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All Rise for Dignity

7:56 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

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.]

The Stealth Revolution

7:27 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the eighteenth 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.


Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. –Rainer Maria Rilke, German poet

It’s impossible to foresee exactly when one social consensus will give way to another. Even after the fact, it’s impossible to put your finger on precisely when this happens. Some would argue that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 marked such a tipping point with regard to race in the United States; others would say the revolution pivoted on the passing of the civil and voting rights acts. But although not everyone agrees on exactly when it occurred, few dispute that sometime around 1970, America and the rest of the world underwent a profound social transformation. The sixties grip the imagination because they mark the onset of the collapse of the prevailing social contract on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

Stories in this book suggest that the dignity movement is already under way and quietly gathering momentum. As a dignitarian culture forms in the crevices and shadows of the current social consensus and institutions restructure themselves, another tipping point approaches. When will it be reached? Ten years from now? Fifty? No one can say. With prior movements, there were decades when nothing seemed to be happening and then, without any perceivable warning, weeks of momentous change. Most movements begin stealthily, and the one for dignity is no exception. But in due course, all of them end up in our face. One day, not too long from now, the dignity movement will be equally plain to see.

A Cautionary Note

Of course, when set beside current events, the model of a dignitarian society drawn in these pages may very well sound utopian. Emerging social models always do until moments before a new consensus displaces a prevailing one. As it turned out, King’s “I have a dream” speech was not a pipe dream. It was a timely prophecy of America’s imminent emergence as a multicultural society, with global ramifications as well.

As a counterweight to long-range optimism, however, a dollop of short-run pessimism is prudent. A sober assessment of the prospects for a dignitarian society must acknowledge two things. First, in the event of a natural catastrophe, drastic climate change, pandemic, or the use of weapons of mass destruction, the advent of a dignitarian world will surely be slowed. Depending on the circumstances, the delay could be years, decades, or longer. In a worst-case scenario, all bets are off.

Second, every movement must deal with the reaction of those who believe it to be against their interests. In this case, as it grows in numbers, “nobody liberation”–the movement for dignity–will be opposed by somebodies using all the tactics arrayed against earlier uprisings.

These range from ridicule to violent suppression, censorship to sabotage, agents provocateurs, fifth columnists, and co-option. In the end, however, the power elite will lose its will to resist and adopt the “If you can’t beat “em, join “em” position.

The Long-Range View

A model of the stages through which all movements pass and the response of powerholders at each one is laid out in stunning clarity by Bill Moyer in his classic Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. Moyer’s model supports what common sense suggests: as it gains force, the dignity movement will encounter every dirty trick in the book and face every weapon in existing arsenals. My guess is that the opposition will exceed in every aspect that mounted against the civil rights and other liberation movements. Simply said, establishing a dignitarian society will be no tea party.

But nothing can suppress forever the will to dignity, not even the will to power. As asserted in the epigraph that opens this volume, “Dignity is not negotiable.” In the long run dignity, like liberty, cannot and will not be denied. Indeed, liberty and dignity go hand in hand and neither will be secure until both of them are.

As dignitarian societies demonstrate greater creativity, productivity, fidelity, resourcefulness, and satisfaction than the alternatives, the ideal of dignity for all will become harder and harder to oppose. In the eighteenth century, few would have foreseen that the United States would turn out to be the beacon of democracy that it became for many during the twentieth. Likewise, it’s now difficult to identify which nation will first establish a dignitarian society that the rest of the world will come to emulate.

As has already been pointed out, searching for the one “correct” strategy for the dignity movement is futile. Institutional and cultural change are both essential, and individuals gravitate where they will. It’s not uncommon for someone to focus on personal change one day and later pursue organizational reform. Cultural advances prepare the ground for institutional ones, and vice versa.

In addition to cultural and institutional fronts, there are local, national, and international arenas. Rankism exists up and down the ladder, operating between nations in much the same way as it does within them. This book has tried to make the case that tolerating rankism in our national affairs is no less corrosive to the American spirit than was our long, sorry accommodation of racism. As we prune rankism from our domestic institutions, attention will turn to exorcising it from our relationships with other nations. As discussed in chapter 10, we must avoid those behaviors that others experience as attempts to dominate, thereby sparing ourselves “blowback” in the form of terrorism and other untoward reactions. This means systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relationships with other cultures and nations. There is nothing more important to global peace and prosperity than becoming alert to international rankism in all its forms and weeding them out of national policy.

