The Dignity Revolution

21 Feb

[A Talk for TEDxBerkeley, Feb 19, 2011, by Robert W. Fuller]

Dignity on the March

Everywhere you look, people are rising to demand dignity. No longer willing to be treated like “nobodies,” they’re demanding to be treated like somebodies. And once people stand up for their dignity, it’s not long before they’re marching for justice.

From North Africa and the Middle East to South and East Asia, the quest for dignity is driving unrest and bringing transformation. In January of 2011, I keynoted a conference on dignity in Bangladesh that was hosted by that nation’s president. He understands better than the autocrats of the Middle East that it’s better to lead the parade for dignity than scramble to catch up.

We are beginning to sense the possibility of building societies in which everyone’s dignity is respected and secure. In such a world, man-made indignities will be the exception, not the rule.

Our Predatory Past

Ours species has a long predatory history. Archeologists report that prehistory a was constant battle, the result of population growth outstripping local resources. Other tribes had just what we needed—food, water, land, child-bearers—and preying on those tribes before they preyed on us improved our chances of survival.

Of course, we didn’t invent predation. We absorbed it imitatively from our ape and hominid ancestors. A case can be made that it has served us well; none of us would be here if our own ancestors had not been relatively successful predators or skilled at evading the predations of others. It has been said that all family dynasties can trace their histories back to some act of brigandage. But, if we’re to claim a different future, we must first acknowledge how we got where we are.

War, slavery, colonization, and corruption fill the pages of our histories. Many countries are still in the clutches of self-serving dictators. Human trafficking, child slavery, abuse of women, and de facto servitude persist. In developed countries, predatory lenders and bankers, businessmen, and even religious leaders have made headlines picking on the weak.

The predatory strategy our species has pursued for millennia has brought us dominion over the earth. But that strategy cannot take us much further.

The End of Predation

Predation isn’t working as well as it used to for two reasons:

First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be. Using weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. As Thomas Scheff has pointed out, humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium. Moreover, non-violent protest is more revolutionary than armed insurrection.

And, second, (and everything depends on this) the power that dignitarian groups can marshal exceeds that of groups driven by fear and force. When everyone has a respected place, everyone is fighting for himself as well as for the group. That’s why “dignity for all” is a more effective organizing principle than fear. It facilitates closer cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just “nice;” they’re a formula for success.

This heralds an epochal shift in the balance of power in favor of the formerly disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed. From here on, the dignitarian strategy—dignity for all, regardless of role or rank—will prove the better strategy. Opportunistic predation has reached its “sell-by” date.

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, exploitation, and ridicule. Yet indignities continue to abound and are still widely accepted. 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 of us have no trouble recalling the taste of humiliation. Many spend decades nursing the wounds of teasing, bullying, and rejection. As a “geek” in the decades before geekiness became cool, I can testify that the epithet stung.

For many on the margins of society, indignities never stop. These “nobodies” are seen as legitimate targets; according to their tormentors, it’s always “open season.” I distinctly remember a humiliating incident that I witnessed in second grade. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep such things from happening ever since.

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 the day by inspecting 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. 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. A nobody.

In graduate school, it happened to me. I soon realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing a pecking order. In teatime games of one-upmanship, I often felt like a nobody, and avoided probing questions by slipping away into the “hall” … where I ran into Arlene’s ghost.

Emily Dickinson spoke for Arlene and me 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 Emily notes, nobodies are on the lookout for allies, and on guard against banishment.

Dignity matters because it shields us from being classified as prey, from banishment. It declares (so you don’t have to), “I belong. You belong. We belong. We each have a place, and together we thrive.”

What Is Dignity?

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’ve never forgotten. At a stoplight, he poked his hand 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, the taxi sped off.

Two blocks later, the boy ran up alongside the car and thrust the bag of popcorn through the window. With that simple gesture, he refused a hand-out and claimed his dignity.

Denying people their dignity sends the message that their place in society is precarious. Indignity, then, is a precursor to second-class citizenship and exploitation, 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.

Conversely, dignity means belonging, full membership in the “tribe.”

