free ourselves from retaliatory rankist behavior, we will need to disallow rankism, and instead create cultures of dignity.

It’s a daunting task, but not impossible. Time and again, humans have shown that we can choose a worthy goal and accomplish it. The end of apartheid in South Africa, segregation in America, and the tyrannies of communism in formerly Iron Curtain countries are the result of movements that began with a vision of dignity for all and accomplished significant dignitarian goals.

 

Chapter Four: Rankism 101

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We don’t have to look very far to find examples of rankism in our own lives. We all recognize it, because we’ve all experienced it. Most likely, we have played both roles: target and perpetrator. That’s the nature of rankism—and it’s a key feature that distinguishes it from other “isms”. We keep our basic skin color all our lives, but we aren’t a nobody (perceived to be “unimportant” or of low rank) or a somebody (perceived to be “important” or of high rank) forever. Our rank is not fixed, as our membership in another group may be. We may be a somebody at work but a nobody at home, or vice versa. We may be treated as a somebody in middle age but as a nobody when we retire. Our rank shifts at different times and in different contexts. The result is that we are all somebodies some of the time, and nobodies at other times, but no one is a somebody all of the time!

“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.”

 

Chapter Five: Groundbreakers and Trailblazers: That’s You!

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Because abuse of rank is so commonplace, people are often unaware that their behavior is rankist; even people who are targets of it may not recognize it as rankism. Most of us are so used to people routinely abusing their rank that we consider it “normal” behavior.

It can therefore be helpful to recognize that those who speak up or take action to address rankism are trailblazers at the leading edge of change. If you are reading this book, you are probably a trailblazer, too; and so you may run into obstacles when you try to un-do rankism in different areas of your life. You may find that some people are not receptive to the ideas expressed here. They may dismiss the entire idea of rankism, try to sidetrack the discussion into a debate about rank, or get defensive when you speak up or take action. They may even retaliate. All of that is normal at the beginning of any change in human consciousness.

When Galileo asserted that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, he was put under house arrest. For a long time afterward, those who accepted the idea were subject to various forms of rankism, including silencing or simple ridicule. In South Africa, as the movement to end apartheid began, it was extremely dangerous to speak out against it. During the American civil rights movement, people risked their lives if they advocated against racism. Many sacrificed their freedom and their lives so that future generations could live in a world free of discrimination or oppression based on skin color.

 

Chapter Six: Talking about Rankism

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One of the best ways to end rankism is to simply start talking about it. Until now, the subject of rankism has been taboo, not discussable in polite company. It’s not always comfortable to say “You know, we might be excluding others here, depriving them of an opportunity to be heard. Let’s see if we can listen to some other voices, too.” Or, “Hey guys, do you think we’re giving enough people a chance at this job? How about letting more people in on the action?”

People don’t typically enjoy confronting their own rankism. Those in positions of power may not want to “rock the boat” with their friends or colleagues, and when those of lower rank speak up, they may risk retaliation. The unfortunate truth is that although we may not mind indulging in rankism, when our rankism is exposed, we mind. So we just don’t talk about it.

Most of us, deep down, recognize that insulting another’s dignity is morally objectionable. So when we are found to be engaging in the behavior, we feel uncomfortable. We may feel embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed. We may respond in anger toward the person or circumstance that exposed our rankism, even as we justify our actions.

 

Chapter Seven: Identifying and Targeting Rankism

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“Rankism is far more encompassing than racism, sexism, or ageism. Rankism must be our prime target from now on.”

—Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Working and The Good War

Once we can talk about rankism, we can start to target it specifically, stopping it wherever we find it. To do that, we need to first identify rankism in our own attitudes and behaviors, as well as in others’.

Rankism can be harder to identify in yourself than in other people, but it is also easier to correct. Hard as it may be to change yourself, it is usually easier to change your own attitudes and behaviors than it is to persuade, convince, or force others to change theirs. For this reason, it can be helpful to address your own and others’ rankism simultaneously. Here is a simple method we find useful:

“How easily we put down those we see as subordinate in title or wealth or origin; how silently we cringe at another’s assumption of superiority. I saw myself in some of the examples, and I shuddered.”

—Anthony Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The New York Times, commenting on examples of rankism in the book Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank

 

Chapter Eight: Detecting Warning Signs of Rankism

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Some rankist behaviors are so prevalent that they deserve special mention as signs to watch out for when building a culture of dignity. The following practices and behaviors are often used— knowingly or unknowingly—to put or keep others down.