The ability to carry dignitarian principles beyond national boundaries will be furthered by the development of a national dignitarian culture. This is yet another reason to focus on cultural change in conjunction with institutional reform. It almost never happens that one culture treats another better than it treats itself. Nor is any society inclined to enforce international laws that would criminalize what is in fact common practice among its own citizens.

Absent cultural support, simply having laws on the books is not enough to bring about compliance. Consider the American South after the Civil War. Though there were statutes against vigilante justice, it was virtually impossible to convict a white person of lynching. And since passage of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, there has been a lot of foot-dragging when it comes to according equal dignity to people of color. Similarly, there has been considerable resistance to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

But as a dignitarian culture takes hold, this situation will change. When juries become less reluctant to convict executives on charges of corporate corruption, the penalties for defrauding people of billions will no longer be milder than those for petty theft. The public will be more likely to hold celebrities to the same standards as ordinary people, and voters will shoo rankist politicians into retirement.

An example of the interplay between institutional and cultural change can be found in our attitudes toward political correctness. No one defends the use of epithets now deemed politically incorrect, at least not out loud. Yet almost everyone finds people annoying who make a show of enforcing political correctness. That may be because the “PC police,” as they are derisively called, sometimes assume a posture of ethical superiority, and we resent the rankism inherent in that stance.

It has never been easy for targets of abuse and discrimination to confront their tormentors, and to do so without pulling moral rank on them is doubly difficult.

When formalities and legalities get ahead of popular culture, people continue to have prejudicial thoughts, but they bite their tongues to avoid being caught crossing the PC line. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what my parents did instinctively with regard to race. My grandparents’ generation openly used the n-word but my parents never did–at least not in front of me and my brothers–so we didn’t pick it up and have to unlearn it as adults. Political correctness may feel burdensome to the generation under pressure to break old habits, but it can be liberating to the next.

Democracy’s Next Step

Right now, dignitarian changes are occurring every day, in every walk of life and in all parts of the world, and people are absorbing them without even noticing. Thousands of workers are standing up to rankism in the workplace and increasing numbers of them are doing so without losing their jobs. Anti-bullying projects are springing up in schools the world over and anti-bullying Web sites proliferate. The conviction and incarceration of priests for sexual abuse and executives for corporate misdeeds could herald the beginning of the end for two kinds of rankism that have long been condoned if not encouraged.

To take hold, such changes need the support of a broad dignitarian culture, one that is as different from today’s status quo as the current consensus on race is from that of the Jim Crow era. One can’t imagine the social changes of recent years apart from cultural milestones like the films To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, with Love. Or television shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show, and Ellen.

No society has offered a more stark example of the complementarities of political and cultural change than South Africa. Without Nelson Mandela to personify post-apartheid multiculturalism, South Africa’s political transformation would most likely have been violent.

Many ordinary people are manifestly dignitarian. They not only take care to protect the dignity of those with whom they interact, but also bear witness to, and protest, the indignities they see around them in the world. Such enlightened individuals correspond to the few whites who spoke out against racial bigotry during the era of segregation. Everyone knows a dignitarian or two and, famous or not, they are treasured. But there are those who still act as if rankism is the norm and an indelible part of human nature. The purpose of this book is both to show that this attitude is unwarranted and to suggest a more effective and fulfilling alternative.

Human beings are model builders. Give us a little time and we’re shrewd enough to understand that we can harness more power via cooperation than through domination. We’re clever enough to reconcile our partisan political positions within a larger,more effective synthesis.

We’re wise enough not to impose our personal religious beliefs on others. And we’re intelligent enough to discern where our nature, social, and self models apply and where they do not, thereby avoiding fruitless conflicts between religion and science and perilous clashes between one religion and another.

In ever greater numbers, people are standing up for their dignity, and once they’re on their feet, it won’t be long until they march for justice. Targeting rankism is the conceptual bridge that joins the liberation strategies of identity politics to the age-old quest for equity and justice. Building a dignitarian society is democracy’s next evolutionary step.