The Dignity Movement

Until now, human governance has downplayed dignity. Why? Because our economies still bear the stamp of our species’ predatory origins. People no longer dispute that slave-based societies were built on exploitation. Better disguised, however, is that today’s minimum-wage workers have little choice but to subsidize the rest of us; miss a single paycheck, and low-wage workers are on the street. As Rev. Jim Wallis says, “Poverty is the new slavery.”

Enter the Dignity Movement—or, as I sometimes think of it, the Nobody Liberation Movement. (The idea came in a dream in which I heard someone yelling, “Nobodies of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our shame.”)

To succeed, a movement needs to 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 could easily jump to the conclusion that power differences are the problem. Since power is attached to rank, we might think that if we could eliminate rank, we could eradicate indignity.

The reason this logic has not worked in real life—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 organizations. Without it they soon become ungovernable and uncompetitive, and, not infrequently, rank creeps back in, wearing a uniform and jackboots, carrying a baton and tear gas.

The truth is, we admire—we even love—people of high rank who have earned it and who use it wisely. We want the professor to teach chemistry, not the freshman. We want the surgeon to perform the operation, not the nurse volunteer. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant.

Simultaneously, 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 rankism 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 demeaning a player, long-serving presidents hanging on to power. 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 photos of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Rankism is everywhere—although it is often seen as business as usual and goes unchallenged. Blacks insult 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 call it by name—rankism—and condemn it as such.

Rankism is the source of most man-made indignity. 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 than the market requires, and perpetual job security. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders avoid rankism; bad ones indulge in it.

Rankism occurs in families, in the workplace and the boardroom, in schools, and in your 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’s Victims

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.

I found this out when I left my position at Oberlin College. As president, it had been easy to get a meeting with almost anybody; without a title, I was “Bob who?”

Rankism ruins 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 altogether.

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. Remember, rank itself is not the culprit; rankism is.

How Can We Overcome Rankism?

The first step to overcoming rankism and creating a dignitarian society is learning from successful movements of the past.

In the early stages of the women’s rights movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later, the problem had acquired a name—“sexism”—and suddenly women had a label for what they were against. That’s why pinning a name on rank abuse is a vital step in ridding ourselves of it. Within a few years of naming “sexism,” reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, and “Title 9” had become law.

For the dignity movement, the lesson is clear: naming “rankism” is the first step in defeating it.

As in the long fight against sexism and the other ignoble “isms,” getting rid of rankism is a multi-generational task. I’ll use my family history to illustrate how our perspective on race changed over the course of the twentieth century:

• My great-grandparents regarded racist slurs as self-evident truths.
• My grandparents didn’t parade their racism, but revealed it in the use of the N-word.
• My parents eliminated racism from their speech, but not from their hearts.
• I grew up committed to Civil Rights, but I was initially perplexed by slogans like “Black is Beautiful.”
• My children dated interracially.
• My grandchildren are of mixed race.

As a rule of thumb, it takes about a half-dozen generations to defang 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.”

But remember: overcoming rankism does not mean countering one indignity with another. Most of my own rankist behavior takes this form: I reflexively respond to a perceived indignity with one of my own. I’m continually rediscovering that rankism cannot be cured with rankism. We can only reduce the rankism in the world by interrupting the rankism-revenge cycle and, difficult as it may be, protecting the dignity of perpetrators themselves even as we show them a better way. This is not easy, but it is precisely the task of the generation now coming into power. On the outcome depends nothing less than the peace and prosperity of the twenty-first century.

My generation put a sizable dent in the familiar “isms.” They’re not gone, but every one of them is on the defensive. The next step is to make rankism as uncool as racism and sexism. Unquestionably, overcoming rankism is a tougher problem, but history is on our side. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” The time for the Dignity Movement has come.

The Dignitarian Era

As we recognize that predatory uses of power are counterproductive, we’ll put rankism aside, like the toy soldiers of childhood. We’ve been inching away from our predatory past for centuries, and the 21st century finds us muddling towards a dignitarian future. We’ll know we’re getting close when rankism is considered indefensible.

In creating a dignitarian world, we’ll find that the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.

One Response to “The Dignity Revolution”

  1. Charlotte February 21, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    I’ve felt the need for a pro-dignity movement for years now. How exciting that I can finally be part of building one! Dignity for all!

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