Somebodies and Nobodies
Overcoming the Abuse of Rank
by Robert W. Fuller
211 pp Gabriola Island, BC Canada
New Society Publishers $16.95
Reviewed by Burndett Andres
“Rankism” is the mother of all isms. It’s children, sexism, ageism, and racism, are spawn of this most basic form of injustice – discrimination based on rank, which has given rise to all other isms. Low rank – which manifests as weakness, vulnerability and the absence of power – marks people for abuse in much the same way that race, religion, gender and sexual orientation have long done. Although far more pervasive, rankism may be harder to confront, for there are no obvious differences in persons, i.e. gender or skin color, to mark its victims.
In truth, as Robert W. Fuller eloquently demonstrates in Somebodies and Nobodies, nearly everyone has been a victim of rankism at one time or another in their life. Each one of us knows what it feels like to be a “nobody” from some experience at home, at play, in school or work or in some social situation. In the off chance that one’s own personal dignity has never been violated, we have surely witnessed some instance of rankism that made us feel uncomfortable or perhaps we have been guilty of “pulling rank” on someone ourselves. When an individual gains some measure of power, he/she becomes a “somebody.” When that somebody then impugns the natural human dignity of anyone below them in rank, rankism has occurred. In other words, rank itself is not the problem any more than gender or race are the problem; it’s the abuse of rank that is the problem.
Fuller goes to considerable length to explain the need for rank and the legitimate uses of rank versus the abuses of rank and why rank matters in any organization from the family to the international community. “Within each niche where it has been earned, rank has proven utility, legitimacy, and deserves our respect.” There follows a detailed analysis of the toll rank abuse takes on personal relationships, productivity, learning, leadership and spirit.
He explores the human hunger for recognition as identity food and the disorders that can manifest when this need is not met. “Chronic recognition deficiencies can culminate in recognition disorders (analogous to eating disorders) that are so severe, they take the form of aggressive behavior- even war and genocide. And once the tables are turned and former oppressors seen as “nobodies,” consciences are disengaged and anything goes. A simple test for telling if a group of people is in the grip of evil is whether the dignity of people outside the group is completely disregarded. Equally as dangerous as the much discussed gap between the rich and the poor is the dignity-indignity gap.”
A closer look at Somebodies and Nobodies reveals that “recognition is not about whether we are a somebody or a nobody, but rather about whether we feel we’re taken for a somebody or a nobody. The willingness of others to acknowledge us is a measure of their respect. Unrecognized, we feel rejected; we’re cast as non-persons, pawns in other peoples’ employ. Recognized, we count, we matter, we may even find ourselves in charge.”
Screenwriter Lowell Ganz (with Babaloo Mandel), Hollywood screenwriters, are credited with saying, “Nobody in America wants to be a nobody. As a nation, as a society, we’re supposed to get somewhere. It’s not ‘Well, my grandfather was a carpenter, my father was a carpenter and I’ll be a carpenter.’ That’s very European. Here, everybody is supposed to reach for the brass ring. God forbid you fail.” Fuller explains this hunger for recognition in considerable length in a segment entitled “Up and Down the Status Ladder,” which leads unerringly to a study of “The Somebody Mystique” and the fascination in our culture with those of genius, celebrity, fame and success.
This examination of how we’ve gotten to where we are paves the way for Fuller to present some suggestions for beginning “The Quest for Dignity.” Any problem must be identified if it is to be understood and overcome. Thus “rankism” is the name given to abuse of power and discrimination based on rank. I found the section “Beyond Political Correctness” particularly insightful, wherein Fuller observes, “If moral instruction is to take hold, it must be given in a way that honors the dignity of learner and teacher alike. Delivered with the slightest whiff of patronization, it is doomed to failure. You can’t overcome rankism with rankism.”
Fuller sees “an unheralded, unnamed revolution...unfolding in our midst. Everywhere, people are becoming less willing to put up with disrespect. And, like all revolutions, this one is about the distribution of power.” In this case it is about the relative power of the individual and he calls it “A Dignitarian Movement.” “The full democratic vision [of real equality for all] will remain unrealized until its motivating principle – circumscribing rank – is applied to the social institutions that shape our lives on a daily basis,” or, stated another way, until our homes and interpersonal relationships, our schools, churches, health providers and business enterprises democratize authority.
Like any grass roots revolution, it begins with the individual’s willingness and ability to win respect and safeguard personal dignity and extend that consideration to the next person. “At first mention, the notion of Nobodies’ Liberation sounds like a joke” Fuller says. “It appears naive and utopian to imagine that nobodies might someday join together as a group and move the world to respect their dignity. The histories of the black and women’s movements suggest, however, that what begins in the hearts of a few as an intimation of fairness and justice can become social reality within generations.”
“One new idea is needed to fuel this movement: that discrimination based on power disparities is no more justified than that based on differences in race or gender. One new word can ignite it: ‘rankism.’”