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Rankism: The Poison that Destroys Relationships

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Relationships take many forms but they're all vulnerable to the same poison -- rankism.

Relationships can be interpersonal (between friends or strangers; partners or relatives). They can be intergroup (between religions, sects, races, classes, males and females, straights and gays, Republicans and Democrats. And they can be international (Germany and France; the U.S. and China).

Regardless of the level of relationship, when either party presumes its superiority over the other, and treats its opposite number as a "nobody," things go south. Rankism is a degrading assertion of rank. It's what's happening when a person, a group, or nation acts as if it outranks another and attempts to demean, humiliate, or exploit it.

When we suspect we've been poisoned, we go to the doctor for a diagnosis and hope there's an antidote. A toxin that afflicts many relationships is rankism. The universal antidote to rankism is dignity for all parties.

The Familiar "Isms": Trait-based Excuses for Abuses

I'll return to rankism and its antidote in a moment, but first let me take a moment to explain where this began for me. I got a close look at the poison of rankism in second grade when my classmate Arlene was sent into the hall for the whole day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school every day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day Miss Belcher told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how Arlene could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us. Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed -- hiding her face against the wall, trying to make herself small. Arlene felt like a nobody. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure it never happened to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as nobodies, and so as legitimate targets of abuse, included Frank, who was shamed with the F-word; Jimmy, who had Down syndrome and was ridiculed with the R-word; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased for their weight. The N-word was used warily, typically from the safety of the bus carrying our all-white basketball team home in the wake of a loss to a school fielding black players.

Not belonging to any of the groups targeted for abuse, I was spared -- till I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing a pecking order. I found myself playing games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmate Arlene.

The toxic relationships mentioned above are all based on a trait that marks people for abuse -- class (Arlene), sexuality (Frank), disability (Jimmy), body shape (Tommie and Trudy), color, and academic standing. Even with none of the traits that marks you for abuse, you can be treated as a nobody by someone who is simply trying to make him- or herself feel better.

Why Dignity Matters

Emily Dickinson spoke for Arlene and me, and for nobodies everywhere, in her "nobody" poem:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

As Dickinson notes, nobodies are on the lookout for allies, and wary of banishment. As social animals, banishment was long tantamount to a death sentence. It's no wonder we're sensitive even to the slightest indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that we have a place, that we're not in danger of being "nobodied," ostracized, or exiled.

This article makes the case that there are no valid justifications for treating anyone as a nobody -- that is, for rankism -- any more than there ever was a justification for racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, or homophobia.

Rankism Is the Poison, Not Rank

By now, you're probably thinking, "But wait. Some people do have higher status than others; some people are more talented." Yes, some people do outrank other people in the sense that they're higher in a hierarchy. And some people outrank others in the sense that they're better at something, i.e., basketball, geometry, violin, attracting suitors, etc. It's indisputable that such rankings exist, and that when rank is earned in a fair competition, it can be a useful indicator of skill and experience. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. We want the math teacher to teach algebra, not the coach. Movie stars exist, and most of us are not listed among them. We admire people of high rank so long as they've earned it and they respect our dignity.

But we do not feel kindly toward people who abuse their rank. Therein lies the poison: not in the fact of rank itself (when it's legitimate), but rather in the abuse of rank (legitimate or not).

Rankism sours relationships. Indeed, it's the source of most man-made indignity. Over time, rankism warps relationships, and, left unchallenged, it kills them. Most of the time, the answer to "What poisons relationships?" is rankism. Likewise, what poisons race or gender relations isn't color or gender differences per se. These differences are simply excuses for abuses which serve another purpose: they impose a handicap on some people to the advantage of others.

Rankism is what people who think of themselves as somebodies do to people they take for nobodies. Rankism is pulling rank, putting people down, advantaging oneself at others' expense. Rankism is dominating or exploiting others.

Examples of rankism include all the ignoble "isms" (racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, etc.), as well as bullying of every kind, predatory lending, corporate corruption, sexual abuse, and pay-to-play politics. Whenever rank in one realm is used to undermine fair competition and so win rank in another realm, that's rankism.

Victims of rankism feel degraded, dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised, dissed, indignified, and humiliated. When we're put down, when our dignity is insulted, we feel indignant. We then have two options: dish it back, or stifle the desire to strike back, a response that may be dictated by the power advantage that typically comes with higher rank. We may choose to suffer in silence, but we're apt to remember the insult -- for decades!

