A n executive pulls up to valet parking at a restaurant, late to a
business lunch, and finds no one to take his car keys. Anxious and
fuming, he spots a teenager running toward him in the rear-view mirror
and yells, "Where the hell were you? I haven't got all day."
He tosses the keys in the kid's general direction and they fall to the
pavement. Bending to pick them up, the boy says, "Sorry, sir. About how
long do you expect to be?"
The executive hollers over his shoulder, "You'll know when you see me,
won't you?" The valet winces, but holds his tongue. Postscript: the
teenager goes home and bullies his kid brother.
It's easy to multiply examples like these: a customer demeans a
a coach bullies a player, a doctor disparages a nurse, a school
insults a teacher, a teacher humiliates a student, students ostracize
other students, a parent belittles a child, an officer abuses a
a professor exploits a teaching assistant, a boss harasses an employee,
caretaker mistreats an invalid.
Most such behaviors have nothing to do with racism or sexism. Yet the
effect on the victims is no different from how it felt to be Jewish,
black, or gay until things began to change for those groups. The
perpetrators of these insults, like racists and sexists, select their
targets with circumspection. In each of these examples, what triggers
uneaqual treatment is rank -- rank as measured on the somebody-nobody
"Somebodies" are sought after, given preference, lionized. "Nobodies"
insulted, dissed, exploited, ignored. Low rank, even when the ranking
clearly meretricious, functions exactly like race and gender -- as an
unjustifiable impediment to advancement.
All forms of abuse, prejudice, and discrimination are actually
upon differences in rank. Rank-based discrimination deserves a name of
its own to distinguish it from racism, sexism, and bad manners. By
analogy, we shall call it rankism. Once you have a name for it you see
Our society no longer condones abuse based on race or gender, but
inequity based on rank is, for the most part, still overlooked. It
be supposed that if one overcomes tendencies to racism, sexism, ageism
and other narrowly defined forms of prejudice, one would be purged of
rankism as well. But rankism is not just another ism, it's the mother
them all. The familiar kinds of discrimination are simply special cases
of rankism. Color, gender, etc. are excuses for exploiting power
differences, not the cause of the resulting injustices.
Unlike race or gender, rank is mutable. You can be taken for a nobody
day and for a somebody the next. You can be a nobody at home and a
somebody at work, or vice versa. "Nobody" is an epithet used to justify
further denigration and inequity. "Nobody" is the N-word of our time.
Much of what's labeled social pathology arises from rankism. The
indignity suffered by nobodies festers. It turns to indignation and
sometimes erupts in violence. To "nobody" individuals, or a people, is
not only to do them an injustice, it is to plant a time bomb in our own
The consequences range from school shootings to revanchism, even
genocide. The 20th century has seen many demagogues who have promised
restore the pride and dignity of a people that felt "nobodied." Hitler
enjoyed the support of Germans humiliated by punitive measures in the
aftermath of World War I. President Milosevic of Yugoslavia has traded
the wounded pride of the Serbs. People will become apologists for
they would otherwise condemn to get even with those they believe have
Attacking the familiar isms, one at a time, is like lopping heads off
Hydra of discrimination and prejudice. Going after rankism, which
underlies all forms of discrimination, would drive a stake through the
In targeting rankism, it is vital to recognize that there is nothing
wrong with rank per se, any more than there is anything wrong with race
or with gender. When it has been earned and signifies excellence, rank
But when rank is exercised beyond its appropriate domain, or when
are "nobodied," that's rankism. The democratic process provides a
recourse to rankism in civic affairs, but in the workplace and in
education we must often knuckle under or risk our position.
Before the civil rights and women's movements, blatant forms of race
gender-based discrimination were mostly condoned. Now, being labeled a
"racist" or a "sexist," a "bigot" or a homophobe," does not look good
In contrast, rankism, in both its interpersonal and institutional
still enjoys wide tacit support. Overcoming rankism -- in the family,
schools, health care and the workplace -- is democracy's next step.
Robert W. Fuller taught physics at Columbia, created a program for high school dropouts in Seattle and served as president of Oberlin. His book, "Rankism: Breaking Ranks in Pursuit of Individual Dignity," can be accessed at www.breakingranks.net.
Copyright © Pacific News Service