Dignity's Apostle: My Interview With Author Robert W. Fuller Email Print

The diary below was originally posted on my blog the Intrepid Liberal Journal, on May 20th.

Progressives are struggling to synthesize a movement that can rise above identity politics and mobilize people under a unified theme. Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D. argues in his newly published book, All Rise (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.), that simple dignity is an elusive need that cuts across demographics of race, gender, age, and class. Fuller attributes this void to a culture of "rankism" which he defines as "abuses of power associated with rank." In his writings Fuller advocates for a grassroots effort to establish a "dignitarian society."

Essentially, Fuller is labeling an ongoing human experience. He notes that we've all been victimized by the institutional structures of rankism in our lives as well as being abusers ourselves. This is true in our jobs as well as personal or family relationships.

For society at large there are broader implications because rankism breeds incompetence. Fuller cites deadly examples such as the Challenger space shuttle flight in 1986 and the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe as resulting from the direct result of a culture of rankism. Talented individuals were in each instance discouraged from criticizing the hierarchies they served. One can certainly identify rankism as a component of the culture of crony capitalism inside the Republican Party and the corporate world.

Fuller first wrote about the concept of rankism in his 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers). The inspiration for Fuller's book was his own life in which he experienced being both a "somebody" and a "nobody."

Fuller earned his Ph.D. in physics at Princeton University and taught at Columbia where he co-authored the renowned text Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics. During the social tumult of the 1960s, Fuller became interested in educational reform and at the age of 33 he was appointed president of Oberlin College, his Alma Mater.

In 1971 Fuller served as a consultant to Indira Gandhi and witnessed the famine resulting from India's war with Pakistan over the fate of Bangladesh. When President Carter was elected, he initiated a campaign to persuade the president to end world hunger. Fuller's meeting with President Carter in 1977 helped facilitate the establishment of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

During the 1980s Fuller often traveled to the Soviet Union working as a "citizen-scientist" to reduce cold war tensions. His work combined with other like-minded professionals led to the creation of the nonprofit global corporation venture Internews, which promotes democracy through free and independent media. He served as the Chairman of Internews for several years.

Fuller has certainly led an impressive and compelling life. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, Fuller found himself adrift and marginalized. As Fuller reflected upon his own life experience, he had an epiphany about how our society is ordered. It would be only human to ponder how he went from persuading an American President to questioning his own relevance. Fuller's journey appears to have engendered both a personal commitment to empathy and the ambition to quantify the most subjective human perspective of all - dignity. He graciously agreed to respond to questions about his new book as well as his opinions regarding current events:

ILJ: In the opening Chapter of All Rise, you wrote "Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our particular characteristics or our status. Every religion teaches us so." Couldn't one argue that religion has historically been guilty of imposing rankism more than any other institution? The Koran essentially legitimizes the abuse of women for example and women priests are often frowned upon.

Fuller: Religion teaches dignity; theology sometimes promotes indignity. When Islam was first introduced it championed women's liberation (See Huston Smith's "Religions of the World" which points out that Mohammed's wife had a very big hand in writing it). Some Islamic theologians have since interpreted it in ways that oppress women, but that's politics operating under the guise of religion (as it does in every religion). In their core beliefs, religions have all been a powerful force for recognizing the universal and non-negotiable dignity of Man.

ILJ: You strongly emphasize that you're not anti-hierarchy or utopian. But as President Kennedy once noted, "life isn't fair." Is a dignitarian society absent of rankism truly possible in a world in which there will always be winners and losers?

