Interview with Robert Fuller
You have said: "The country that identifies rankism and sets
out to overcome it is going to lead the world in the next
century." What is rankism?
a new term, which I came up with while I was writing
. Before that, I experienced rankism, as
we all do, but I didn't have a name for it. If we are to
combat rankism, it is as important to have a name for it
as it was to have a name for sexism. The first chapter of
The Feminine Mystique
"The Problem without a Name." When, five years later, the
word sexism was coined, the women's movement really took
off. By rankism I mean abuse and discrimination-which sometimes
becomes exploitation- based on differences in power as signified
by rank. In institutional contexts, we can regard rankism
more narrowly as rule violations by those in positions of
power to serve their own ends. Rankism is found in all hierarchical
institutions and in society at large.
How do you distinguish
rankism from some of the other "-isms," like racism, sexism,
broad and encompassing. Other -isms are more specific. The
concept of rankism gets at the real culprit underlying all
of them, which is abuse of power. For instance, with racism,
white people, historically, have seen people of color as
weak. That's why they thought they could enslave them. Humans
are predators! Fortunately, we're smart enough now to rule
slavery as out of order, even though it still exists in
the world today. It is because rankism encompasses the other
-isms that I say that whoever identifies rankism and sets
out to overcome it is going to lead the world in the next
And that would
extend to individual and organizational leaders, as well
Yes, I believe
about extending dignity to everyone, regardless of rank.
Yes. I'm not
against hierarchies and rank. I am against the abuse of
Would you give
interpersonal rankism are a boss harassing an employee,
a customer demeaning a waiter, a coach bullying a player,
a doctor disparaging a nurse, a teacher humiliating a student,
a parent belittling a child.
I had a trivial reminder of rankism when
I lost my title of president after I left Oberlin College.
I say trivial because I can't compare this experience with
the level of rankism experienced on a daily basis by, for
example, someone working at Wal-Mart who has three jobs
and four kids. Nonetheless, rankism happened to me in little
ways when I left that position. People who had kept their
promises to me immediately felt relieved of that obligation
when I was no longer a somebody. People would say, "I'll
call you" and then wouldn't bother. If you're someone who
has money in the bank, a house, and a fancy car, those kinds
of indignities hurt you as much as they hurt someone with
little money or status. Perhaps you feel the hurt so strongly
because you're used to having promises kept. People with
little money or status may become inured to it because they
experience it all the time.
But you say it's
not just about the dignity people accord you. It's also
about experiencing your own inherent sense of dignity.
For example, young people who inherit wealth often feel
a deep guilt and shame about not contributing. Some resolve
that by giving money philanthropically and getting involved
in humanitarian projects. Without that, they don't respect
themselves. So it isn't just about other people treating
you with respect; it is also an inherent sense of dignity
that comes from knowing you have contributed. Your contribution
may be seen as minor by others, but that doesn't matter.
The important thing is that it brings dignity to you and
makes you feel good.
Isn't money one
of the biggest arenas for rankism in our society? We accord
rank-that is, power and status -to those with the most money.
Yes, and the
rank one has because of money is easily abused, both in
small and large ways.
that the effects of rankism can be measured in terms more
concrete than loss of dignity.
Yes. For example,
in terms of the demographics of electoral politics, rankism
afflicts no group more than the working poor. In
and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
, Barbara Ehrenreich
makes a compelling case that the working poor are, in effect,
unacknowledged benefactors whose labor subsidizes those
who are more advantaged. In
Wealth and Democracy: A Political
History of the American Rich
, Kevin Phillips explores
how the rich and politically powerful create and perpetuate
privilege at the expense of the middle and lower classes.
