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Be a dignitarian

We can overcome rankism and build a world that honors the dignity of every person.
By Robert W. Fuller And Pamela A. Gerloff
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Dignity. Everybody wants it, craves it, seeks it. People’s whole lives change when they’re treated with dignity—and when they’re not.

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: All of us want to be treated with dignity.

Fundamentally, dignity is about respect and value. It means treating yourself and others with respect just because you’re alive. It’s recognizing that you and everyone else have a right to be here, and that you belong. It means honoring who you are and what you have to offer. It means creating a culture in which it is safe for everyone to contribute their own gifts and talents.

Dignity is an inner drive so insistent that it can move people to shocking acts of revenge when the attempt to achieve it is thwarted; a human value so critical to happiness and well-being that people sometimes value it more than life itself.

Yet this craving for dignity is so commonly overlooked that most of us accept undignified treatment as “just the way it is.” As victims, we may wince inwardly, but we bite our tongues (“Who am I to protest?” “What good will it do?”). As perpetrators, we excuse our behavior (“I’m the boss, aren’t I?” “He deserved it.” “I’m just evening the score.”). Or we ignore our nagging conscience, failing to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we are violating another’s dignity.

Every day, we witness dignity scorned in our personal relationships, families, businesses, schools, healthcare facilities, religious institutions, and governmental bodies. Routinely, we fail to accord dignity to those we perceive to be the weaker among us. Yet experiencing indignity at the hands of others is not limited to those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Anywhere and everywhere dignity is transgressed by others, with surprising regularity: A supervisor harasses an employee. A child taunts a classmate. A sports team hazes new members. A customer speaks rudely to a waitress. A teacher gives preferential treatment to a friend’s child. An adult verbally abuses a child. An administrator fires a whistle-blower. A government official secretly circumvents the law. A prison guard torments an inmate. A dictator steals from the national treasury. A superpower pressures a smaller nation.

From intimate relationships to global relations, indignity is commonplace.

If, every day, so many of us are not treated with the health-giving, life-affirming dignity we crave, then why are we so shocked when an employee “goes postal,” a teenager goes on a violent rampage, a mild-mannered woman explodes in anger at a seemingly small provocation, or global tensions escalate into international crises? Why do we habitually fail to recognize, beneath the violent outbursts, the powerful impulse to lash out when a fundamental birthright has been denied: the right to be treated with dignity?

Of course, acts of revenge are never justified. But we ignore at great cost to ourselves and society the fundamental urge to be treated with dignity. The consequences of a society where dignity is regularly violated are evident in widespread social problems such as high rates of school dropout, prison incarceration, violent crime, depression, suicide, divorce, and despair; in the business world in reduced creativity, lower productivity, or disloyalty to the organization.

Yet if the consequences of dignity violation are all around us, so too are signs of progress toward a world in which everyone’s dignity is honored. Worldwide, we see dignity-denying dictatorships transforming into democracies. In democratic elections, we see growing voter enthusiasm for candidates who offer a vision of dignity for all. If we look carefully, we can see in terrorist assaults the craving to be treated with dignity; and the spate of school shootings in recent years has led adults to counteract the devastating effects of bullying among children through school-sponsored anti-bullying programs. As overwhelming as the problem of indignity may seem, historically, humans have grown more tolerant and respectful as a species than we once were. Equal rights protections for people of different genders, skin colors, physical abilities, and sexual orientations are just some examples of progress toward greater dignity for all.

The time is ripe for dignity. We can lead the way.

The root of all ‘isms’

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 others goes on and on.

So why would we think we can stop it now?

The reasons are simple:

  • We have already made progress in this area as a species. As bad as things may sometimes seem, in much of the world we now have laws that disallow such behavior. Compared to the world of even a few hundred years ago, modern humanity does have a few things going for it when it comes to dignity.

  • A right idea at the right time, with the right tools to make it a reality, can change the world. And we now have a new idea and new tools to stop indignity.

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.

The word for the source of dignity violation is rankism. Rankism is abuse of the power attached to rank. When a boss shouts at an employee, that’s rankism. When a doctor demeans a nurse, that’s rankism. When a customer is rude to a waitress, that’s rankism. When a professor exploits a graduate student, that’s rankism. When a company executive has an intimate relationship with an intern and she loses her job over it, but he doesn’t, that’s rankism.

On a societal scale, rankism may take the form of political and corporate corruption, sexual abuse by clergy, maltreatment of elders in nursing homes, humiliation of prisoners by guards, large nations intimidating smaller nations into serving the larger country’s interests, or genocide. In short, rankism is when those of higher rank, i.e., those with power over another, treat those of lower rank in ways that violate their dignity.

Sometimes rankism is unconscious—a simple, unwitting misuse of power. But often, the misuse of power occurs because the perpetrator feels “special” or “better than” someone else and believes that this position of superiority carries with it license to diminish the other person’s dignity. Common, everyday snobbery falls into this category, as do racism, sexism, classism, and other “isms.” Feeling superior to others for any reason usually gives rise to rankism.