Fuller: Dignity is not dependent on winning. You can lose a contest and not feel your dignity has been affected one way or the other. In a fair competition, your performance is apt to be improved by virtue of competing with the other entrants, and for that you are grateful. Many losing athletes experience gratitude to winners--for raising their game. The problem is that winners may then abuse their rank, and that IS a problem! But so long as rank is legitimately earned and properly used, rank is an important--often indispensable--organization al tool for accomplishing group goals. Not every assertion of rank is rankist--only those that put the dignity of the high-ranking above that of those they serve. We rightfully admire and love authorities--parents, teachers, bosses, athletes, political leaders--who hold their rank and use the power that comes with it in an exemplary way. Accepting their leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity on the part of subordinates. It is when people abuse their power to demean or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown. Over time, indignity turns to indignation, and smarting victims may be left thirsting for vengeance. The consequences can range from relatively benign foot-dragging all the way to genocide.

ILJ: John Lennon once wrote, "women are the niggers of the world." Yet your book notes women are typically bullied more from other women in the work place then men. Does this surprise you? Women it seems have been chronically victimized by rankism in society so why do they turn on each other?

Fuller: Rankism is caused by indignity, and indignity festers, gradually congealing into indignation. That's why rankism causes more rankism. Rankism's victims are likely to turn into perpetrators as soon as they can get away with it - to even the score, so to speak. This is why rooting out rankism is difficult.

ILJ: When Bush campaigned in 2000, he boasted about learning management skills as an MBA from Harvard and his ability to govern like a CEO. Is the Harvard/MBA model discredited in promoting quality, efficiency, and professional mobility based on merit?

Fuller: If a single graduate's performance discredited a school, there would be no creditable schools left standing. For many graduates, the imprint made by their Alma Mater is very slight, almost undetectable. And even where the impact is strong and clear, beliefs change over time and what's good business practice in one setting, may not be in another.

ILJ: Do you believe the cause of gay rights would garner more sympathy if presented in the context of combating rankism and seeking dignity instead of being associated with identity politics?

Fuller: Yes, indeed. That is exactly the right strategy at this point: for gays, for immigrants, for all put-upon groups. People are sick of identity politics. They have come to see it as synonymous with demanding special treatment. The way around this objection is for identity groups to insist that everyone's dignity be respected equally, including their own.

ILJ: If I'm sitting on top of the social strata why is it in my best interest to replace rankism with a dignitarian society? Why should Dick Cheney's successor at Halliburton care about other people's dignity?

Fuller: If you are at the top, it won't be, in the short run. For the most part, Kings resisted the formation of parliaments. But some of them lost their heads in the process. A longer-run strategy foresees the power of numbers and yields gracefully. Enlightened leaders put getting the job done well above self-aggrandizement and in the name of such success, they shun rankism.

ILJ: Karl Marx championed the concept of "class consciousness" empowering the proletariat. But class solidarity has typically surrendered to individual ambition. Even as we're victimized in our jobs or personal relationships by rankism, don't we also crave the very status held by others that we resent?

Fuller: We crave it because rankism is so common that we see status as the only way to shield ourselves from its humiliations. As rankism diminishes, we will be more content to serve in whatever position in the hierarchy best matches our talents and the energy we have for that role. Many people don't want to lead on the job; they prefer to put their energy into family, an avocation, etc. and are glad to follow at work so long as they are not bullied, harassed, and "indignified."

ILJ: What corporations have cultures that you most admire and which corporations do you believe to be the worst offenders of rankism?

Fuller: Corporations cited in the media, at various times, for having a relatively non-rankist culture include Whole Foods, Intel, Google, CostCo. But I am not in a position to testify to this. Likewise, Wal-Mart has gotten a lot of bad press lately for a rankist work environment. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, points out that leaders of great companies eschew rankism, both in their own treatment of subordinates, and all the way down the line.

ILJ: Are there any societies in the world today that you believe have models that can be referred to as a dignitarian society? For all of our problems in the United States, it appears the whole world is struggling with human dignity. France for example has alienated their Muslim population. The entire European continent contains Muslims who feel disconnected from their home societies even if they're enjoying economic success. In the scheme of things might one argue that the United States is far ahead of other nations in cultivating a merit-based culture that facilitates dignity?