[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.]

Religion in a Dignitarian World

7:31 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the seventeenth 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 God, Not everything is permitted to Man. He is still his brother’s keeper And he is not permitted to sadden his brother, By saying that there is no God. –Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel laureate in literature

This century will be defined by a debate that will run through the remainder of its decades: religion versus science. Religion will lose. –John McLaughlin, American talk show host

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. –Meister Eckhart, thirteenth-century German mystic

Religion is at once humanity’s consolation and its divider. As individuals, we turn to religion for solace. The concept of the soul invests our existence with a kind of transcendence and helps us cope with the harsh reality that, as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life is often “nasty, brutish, and short.” The idea of God not only serves as a repository for all we do not yet understand–and there will always be plenty of that–but also provides us with a certain dignity. For that reason alone, religion cannot be omitted in discussing a dignitarian world.

Religion: Dignifier of Humankind

Religions the world over teach the sanctity of human dignity. Theistic religions go further and proclaim the existence of a personal, caring God. Given the supreme importance of dignity and our own spotty record when it comes to according it to each other, it’s the rare person who, when all worldly options seemed exhausted, has not wished for divine intervention. In extremis, even skeptics are apt to question, if not suspend, their disbelief. Under dire circumstances, they, too, are prone to hope, if not pray, for some sort of suprahuman or supernatural source of respect. As the “dignifier of last resort,” God comforts us through all the stages on life’s way.

But despite, or perhaps because of, its place of privilege in the human heart, religion has also been the root of much conflict. It has divided individuals, groups, and entire cultures one from another, and has been invoked as a rationale for violence and war.

These diametrically opposed uses of religion–to confirm the dignity of those who share the faith while sanctioning indignity toward people of a different faith or no faith at all–have led to a polarization of attitudes regarding its role in society. Its potential to trigger debate and sow discord–not only between religion and science but more significantly among the various religions–has a long history that continues into the present. Some observers are even warning that religious conflict may escalate into a “clash of civilizations.”

It is impossible to picture a dignitarian world in which these divisive struggles are not resolved. The model-building perspective illuminates the complementarities of the conservative and progressive positions in politics. On the international front, it suggests a better game than war. How might it help assuage the contentiousness that has for so long been associated with religion?

Religion and Science

In previous chapters I’ve used quotations as pithy summaries of complex ideas. The McLaughlin epigraph at the head of this chapter serves a different purpose. Like much punditry, it’s a provocation. Sorting out what’s right and what’s wrong about the prediction of this onetime Jesuit priest will help us identify the vital role that religion has to play in a dignitarian society.

When religion embraces a particular nature model, it usually does so fixedly. As a consequence, when science moves on to a new model, as it invariably does, religion is left advocating outdated beliefs. That’s the position in which the Catholic Church found itself in 1600 in defending Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of the solar system against the sun-centered Copernican one. It’s the situation in which supporters of creationism–and its offspring, intelligent design–find themselves today.

Religion is not likely to win an argument with contemporary science by championing an earlier science model. Many religious leaders know this and cheerfully cede the business of modeling nature to scientists. Neither they nor the scientists who study these matters, many of whom are themselves people of faith, see any contradiction between the perennial wisdom embodied in the world’s religions and, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the geological theory of plate tectonics, or the Big Bang theory of the cosmos. For example, Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

That any of the scientific theories mentioned just above could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by the scientific world even though, as of today, there is no evidence that contradicts them unambiguously. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Newton’s laws of motion, and quantum theory are, of course, “just theories.”But each of them is an extremely useful and accurate one. Applied within their domains of validity, they all work well. No society can fully avail itself of modern technology without the guidance provided by these models.

As long as religion doesn’t take positions on nature models, it can avoid ending up stranded with a set of obsolete convictions, and find itself defending an old nature model against a new, improved one. If that’s what McLaughlin meant, he’s right, but he isn’t telling us anything Galileo didn’t know.

Religion and Values

Just as religion finds itself challenging science when it identifies with particular nature models, so, too, when it enters the realm of values and politics, must it expect to compete for hearts and minds with evolving social and political models. Here the case is not as clear-cut as with nature models because it is typically much harder to demonstrate the superiority of a new social or political model than it is of a new nature model. The evidence is often ambiguous, even contradictory, partly because intangible personal preferences play a much larger role. As everyone who has argued politics is aware, the “facts” cited by partisans in support of their policy choices are often as debatable as the policies themselves.