Groups and nations don't forget either. In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious allies humiliated the Germans, and that made them more susceptible to the racist demagoguery of Hitler and to the resumption of war once there was a chance to get even. One Nazi SS officer, reminiscing about German military victories in the early years of World War II, remarked: "It was with unrivaled pride that we saw the world. We were somebody." Just a few years later, the "thousand-year Reich" lay in ashes. The difference between WWII and a nuclear WWIII will be that after WWIII, the world will lie in radioactive ashes.

Isn't Rankism Human Nature?

But, isn't rankism one of those unpleasant but immutable facts of life? Isn't it written in our DNA? Isn't rankism human nature?

Racism and sexism were long regarded as human nature, but it's now obvious that we weren't stuck with them after all. In more and more places, these "isms" are losing legitimacy. To be racist, sexist, or homophobic today is to disqualify yourself for advancement, if not to forfeit your job. How did this come to pass? Could we disallow and delegitimize rankism as we have other "isms," or will "Dignity for All" remain a utopian dream?

In a seminal work of the modern women's movement, Betty Friedan wrote of "the problem without a name." A few years later the problem had acquired a name -- "sexism" -- and from then on, women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and sexism). That's why pinning a name on the behavior that poisons relationships is a vital step toward ridding ourselves of it. Within a few years of naming sexism, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, and Title IX had become law.

As president of Oberlin College during the early seventies, I saw a non-stop parade of "nobodied" groups find their voices and demand equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, even retired faculty and staff. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was revealed, and rejected, as specious. So, if you believe rankism is human nature, be aware that what is regarded as human nature is highly malleable. Our view of human nature doesn't change overnight, but it does evolve over decades.

The Demise of an "Ism"

Let me use my own family to illustrate how an "ism" can lose its grip:

  • My great-grandparents regarded racist slurs as self-evident truths.
  • My grandparents didn't parade their racism, but used the N-word.
  • My parents muted racism in their speech, but it lurked in their hearts.
  • I grew up committed to civil rights, but was initially perplexed by slogans like "Black is Beautiful" and by Gay Pride celebrations.
  • My children dated interracially.
  • My grandchildren are of different races, and don't understand what the fuss is about. They wouldn't object if MLK-day were skipped now and then, not because they find fault with its ideals, but because it's belaboring something they already know.

It seems to take at least a half-dozen generations to purge society of an "ism." Political correctness, though it may rankle initially, helps us replace habits that do others harm with ones that respect others' dignity. Granted that six generations is a long time, but it's not forever.

The task confronting us today is to put rankism in the doghouse alongside the other disreputable "isms." Make it uncool. This means ceasing to put individuals, groups, or other countries down. It means protecting others' dignity as if it were our own. Sound familiar? It's the golden rule of dignity, which rules out bullying, teasing, ridicule, and making fun of others. When these behaviors are permitted, potential targets -- and who isn't one at some point? -- must devote considerable energy and attention to protecting their dignity. A culture of indignity imposes a tax on its members' health, creativity, and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The Dignity Movement Finds Its Feet

All over the world, people are now standing up for their dignity. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Russia, China, and the Occupy Movement. People are no longer willing to be treated like nobodies; they're demanding to be treated like somebodies. Once people stand up for their dignity, it's not long before they're marching for justice.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga's immense fandom is that she's a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who stands up to the schoolyard bully is another, especially if he is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the bully. What makes rankism especially hard to dislodge is that victims cannot indulge in rankism themselves if they're truly committed to ending it. Rather, victims of rank abuse must protect the dignity of their tormentors while at the same time bringing about the cessation of rankism.

The familiar "isms" are not dead and gone, but they're zombies, running scared. Every one of them is on the defensive. Democracy's next step is to make "rankist" as undesirable an accusation as "racist" or "sexist." Rankism is a bigger challenge than the familiar "isms," but we're now ready to take it on.

Rankism Has Reached Its "Sell-by" Date

Rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn't working any more.

(1) The weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less of a sure thing. Using weapons of indiscriminate destruction and mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

(2) The power that dignitarian groups can marshal exceeds that of groups driven by fear and force. When everyone has a respected place, everyone is working for him- or herself as well as for the group. That's why "Dignity for All" is a winning strategy. It facilitates closer cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just "nice," they're a formula for group success, and their opposites are a formula for infighting, dysfunctionality, and eventual failure. Rankism now deselects those who practice it.

If we can put the spotlight on rankism and, over time, purge relationships of this poison, then we'll have changed the world, perhaps even saved it. In a dignitarian society, appellations such as "somebody" and "nobody" will only be used ironically because everyone will understand that there are no nobodies, that everyone is a somebody, and dignity a universal birthright. Acting like you're somebody special or treating anyone else as a nobody, will be seen as self-important, pompous, and ultimately, as barbaric.

Opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. An important part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.