Fuller: Yes, the world is struggling with dignity. No nation has yet built a dignitarian society. Doing so is democracy's next step. Some Scandinavian societies seem to be moving in that direction. The bottom line of a dignitarian society is that everyone's dignity is afforded equal protection. People can still hold unequal ranks, but in those ranks, dignity is equal from top to bottom. At a minimum, this means that regardless of rank, everyone is paid a living wage, has access to good health care and education. (See "All Rise" for details.)

ILJ: A conservative might argue that rankism doesn't exist in the United States. Our Constitution guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Newt Gingrich once noted soon after becoming Speaker that the Constitution did not mention the "Department of Happiness" or advocate for the "government happiness program." It's not difficult to imagine conservatives snickering that in America we rise or fall based on our own abilities. In their worldview respect is earned and not a right. Why is dignity a universal right?

Fuller: Dignity deserves to be made a universal right because that generates loyalty, productivity, creativity. What's guaranteed is not outcomes, but membership in the tribe. A dignitarian society promises not to ostracize any group or individual. Everyone has a place. Even prisoners are treated with dignity, as they serve their terms. It is very hard for people who have grown up with libertarian values to get this distinction, but getting it is the next step for democracy.

ILJ: Has the culture of rankism impacted academia and the quality of education in this country?

Fuller: Students put more energy into defending their dignity in classrooms than they put into learning. This is a tragedy. Schools that rid themselves of rankism are going to be far more effective than schools of the past. Also, tenure is an inherently rankist institution--because it eliminates accountability to those professors are entrusted to serve. In eliminating tenure, great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those who have enjoyed it. The guarantee in a dignitarian society is to dignity, not to a particular role or rank.

ILJ: You noted in your book that a victim of rankism on their job might become the abuser of rank in their home as a parent or spouse. Do you believe that an employment culture based on dignity might also facilitate better parenting and healthier marriages?

Fuller: Precisely!

ILJ: What are some concrete steps our elected representatives can take to combat rankism and promote a culture of dignity?

Fuller: 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.

ILJ: I'd like to pick your brain about India. Early in your career you served as a consultant to Indira Gandhi. Today India is acknowledged as an information technology power possessing a high skilled and educated work force. Has this translated into a more egalitarian model of society for them that should be emulated? Or has the social stratification of their culture worsened? The gap between rich and poor certainly remains high.

Fuller: India is too big and complex to generalize about. Its legacy of caste still makes for lots of rankism. On the other hand, technology--wherein the young have so much to contribute--militates against the rankism of age. So my guess is that India is will overcome the caste-based rankism that has held it in its grip for centuries.

ILJ: How much feedback have you received internationally about the concepts of rankism and a dignitarian culture? Is it possible to facilitate an international movement of dignity that transcends boundaries?

Fuller: Rankism is universal. It knows no international borders. Societies that may appear non-rankist turn out to be rankist upon closer examination. That's because rankism is defined as abuse of the power inherent in rank, and it is human nature to abuse power--so long as we can get away with it. After all, what are human beings but predators, and exceedingly good ones at that. Racism and the other isms are types of predation, but we are overcoming them. They are not written in our genes. As survival strategies, they have long since ceased being successful. Rankism will go the same way, and eventually follow the familiar isms into the doghouse. We learn; we evolve; we change. We will overcome rankism not only because that's the right thing to do, but more fundamentally because dignitarian workplaces, schools, and societies are more productive and creative, more powerful and successful than are rankist workplaces, schools, and societies.


Robert W. Fuller is the proprietor of a website called Breaking Ranks which is dedicated to educating the public about rankism and promoting a dignitarian society. The primary contributor to his site is a close personal friend of mine who skillfully comments on how current events both illustrate the social dysfunction of rankism and the need for establishing a culture of dignity.

Intrepid Liberal Journal


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This is an excellent interview! Fuller has been actively thinking about one of the democratic party's most vexing problems - forming a consensus on our fundamental values. Dignity is an idea that everyone can get behind - red or blue, conservative or progressive, young or old, rural or urban...

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