New York Times
magazine article ["Ghetto Miasma:
Enough to Make You Sick?" by Helen Epstein, October 12,
2003] described the chronic stress suffered by those of
low socioeconomic status as a significant public health
In our culture
we talk about people wanting money because they think it
will bring them happiness, but I don't really think that's
the main motivator, at least in many cases. I think a major
reason is that people want to protect themselves from being
nobodied. People pursue money because it will bring them
status and rank-they'll be a somebody. Would you agree with
Oh yes. We
seek titles and the protection of somebodyness as a way
of shielding ourselves against rankism in our society, exactly
as some blacks once sought to pass as white and women writers
of the nineteenth century assumed the names and identities
of men. Part of our motivation in wanting to be somebodies
is that we want to protect ourselves from the chronic humiliations
suffered by nobodies.
The curious thing
is that even somebodies get nobodied. People with important
positions or titles or lots of money may have high rank
in our society, but they, too, experience being nobodied
is contextual. Most of the time, no matter how high up we
are, we can look around and see someone of higher rank than
we are. A number of years ago, I was in the White House
when a famous singer came to see the president of the United
States. I watched as each of these extraordinarily powerful
and famous men began to feel insecure around each other,
clearly feeling like a nobody in comparison to the somebody
they thought they were shaking hands with.
with money, too. Someone with $1 million feels like a nobody
in comparison to someone with $5 million, who feels like
a nobody next to someone with $10 million, who feels like
a nobody next to someone with $40 million. There is always
a somebody above you.
greatly skews things in a rankist way, in that people defer
to those with money because they fear the power of the money
and hope to get some of it for themselves. Most people instinctively
defer to money, unless they are among a very small, counter-cultural
group who don't.
My wife and I recently had a new counter
installed in our house. We were scheduled for installation
when the carpenter received a much bigger order from someone
else. He immediately put us out of rotation and honored
the bigger order. He was even a friend of ours, but it didn't
stop him from immediately deferring to the client with more
money. In that example, the rankism consists less in his
shifting to honor the other contract first, but in not being
honest with us. If he had said, "This is my livelihood.
I can't afford not to do the other job first," I would have
said, "That's O.K. I'm glad you told me."
Not being honest
about it violated your dignity.
is felt as a lack of dignity. You experience your relative
worthlessness; you feel you are worth less as a person when
someone treats you in a rankist way.
It seems important
for people in positions of high rank-such as people with
money or in leadership positions -to understand rankism,
because their rank gives them additional power to change
some of the institutionalized rankism you talk about in
your book. Would you talk about institutionalized rankism
and what we can do about it?
rankism is the rankism we encounter when we deal with bureaucracies,
nonprofit organizations, schools, hospitals, churches, and
governments. In police states it takes the form of exploitation
and oppression of the citizenry. In democracies it consists
of the daily indignities of dealing with institutions whose
goal is self-preservation and aggrandizement
rather than service.
Although somebodies who neither pepetrate
nor tolerate rankism can help legitimize protests against
rankism (much as white liberals helped legitimize the civil
rights movement), much of the impetus for eliminating rankism
must come from nobodies. Social justice is never just handed
to those who lack it. Only when the victims of unfairness
are aroused and demand dignity and equity for themselves
does the status quo change. Not until blacks found their
voice and protested the injustice of racism did Americans
outlaw segregation. Not until women built the modern women's
movement and targeted sexism were they able to win a measure
of equity. In America today, what primarily marks people
for mistreatment and exploitation is not race or gender
but low rank and the powerlessness it signifies.
Downside of Leadership: Living in Somebodyland
magazine did a review of
Somebodies and Nobodies
, they titled their
piece "I'm a Somebody -Get Me Out of Here!" Everybody
loves the plus side of living in Somebodyland, for
the opportunity and security it brings you. When I
was a young college president, everybody returned
my calls, no one broke promises to me, and women wanted
to dance with me. It's amazing what happens when you
gain power, wealth, or fame. But all somebodies know
how hard it can be, day after day, to have to be a
model for others, to have to be an exemplar when everyone
is looking to you for leadership. And, of course,
the flip side of the public's obsession with wealth,
celebrity, and power is its resentment toward those
receiving the attention.