Both secrecy and silencing are commonly used by people in power to maintain the rights and privileges associated with their rank. Dictators and despots, prime ministers and presidents, lay and clerical religious leaders, school administrators, CEOs and mid-level managers—all these and many others may use secrecy about their own activities and silencing of dissenting voices to maintain power or control. They may or may not be conscious of doing it.

Secrecy keeps rankism invisible

When leaders make decisions in secret, take actions in secret, or hide the truth about events that should not be secret, others are unable to examine the leaders’ actions to determine whether they are fair and just and honor everyone’s dignity. The Federal Open Meetings Laws offer one kind of safeguard against the rankism that secrecy breeds. The statutes specify the conditions under which certain agencies and committees of the government, including a public school district’s governing body, may meet to discuss business. The laws include a requirement that business be transacted only at meetings which members of the public and press are permitted to attend. It also includes regulations about the percentage of members required to be in attendance for discussion of board business. If more organizations were to follow the Open Meetings model, there would be fewer opportunities for them to fall into the patterns of secrecy that foster rankism.

 

Chapter Nine: Standing up to Rankism

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Once you have identified a rankist attitude or behavior, you will need to assess your options for responding. Could you, for example, talk to the people involved, discuss the matter with a higher-ranking individual, or write a letter to a local newspaper? The following approaches may help you select from the many available choices. [A list of suggested resources is available at www.dignityforall.org.]

Interpersonal

Approaches used in other disciplines, such as Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication training or physicist David Bohm’s pioneering work on Deep Dialogue, can provide ideas, skills, and strategies for responding effectively to rankism, using an interpersonal approach. The “shalom building” process taught by psychologist and Protestant minister John Beck is usable in faith communities seeking to create a dignitarian environment, and can be adapted for secular contexts; diversity training can increase understanding and respect for others while helping individuals to develop communication and interpersonal skills; programs that raise awareness about microinequities and teach strategies for responding to cumulative slights to dignity can provide practical guidance about confronting rankism. Any process that emphasizes respect and dignity for all, while offering communication tools that foster careful listening and understanding, may be useful when approaching people you feel have violated your or others’ dignity.

 

Chapter Ten: Recovering from Rankism

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When people experience rankism, they typically need time to recover, especially when rankism has been chronic. They may also need to gain confidence that the perpetrators will not revert to their rankist ways. Among the most effective models for helping individuals, groups, and even entire societies recover from rankism are the Truth and Reconciliation processes used in South Africa after the end of apartheid and in Northern Ireland to aid the Protestant-Catholic peace process.

The method involves target and perpetrator sitting down together and telling the truth to each other. The perpetrator listens while the target describes in a personal way what he or she experienced at the hands of the perpetrator and the effect it had. Perpetrators acknowledge their wrongdoing. The opportunity to speak the truth and have it acknowledged is emotionally powerful and transformative because it is dignifying. It often opens the doorway to genuine forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation model can be used by anyone, from individuals resolving differences to governments that have wronged their people. When these processes are used skillfully and compassionately, they can be freeing for all involved. (It is important to have a skilled facilitator mediating the conversations.) Effective leaders recognize that unless there are opportunities for all parties to be heard, the wounds of rankism fester and may remain unresolved for generations.

 

Chapter Eleven: Preventing Rankism

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To create a dignitarian world, we need to counteract rankism when it occurs, but we also need to prevent it. This requires a proactive, rather than a reactive, stance and usually involves initiating new processes and procedures, and sometimes training, to help foster a culture of dignity. Below are some overarching principles that can serve as guidelines for thought and behavior when deliberately creating a culture of dignity, followed by some practical ways to begin building a dignitarian world.

Dignity is a basic need. It is necessary for healthy growth and development. Therefore, dignity is not optional. We must accord dignity to all.

Rankism begets rankism. The human tendency is to respond to rankism with rankism. We can stop that cycle by not responding to rankism with more rankism, and by proactively creating a climate of dignity.

Dignity works. Not only is treating others with dignity advisable on moral and humanitarian grounds, but it is practical. Businesses, organizations, and community groups that foster dignity are more productive, peaceful, and resilient than those that allow rankist behavior.