The word rankism gets at the heart of what all the other “isms” in our lives are about. Rankism is an umbrella term that encompasses any other “ism” that sets one group or individual apart from another and then claims superiority. These more specific “isms” are subspecies of rankism. With all “isms,” one person or group believes itself to be “better than” another, and uses its perceived rank to deprive others of their dignity.

Some people, upon hearing the word rankism, reflexively exclaim, “We don’t need another ‘ism’!” That’s understandable, given the proliferation of “isms” and the fact that they have sometimes been used to label or attack others. But what if this “ism” is not in competition with the others, but instead encompasses all of them? Rankism may well be the overarching “ism” that finally allows us to liberate ourselves from the entire range of specific problems the other “isms” describe.

Some people at first object to the concept of rankism because they fear it may undermine progress in eradicating other forms of social prejudice. But rankism need not undermine any of the groundbreaking, often painstaking, work that so many are doing on behalf of those who suffer discrimination of particular kinds. Instead, the concept of rankism can be a powerful tool to help solidify gains humanity has already made in those areas, while simultaneously helping to make dignity for all a new standard for the human species.

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.” 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 concept of rankism is important because it allows us to change attitudes and behaviors that cause suffering—in ourselves and in society. Suffering occurs in the world, with or without rankism, but rankism produces unnecessary and avoidable suffering. Starving children suffer, but they suffer needlessly when corrupt government officials divert food shipments in exchange for cash for their own personal gain. A school child may feel hurt by a classmate’s inadvertent slight, but greater suffering is inflicted when one child deliberately bullies another and nothing is done about it. Teenagers grapple with the challenges of entering adulthood, but their struggles become all the more painful when other teens ridicule, ostracize, or demand conformity to group norms.

Rankism causes suffering, but rankism can be stopped.

Dignity works

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 our species to survive. 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.

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.

Rank without rankism is a new social construct. It carries with it the understanding that rank in itself is not the problem; rankism is the problem. Rank can be used to protect human dignity, not debase it.

Rank can be used to bring order, harmony, and efficiency to the accomplishment of worthy goals. Rank can be used to benefit others, not to serve our own egos or enrich ourselves at the expense of others. In fact, rank is often useful, even essential, to get things done. Rank can even be helpful for ending rankism. It is much easier, for example, to raise standards of behavior within an organization when a person of high rank helps establish practices that preserve dignity for all than when those of lower rank must risk being fired for trying to create such changes on their own.

As we envision a world of rank without rankism, we lay the groundwork for a dignitarian world to become reality. And then a hidden truth reveals itself: Dignity works. Dignity produces not only more effective and efficient operations, but also more contented, creative, and productive people. In the future, the world will be led by the societies, organizations, and individuals that value and ensure dignity for all.

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

Dignity principles

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 creating a climate of dignity.

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

Always keep others’ dignity intact. Protect others’ dignity as you would your own—even those who are insulting yours. Many religious and philosophical systems advocate a standard of behavior similar to “The Golden Rule,” which says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s a pretty reliable standard for determining whether what you are about to do is protecting others’ dignity as you would your own.

Proactive is more effective than reactive. It is usually more effective to prevent rankism by creating a proactive plan for change, rather than by reacting to rankism when it occurs.

A paternalistic system is inherently rankist, no matter how benevolent it may be. A leadership system that does not allow people to voice their own needs, hopes, and concerns is inherently rankist because it presumes that those in power always know best what is important and necessary to others’ lives, even without asking them.

Rankism creates a dysfunctional system. Rankism produces psychological, emotional, and organizational dysfunction and may stimulate a wide range of unhealthy behaviors, such as undue fear, bullying, unproductive gossip, silencing of cautionary or creative voices, cliques, bootlicking, backbiting, undermining, or sabotage. To create a healthier system, eliminate rankism.

To create “tipping point change,” focus in one area until it “tips.” The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell has advised that to effectively create a tipping point, it is best to focus efforts on one relatively small area first—such as a single school, rather than the entire school district; or a single town government, rather than an entire state government—until the desired change reaches a tipping point within that smaller entity; then move to another small entity within the system, rather than trying to get a large system to “tip” all at once.

Allow everyone a voice—and listen attentively. In a culture of dignity, everyone’s voice is important, even essential—not just because it’s “the right thing to do,” but also because it is in everyone’s self-interest. When people experience rankism, if they have no effective way to respond they may seek to sabotage the organization or the perpetrators of the rankism. If we are to avoid sabotage and retaliation, we must treat others with dignity.

Teach, learn—and tell others. As you gain experience creating cultures of dignity, you can teach others what you know, even as you seek to increase your understanding. Learn more about rankism and the dignitarian movement at our website, www.dignityforall.org.

Building a dignitarian world

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.

Since dignity matters, and it matters to everyone, isn’t it time to ask, What would it take to build a dignitarian world—and together, live the answer?


Adapted with permission from Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism, ©2008 by Robert W. Fuller and Pamela A. Gerloff (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; www.bkconnection.com).

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