"Another downside is that somebodies
end up repeating the same mantras, the same slogans,
over and over. If you're an author, you have to
keep saying the same thing when you go on your book
tour. When, as a company president, you have to
keep egging people on to high performance, it can
drain you empty. It did me, after seven years of
college administration, during which I was cheerleading
the elimination of racist and sexist practices in
higher education -and having a good number of people
hate me for doing it. It takes a toll.
"That's when you might want to slip
back into Nobodyland. In Nobodyland, you can be
creative, because no one is paying attention to
you. In Nobodyland, you can renew and refresh yourself.
If you want to be a new somebody, you have to be
willing to be a nobody."
-Robert Fuller in an interview with
More Than Money Journal
So how do we get rid of rankism?
In the same way we have diminished sexism. Women made men
aware of what they were doing and also persuaded women to
stop colluding in their own subordination. With sexism,
it has been mainly a consciousness shift. In addition, crucial
legislation has been passed, such as laws against sexual
harassment and mandating equal pay for equal work.
have a lot of anti-rankism statutes on the books, but mostly
they are ignored. We don't generally indict corporate crooks,
for example, just as we never used to indict lynchers. Only
in the 1960s did lynching come to be seen as the murder
that it is. We have recently begun to witness some indictments
with corporate scandals that have occurred. I cannot imagine
that corporate corruption will be a common occurrence once
society ceases to sanction rankism.
than enacting new laws against rankism, we need to enforce
those that are already on the books. Bullying isn't against
the law, but it is against most schools' regulations and
is undignified. If we transform the social consensus from
condoning to disallowing rankism, it will dry up in a generation.
other thing is, you can't end rankism with rankism. To actually
end rankism, you have to preserve the dignity of perpetrators
while offering correction. You have to protect other people's
dignity as you would have them protect yours. It's like
the golden rule.
Do you think there has to be an organized movement?
I don't think it will look like the civil rights or women's
movements. Instead, it will take the form of building a
dignitarian society. If it's true that serious, chronic
health problems stem from rankism, we will end up creating
a dignitarian society to lower our health care costs. We
will create dignitarian workplaces because we want to stay
in business. Efficiency, productivity, and creativity all
soar in the context of dignified workplaces. All fall in
the presence of rankist workplaces. We will be pressured
into creating dignitarian institutions not by demonstrations
in the streets, but because dignitarian institutions outperform
Rankism seems so pervasive, and much of it is very subtle.
Do you think we can actually eliminate it?
I know we can reduce these chronic indignities, just as
we have reduced the indignities of racism and sexism, and
I believe that, eventually, we will be able to eliminate
rankism. When people begin to see it, a lot of progress
can by made. That's why it's so important to talk about
it-and to keep on talking. The women's movement never let
us stop talking about sexism, and it made a difference.
With a couple of generations of work on rankism, we'll be
Robert Fuller never graduated from high school or college,
but he entered Oberlin College at age 15, and Princeton
University graduate school at age 18. He taught physics
at Columbia University, published a book on mathematical
physics, and developed a course for dropouts at a ghetto
school before becoming the dean of faculty at Trinity College,
Connecticut, and then president of Oberlin College. At the
time the youngest college president in the United States,
Fuller initiated educational reforms to combat racism and
sexism that drew national attention. He later began a campaign
to influence the U.S. to end world hunger, which led to
the establishment of the Presidential Commission on World
Hunger. In the 1980s, Fuller made frequent trips to the
USSR as chairman of Internews, an organization devoted to
fostering independent media in emerging democracies. He
also worked on other projects dealing with conflict resolution
and economic development, traveling widely throughout the
the collapse of the USSR, Fuller's work as citizen diplomat
came to a close. As he reflected on his career, he came
to understand that, at various times, he had been a somebody
and a nobody and the cycle was continuing. He had been a
media darling in his 30s, had met with presidents and prime
ministers in his 40s and 50s, but as a former professor,
former college president, and former diplomat, he was now
a nobody. His periodic sojourns in "nobodyland" led him
to identify and investigate "rankism" and ultimately to
write his latest book,
Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming
the Abuse of Rank
(New Society Publishers, 2003).
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