Like nature models, political and social models are shaped by human experience, and as experience accumulates, models by necessity change. Religious models could, in principle, keep pace, but generally they tend to lag behind the emerging social consensus. Why? Because the morals espoused by religion have usually proven their worth over very long periods of time. Hence, the first impulse is to insist that behaviors that contradict these ethical models be forced into conformity with them.

This conservative stance not only avoids risk but also affirms the power of the presiding authorities, just as the church’s opposition to the Copernican model did.

The fact that tradition is often, but not infallibly, right goes to the essence of the eternal wrangling that has long divided empirical and ecclesiastical teachings. Resolving this schism will close an open wound that must be healed in order to firmly ground a dignitarian society. What is now traditional was not always so. To see inherited values as absolute truths handed down from on high fails to recognize that they earned their stripes in competition with alternative precepts that lost out. It’s important to acknowledge that millions of lives were sacrificed to establish the values we now live by. The bloodiest wars, however horrible, often played a part in forging our human identity and its many cultural variations.

In this view the term “moral” does not gain its legitimacy as “received wisdom” set forth in holy writ or passed down from divine to human hands. Rather, it is a prescriptive model based on close observation, intuition, and extrapolation. Prophets like Moses, Buddha, Lao-tzu, Mo-tzu, Jesus, Muhammad, Sankara, and others are seen as extraordinarily perceptive philosophers with an uncanny knack for the long view (in particular, for discerning behaviors that foster long-term social equilibrium). Then and now, moral precepts can be understood to be grounded in an empirical knowledge of cause and effect.

Take, for example, the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It is not hard to imagine that witnesses to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge murders concluded that “not killing” was the way to avoid deadly multi-generational feuds and that someone–in this case, Moses–enshrined this realization for others and posterity. From a model-building perspective, it’s plausible that all the Ten Commandments were assembled from the combined wisdom of a number of people.

Drawing on the oral and written history of past and present generations and bearing close witness to their own psychodynamics, they realized that certain individual behaviors ran counter to personal stability or group solidarity, leaving oneself or one’s community vulnerable to exploitation and domination. They labeled these practices “immoral,” anticipating that over time economic, psychological, social, and political forces would bring about either their elimination or the decline and disappearance of individuals or groups who countenanced them.

These nuggets of moral genius, and many others of comparable significance, are recorded in the world’s holy books. Distilled and refined through the ages, they constitute the ethical foundation of society. If somehow they were to disappear and we had to start over,we would, by trial and error and with much bloodshed, gradually rediscover them from scratch (think of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies). They are neither arbitrary nor is it mandatory to attribute them to revelation, though one is perfectly free to do so if one wishes.But we may equally suspect they were unearthed in the same way we discover everything else–through an arduous process of inquiry and testing. Having demonstrated their worth, they were then elevated to special status in a process similar to that which results in the formulation and promulgation of scientific models.

Understanding morality as evidence-based amounts to tracing general behavioral guidelines back to a complex set of empirical observations. Once we have done so, a given moral precept can stand as shorthand for the whole body of observations and reasoning that lies underneath. The ethical formulations of religion represent an accumulation of such proverbial phrases, which function as reminders and guides. As with all models, these are not infallible. Further scrutiny can lead to their modification. More often, however, additional experience validates them. Exceptions have long been allowed to “Thou shalt not kill”–for example, capital punishment and warfare. But Moses may yet have the last word. As we move into the twenty-first century, the global trend to abolish capital punishment is unmistakable and the pressure to eliminate war is mounting. It’s not even out of the question that someday–as we develop alternative sources of protein–we’ll decide that this ancient commandment applies not only to our fellow human beings but to the animal kingdom as well.

Religion is the chief repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, the preeminent teacher of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can stifle progress by strangling in the crib inklings of a better world. While the heavy hand of custom saves us from our worst, it too often seems to keep us from our best.