 

Chapter Twelve: Building a Dignitarian World

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We believe that building a dignitarian society is democracy’s next natural evolutionary step. Dignity for all is a stepping stone to realizing the democratic promise of liberty and justice for all.

And yet, dignity is not only for democracies. While democracies provide individuals with unprecedented freedom to actively help create a dignitarian culture, dignity is a universal need and people everywhere require it to thrive. And so, wise leaders in any governmental system will seek ways to use their rank to respect and protect the dignity of the citizenry; and compassionate and courageous individuals everywhere—regardless of their country’s political traditions and institutions—will seek ways to bring greater dignity to everyone.

As individuals, we have the power to claim dignity for ourselves, to grant it to others, and to stand up for the principle of dignity for all. We can make a decision to act on the understanding that dignity is so fundamental to the flourishing of the human spirit that dignity is not optional. Rather, dignity is the foundation of all human relations.

 

Resource a: Creating Your Own Plan for Change

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As an individual, you can help create a world without rankism, whether you choose to focus on creating a culture of dignity at home, school, work, within a social group or recreational activity, your house of worship, or your local or global community. Here are some ideas to help you create your own plan of action.

When targeting or preventing rankism, it can be useful to first change our own ways of thinking about rank. One example of how to do this is to reconceptualize rank as role, instead of thinking of it as a hierarchy in which people of high rank have greater power than others and therefore have more status and are more “important.” Looking at rank as role, you can think of everyone as characters in a play.

Each has been cast in a role. Some roles have wider spheres of responsibility than others; some have greater decision-making authority; some wield greater power; some appear to have higher status. But all roles are needed—the high-ranking as well as the low. Without every single role the play would not be complete.

 

Resource b: Ten Ways to Foster Dignitarian Governance

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By Brian J. Gerloff

It’s not uncommon for governing boards to engage in rankism, often unintentionally. For example, board members may assume they have superior knowledge and therefore disregard the views of their constituency. Within the board itself, members may assume the majority is wiser than the minority. Rankism can also occur in the ranks of the organization if board members fail to hold administrators to dignitarian standards of behavior. Some ways boards can reduce rankism in their organization include:

1. Remember that everyone on the board has equal legitimacy.

This means that you must listen to all the varying perspectives on a board as you make decisions. Of course you should look for common ground when possible, but it also means that sometimes you will not have unanimous votes. You won’t always have consensus decisions if you are genuinely allowing everyone’s voice to be heard and considered.

2. Share information equally with all board members.

When information is provided to one member of the board, make it standard practice to provide it to all, e.g., by forwarding informational e-mails to everyone and by copying all members of a committee with all correspondence. This promotes a culture of equality on the board and prevents the formation of cliques.

 

Resource c: Stories of Dignity Regained

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To help build a dignitarian world, International Training Associates is implementing Kindness Campaigns in schools and communities throughout the United States. These help young people recognize rankism and its effects on themselves and others. Through creative play, the arts, and deep conversation, participants learn to look beyond labels and to treat each other with dignity.

Story 1: During one of our Middle School Respect Days, our attention was drawn to a quiet, morose, overweight eighth-grade boy who in his invisibility was obviously at the lower end of the social hierarchy. He had difficulty participating in the activities until we were writing a group poem in which each student wrote a line. After all his peers had shared, this young man found his voice and quietly stood up and read “In a kind world, girls would like me.” There was an audible gasp and many students cried as they were touched by his naked honesty and pain. Although they had gone to school together since kindergarten, this was the first time many truly saw his humanity. This was the beginning of a transformation where others began to treat him with dignity and he himself began to find his voice and see himself as worthwhile.

 

Resource d: How to Create a Culture of Dignity

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(Excerpted and adapted from All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity by Robert W. Fuller, Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco, 2006.)

It’s impossible to know exactly what a particular dignitarian institution will look like in advance, because to qualify as dignitarian its design must take into account the views of those the institution will serve. In a dignitarian organization, everyone involved has a voice and everyone’s views have some political weight. The most important element in creating a dignitarian organization is to design a process that is collaborative and involves all stakeholders. (Leaders often design programs without involving the people they serve, and that’s one reason their ideas so often fall flat. Not only is such an approach ineffective, it is also rankist, because it assumes that the leaders necessarily know what would be best for an organization and the people it is meant to serve.)

Therefore, a template can only suggest an approach and basic framework for transforming an organization into a dignitarian one.

 

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