What Is Rankism?

What Is Rankism?

“If we want to get rid of rankism in the spiritual communities we’re going to have to make the holders of high rank accountable to the parishioners in some way.

People have different rank and positions in society and such rank is necessary for the function of a society.  Nevertheless, no matter what our differences are, we are equal in dignity.  Rankism is the assertion of one’s superiority at the expense of others’ dignity.  To be clear, rankism is the misuse of rank – not a challenge to rank itself.

Dr. Robert W. Fuller is one of the foremost authors on this topic. Below are some key points from his book dealing with rankism, Somebodies and Nobodies. Listen to Dr. Fuller discuss these points and more in the videos below.

Rankism insults the dignity of subordinates by treating them as invisible, as nobodies… Nobodies are insulted, disrespected, exploited, ignored. In contrast, somebodies are sought after, given preference, lionized. (Fuller, 5)

It’s crucial to get one thing straight from the start: power differences, in themselves, are not the culprit. To bemoan power differences is like bemoaning the fact that the sun is brighter than the moon. And rank differences merely reflect power differences, or rank differences are not the problem either, any more than color or gender differences are innately a problem. Difficulties arise only when these differences are used as an excuse to abuse, humiliate, exploit, and subjugate. (Fuller, 4).

The outrage over self-serving corrupt executives is indignation over rankism. Sexual abuse by clergy is rankism. Scientists taking credit for their assistant’s research is rankism. More generally, rank-based discrimination is an ever-present reality in society at large, where it takes its greatest toll on those lacking the protections of social rank- the working poor. (Fuller, 3)

It is important to recognize rankism and realize that it is not acceptable and there is no wrong in insisting on your own dignity in the face of rankism.

Below are some interviews we conducted with Dr. Fuller on this topic:

Robert W. Fuller earned his Ph.D. in physics at Princeton University and taught at Columbia, where he co-authored Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics. After serving as president of Oberlin College, he became a citizen diplomat and set about improving international relations during the Cold War. During the 1990s, he served as board chair of the nonprofit global corporation Internews, promoting democracy via free and independent media.

After the Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR, Fuller reflected on his career and realized that he had been, at different times in his life, a somebody and a nobody. His periodic sojourns into “Nobodyland” led him to identify rankism—abuse of the power inherent in rank—and ultimately to write Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank. Three years later, he published a sequel that focuses on building a “dignitarian society” titled All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity. With co-author Pamela Gerloff, he has also published Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism. His most recent books are Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?, Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, Belonging: A Memoir, The Wisdom of Science; The Theory of Everybody; and The Rowan Tree: A Novel.

 As a recognized authority on dignity and rankism, Fuller’s ideas and books have been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, C-SPAN, The Boston Globe, the BBC, Voice of America, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

You can learn more about Dr. Robert W. Fuller by visiting his website.


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