Together, tradition and precedent, sometimes fortified with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the twentieth-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues like race, gender, marriage, divorce, and sex. Only after decades of debate and strife did new values displace older ones. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying it much attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in much of Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly looked not to their church, synagogue, or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics.

As the distillation of centuries of learning, religion has much to offer the modern world. But when it attaches itself rigidly to certain social or political models it eventually loses relevance in those domains because models of any stripe that are not allowed to evolve are invariably abandoned. To summarize, McLaughlin’s prediction that religion will lose out to science by century’s end is right in the trivial sense–already recognized by many religious leaders–that science typically espouses newer, better nature models than does religion.

Similarly, when religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine–no matter if it’s left or right–it weds itself to the values of a particular time. That is what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked their religious beliefs to further the state’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda. It is what religious supporters of segregation did in the American South. And it is what defenders of genital cutting are doing today. Political models and cultural values are evolving rapidly, and whenever religion aligns itself with partisan social models it can’t expect to retain its hold over the young, on whom the weight of tradition falls far more lightly. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with it when it sinks.

What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about same-sex marriage? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much in the way the disagreements over slavery, and a century later, over segregation,were decided.As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned, and instead, religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.

On the other hand, if either science or politics believes it will succeed in marginalizing religion, it is mistaken. Religion is vulnerable when it encroaches on others’ turf, but not when it sticks to its home ground, which is the self and its transformation.

Religion and the Self

It would be a mistake to conclude that a drop in church attendance means that interest in spiritual matters is diminishing.Despite the public’s lack of fidelity to various nature and social models embraced by religion, it still holds a very special place in a great many hearts. Why is this?

When it comes to knowing the self and mapping its transformations, nothing holds a candle to religious models. The only competitors in the Western canon are to be found in literary classics such as those by Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, and Dostoevsky, whose works serve as handmaidens to the world’s holy books.

Examples of religious insight into the nature of the self and of the creative model-building process can be found in all the religious traditions. I’ll cite just two here, drawn from Christianity and Hinduism, respectively–the doctrines of “resurrection” and “reincarnation.” As applied to the physical body, these tenets are arguable. Nonbelievers reject them outright and even some believers take them metaphorically, not literally. But as applied to the model-building process, they are profound and powerful.

Models must “die to be reborn,” none more dramatically than our self models. We who live by them, identify with them, and sometimes cannot separate our persona from a particular, familiar one, may well experience the disintegration of a self model as a kind of death. The struggle to come to terms with the loss of a partner or child, or with a sudden change in our status or health, can feel like what St. John of the Cross described as a “dark night of the soul.”

From the model-building perspective, resurrection and reincarnation are evocative descriptions of the metamorphoses of identity that most of us experience over the course of a lifetime. Yes, the process occurs within one’s lifetime rather than connecting one life span to another. But where can we find more luminous and consoling guidance for making life’s most hazardous journeys than in the Bible, Talmud, Koran, Upanishads, and Sutras? That the core teachings in these books provide the most accurate guide to inner transformation is the reason they are deemed holy.

During those perilous passages wherein one self dissolves and another crystallizes in its place, we are at maximum vulnerability, like a crab molting its shell. When an old self begins to disappear, our defenses are down, and our dignity at high risk. At times the community we normally depend on to shore up our self-respect, even the fellowship of friends and family, can fail us, and we may find ourselves utterly alone.

When others deny our dignity, religion upholds it. For many, the idea of a personal god assures them that even in the darkest of times, when they may feel bereft of human support, they are valued, respected, and loved. This accounts for the relatively greater commitment to religion among peoples whose survival is precarious as well as for the common phenomenon of conversion during a life crisis.

Granted, individual priests, rabbis, roshis, and mullahs have sometimes failed to respect the dignity of those to whom they minister, adherents to other faiths, or of nonbelievers. But in their essential teachings, every religion testifies to the inviolable, sacred dignity of humankind, at all times and under all circumstances.

Religion is the tool of tools when it comes to becoming a new somebody. It combines art, literature, and theater in the context of communal fellowship to effectively transmit truths about the self and its transformation that are vital to maintaining our balance and creativity. No other body of knowledge offers more relevant and resonant teachings on what is one of humanity’s most precious faculties–the intimate, intricate process of building models of ourselves. For this reason, the role of religion in a dignitarian culture is secure.

