Encountering Rankism

Culture | Access/Network

It was eleven months ago that I published the New Gatekeepers series. I’m still learning. Just last Friday, Elisa Cooper of Berkeley, CA, posted a comment informing me about the concept of rankism, and its supporting website, Breaking Ranks. The concept Rankism has been coined by Robert Fuller, a past Professor of Physics at Columbia and President of Oberlin College. He had come to realize that all of our old scourges of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry had a common root– an -ism called rankism— but it was not until he left academia that the idea coalesced. He told Publishers Weekly: "Lacking the protection of title and status in the years after Oberlin, I experienced what it’s like to be taken for a nobody."

(That said, I am somewhat more sensitive to the study of anti-Semitism. James Carroll has documented how early anti-Semitism took the form of anti-Judaism at a time when the Christian and Jewish communities were equal in size. In present day, the anti-Semitic vandalism of the Striar JCC in the Boston suburb of Stoughton last night can’t be assigned to rankism.)

The website had been launched in 2000 to collect testimony from people. This became the source material for Fuller’s 2003 book Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse Of Rank.

Judging the book by its cover (a crowd of nobodies holding a pyramid over their head), along with the jacket blurbs (Studs Terkel, Anthony Lewis, Betty Friedan, Stewart Brand and Tommie Smith) I was worried that the book would be a polemic of victimology.

Hardly. Fuller’s approach is equivocal throughout. Here’s how he introduces the concept:

Again, it’s not that rank itself is illegitimate. When rank has been earned and signifies excellence, then it’s generally accepted and rightfully so. But the power of rank can be and often is abused, as in the examples above. Power begets power, authority becomes entrenched and rank-holders become self-aggrandising, capricious and overbearing. Most of us have tasted rankism; for many, it’s a dietary staple.

Exactly. Or, stated another way:

The problem isn’t that rank counts. The trouble is that rank counts twice. No sooner is rank assigned than holders of higher rank can use their newfound power to aggrandise themselves at the expense of those of lower ranks. Although some exercise their rank properly – within their area of competence and in a way that respects the dignity of those under their authority – others do not.

That’s what I was going for. But this states my thesis best: "People who hold rank often find themselves in the role of gatekeeper to those seeking it." I don’t think I’ve stated anything as elegantly.

The Publishers Weekly review faulted the book for not providing any concrete solutions. This, I learn from the website, shall come in the next book, All Rise, due out this spring. In the meantime, some solutions. I am not very much moved by the idea of a movement and the related paraphernalia; Fuller plainly admits in the book that the idea of a "nobody’s movement" is a bit ironic. Instead, I’ll offer this parable from Elie Wiesel, that I’ve read in one of Joseph Telushkin’s books:

A rabbi gets on a train from Lodz to Minsk or wherever. He can’t find an open seat, and eventually finds a section where there are a bunch of men engaged in a very boisterous game of cards. They beg of him to join and play, but he prefers to keep to himself, so they start to razz him a bit. When they all get off in Minsk, they find that the rabbi is surrounded by a growing crowd of people.

The men ask around to find out who the man is. "Why he is the famous Rabbi of Lodz!" So the men go to seek forgiveness from the rabbi for treating him as they did. "Don’t apologize to me. Go find some nobody on the train and apologize to him."

(A similar version of this story was brought up on an evangelical Christian bulletin board, yielding the most perplexed responses…)

It’s not quite the Golden Rule. It’s something different. I don’t quite have my finger on it. But it is a way to understand rankism, and it’s certainly more important for architects of social software to keep in mind.

By good coincidence Robert Fuller is coming to town next week, to a meeting of the Needham Human Rights Committee. We’ll sync up then.

  • Read the Posting Guidelines
  • ViewPoints
  • Login/register to post
  • Response summary: 1 comments, 0 Viewpoints
    nartreb Mar 07 ’06 8:56PM