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All Rise for Dignity

This is the nineteenth and final part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


If there is no struggle, there is no progress….This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. –Frederick Douglass

Getting Started

The dignity movement is in its infancy. Yet for every example described in this book, there are thousands more. Taken together, they illustrate that the place to stand up for dignity is right where you are. For those who are ready to do this, I conclude with a list of some simple suggestions drawn from the full text of this book.

Break the Taboo on Rank

If you run an organization, make it safe for everyone involved to question the rightful role of rank, the authority vested in specific positions, and the prerogatives associated with the various gradations of rank. Explain to them that you’re not doing this to unleash hostility or incite jealousy, but rather to create fairness, and that this may well take multiple “passes” spread over several years’ time. Transparency, particularly in the form of open budgeting, is an invaluable tool for reducing rankism, which thrives in dark places. Freedom to speak up or “blow the whistle” without fear of retaliation is essential to dignitarian organizations. Mutual accountability–everyone to everyone else–is their hallmark.

Understand the Roles of Others and Support Equitable Compensation

Wherever you find yourself in the ranks, take responsibility for knowing what others do and understanding how their job fits into the whole. Then recognize their contributions and support compensation that acknowledges the part they play in fulfilling the organizational mission. There aren’t many rules yet for determining the monetary worth of one job as compared to another, but clearly rankist self-dealing over the years has produced a gap between rich and poor that is incompatible with the values of a dignitarian society.

Keep Your Promises to Somebodies and Nobodies Alike

One way to tell if you are using the somebody-nobody distinction invidiously as a rationalization for rankist behavior is to notice to whom you keep your promises. In a post-rankist world,we’d all feel as obliged to keep our promises to those whom we outrank as we do to those who outrank us. If you’re not sure you’ll keep a promise, don’t make it.

Create “Indignity-Free Zones”

Teachers are increasingly sensitive to the harm done to students by indignity. If you’re an educator, you can bring this awareness into the open and communicate it to those students whose bullying and humiliation of peers unconsciously mirrors that of adult society.An insult to a student’s dignity is more than a mere discourtesy. It’s an attack on one’s status in the “tribe” and carries the implicit danger of ostracism and exclusion. Status has historically been a matter of life and death and remains a determinant of whether we prosper or decline, so an attack on status is experienced as a threat to survival. Schoolchildren begin the school day by reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Perhaps it should be amended to conclude “with liberty, justice, and dignity for all.”

Enlist Your Patients as Partners

If you are a health care provider, you can help your clients make the awkward transition from patients to partners. Ridding health care of its legacy of dehumanization and infantilization is simply good medical practice. You can also insist on respect throughout the organization in which you work. If you are a patient, have compassion for your doctors. It’s not easy to give up one’s “deity status,” and many of them are doing so with remarkable grace.Moreover, remember that they’re victims of rankism themselves at the hands of HMOs that often treat them less like the professionals they are and more like pieceworkers on an assembly line.

Recognize That Servers Are People, Too

If you’re patronizing a store or restaurant, avoid the mistake of thinking that because “the customer is king” you’re allowed to act like a tyrant. The majority of servers and clerks are doing their jobs as best they can, often under trying conditions and a great deal of pressure. If you’re a salesperson waiting on a customer whom you find unacceptably rude, you may be able to persuade your boss to back you in refusing service. The halo goes to the clerk or salesperson who can devise a dialogue that will induce rankist customers to become aware of their own destructive behavior and change their ways.

Be Aware That Rankism Begets Rankism

If you humiliate those who are abusing rank, they’re likely to take it out on their subordinates–often, family members–so there will be no net reduction of rankism in the world. If someone insults your dignity, see if you can break the cycle of rankism begetting rankism. Every situation requires a tailor-made solution and they are often hard to devise. Coming up with something after the fact is not in vain. There will almost certainly be a chance to use it on another occasion.

Have Respect for the Other Team

If you’re a coach, you can forbid trash talk, on and off the court, among your players and to your opponents. Show your team that they are capable of more–not by humiliating them but by teaching and inspiring them. Rent the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly and show it to your athletes. Its punch line–“I rag on nobody”–puts it in the anti-rankist hall of fame.

Exemplify Rather Than Exhort

If you’re a religious leader, you can refrain from pulling “spiritual rank.” You can do more for your flock by listening and providing them with a personal example worthy of emulation than you can by invoking higher authority,which is often little more than a claim that God shares your politics. So, too, with other professions.

Respect Your Children So They Will Be Respectful

Today’s speakable n-word is “nobody.” If you’re a parent, you can avoid using it in front of your kids. Parents who listen to their children and who don’t belittle them or anyone else are preparing their offspring to inhabit a dignitarian world.

Adopt a “No Nobodies” Policy in the Schools

Students may want to see if their friends are interested in adopting a schoolwide policy of “No Nobodies.” They could make a list of all the forms that “nobodying” takes and see if others will agree to toss them out. Equally important, however, is having a plan for dealing with slipups. Old habits die hard, and how you go about correcting relapses can be trickier than the pronouncement of noble resolutions. Remember, you can’t cure rankism with rankism.When somebody nobodies someone else, it won’t improve things to shame the perpetrator. To make the transition from a rankist environment to a dignitarian one, you have to protect the dignity of perpetrator and victim alike as new habits are established. So the real meat and potatoes of a “No Nobodies” policy is not the policy itself, but rather securing agreement on what’s to be done when violations of it occur,which they most certainly will. For starters, the person who is nobodied can gently describe to the perpetrator how it feels. Doing this periodically in a public forum (in the manner of instructor Stephanie Heuer’s “I feel like a nobody when…..” exercise described in chapter 5) is a remedy that often suffices to change what is deemed acceptable behavior by the group.

Be a Susan B. Anthony of the Dignity Movement

In the nineteenth century, Susan B.Anthony traveled a million miles by train and gave twenty thousand speeches advocating the enfranchisement of women. Sadly, she did not live to see the success of the suffragette movement she spearheaded–but her image is on the dollar coin! If you’re an organizer, create a chapter of the dignitarian movement in your area. Coordinate with other chapters and make them a national force under a slogan like “No Rankism” or “Dignity for All.” Programs to help the poor or end poverty will continue to fall short until those trapped in the underclass have found their voice and together insist on respect and equity. Do what Susan B.Anthony did for women and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. did for African Americans: help the victims of chronic indignity find an effective way to give voice to their plight and change the status quo.

Bring Dignity to Law Enforcement and Conflict

If you’re a police officer, protect citizens’ dignity as you already protect their lives. If you’re a soldier, protect the dignity of your foes, if only because by so doing you’re reducing the chance of them seeking revenge.

Show the World Dignity Through Your Profession

If you’re an artist, expose rankism; put dignity on exhibit. If you’re a philosopher, define dignity. If you’re a psychologist, demonstrate the consequences of malrecogntion and show us how to heal its wounds. If you’re a historian, chronicle the many forms that rankism has assumed over the centuries. If you’re an economist, calculate its cumulative impact on social class and the distribution of wealth. If you’re a comedian, make us laugh at the double standards that apply to somebodies and nobodies. If you’re a filmmaker, give us heroes who overcome rankism without resorting to rankism. If you’re a songwriter, write an anthem for the dignity movement. If you’re a TV producer, stop exploiting humiliation and celebrating rankism. Sooner than you think, the current staple of TV entertainment–humiliation–is going to play the way racism now does.

Honor Your Inner Nobody and Your Inner Somebody Alike

If you’re “just” you, don’t be ashamed of the nobody within. It’s really a genius–at least, it’s your genius. Your inner somebody is dependent on it for new ideas, so don’t let your somebody put your nobody down. Remind your somebody that despite all the attention it gets, it’s a plagiarist and in grave danger of becoming a “smiling public man.” Our somebodies are all guilty of stealing intellectual property from our nobodies. Likewise, if you disparage your inner somebody, you’re trashing your meal ticket. It’s best to remember that your somebody and your nobody thrive or starve together. Their proper relationship is like that of the masculine and feminine principles we carry within us–peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. As our internal nobodies and somebodies make peace and each gets the recognition it deserves, we typically find ourselves better able to extend to others the dignity we’re granting ourselves.

Remove Rankism from Politics

If you’re in electoral politics you can point the way to a dignitarian society, even if your colleagues aren’t yet ready to embrace your ideas. Treat your opponents with dignity. Don’t sneer,mock, or condescend. Avoid patronizing or posturing. When politicians affect moral superiority, they extend rankism’s lease.

 Since rankism is an attack on both liberty and dignity, denounce it along with the other isms. Explain to your constituents why you’re against it–in all its forms–and then go after them one by one. Be the leader you wanted to be when you first imagined running for office. Be willing to lose an election for your dignitarian convictions. If you do, run for office a few years later, and win!

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, dignity is an idea whose time has come.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

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Robert W Fuller

Robert W Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of "Somebodies & Nobodies", the book that identified the malady of rankism and "All Rise", which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it. His most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship" and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".