The Eye of God

Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and soon found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I spy on the cosmos.

On cold winter nights I sometimes imagine that I’ve drifted out the aperture and am floating in the near-absolute zero temperatures of empty space. In that subarctic infinitude, the earth is an igloo and we are all Eskimos. If other beings exist, we seem beyond their reach and they beyond ours. In any case, my thoughts go not to aliens but to the stars and the lifeless emptiness holding them.

Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anyone out there care?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. The universe seems uncaring, the cosmic indifference of infinite space a blow to my dignity.

But then the old saying that “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does indeed have a heart–in fact, it has lots of them. They are beating in our breasts.

Any inventory of the cosmos that omits human beings is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument of self-understanding and empathy. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If we believe the universe is heartless, it’s because we do not love.

But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between that time and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for Homo sapiens. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated model-building skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes–those of our own making as well as hurtling asteroids with our names on them.

The passage to a dignitarian world will take time, and it will not always be smooth. We have yet to lift a billion people out of poverty, social injustices still abound, and each year millions of children die from malnutrition and preventable diseases. But despair is unwarranted.

The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart–our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and model builders, the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.

[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.]

Globalizing Dignity

7:04 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the sixteenth 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.


It is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. –William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

War’s a game, which, Were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at. –William Cowper

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. –Albert Einstein

The “Evolutionary Blues”

Everyone has known the blues: you lose your job or your health, your partner leaves you or your dog dies. Sorrow is an inescapable part of the human condition. You don’t need the wisdom of the Buddha to know that life is suffering.

The evolutionary blues consist of sterner stuff, affecting not just an individual but our species as a whole. These are the growing pains that accompany the political, cultural, environmental, and existential crises that have beset humankind throughout its bloody history. They stem from man’s inhumanity to man and are carved deeply into the human soul. This book argues that building a dignitarian world can mitigate the evolutionary blues. By confronting rankism in its fiercest guises we have a chance to unsaddle at least some of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and put their fearsome steeds to pasture.

We learn history as the history of wars. They stand out as terrible course corrections in our social evolution. As many are now warning, the advent and spread of weapons of mass destruction herald catastrophe for our species in this century if we don’t find a peaceful way to complete the epochal transition from predation to cooperation.

Before suggesting a dignitarian alternative to war, I want to take a farewell look at it as it lives in our imagination. Only as we see through war’s deceptive promise can we end our dependence on it and bid it adieu.

A World War in My Sandbox

Fighting Nazis and finding love–that’s what my life is about. –Scott Simon,Weekend Edition, National Public Radio

For my friends and me,World War II was a game we played in the sandbox. The less popular kids had to be Nazis. Pearl Harbor was reenacted hundreds of times because it justified what followed–we fought back against our enemies and gradually turned the tide. Sandbox wars ended in massive bombing raids on “Berlin” and “Tokyo”–the Axis always lost because the Allies “controlled the skies.”

In school there were air raid drills, but despite life-and-death exhortations from the principal, for us they were comical. No bombs ever fell. After all, didn’t we control the skies? On Sunday evenings the family gathered around the radio–which stood on the floor and was a big as a bureau–to hear Walter Winchell’s news bulletin “to all the ships at sea.” I loved the hushed intensity in the room as we listened. Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech still gives me chills.

The most powerful memories from those years are not events. Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s death, and the dropping of the atomic bomb pale beside the patriotic feeling of everyone being united in a noble cause. Even kids had a part. Mine was to collect used tin cans and help my mother in our “victory garden,” and I did so without complaint. The thought of dissenting from this war simply did not arise. In one voice, we vowed to force our enemies to “surrender unconditionally.” World War II ended with a bang. I was only nine but I remember just where I was standing when I heard about The Bomb. My father told me that it harnessed a new kind of energy, the energy of the sun.

This scientific first interested me less than something unprecedented in his voice–awe, tinged with alarm. Throughout the war, he had always sounded confident that things were under control. Now his tone warned that things would never be the same.Not long afterward, newspapers proclaimed the advent of the “atomic age.”

A Dignitarian Alternative to War

A century ago, the American psychologist William James famously called for a “moral equivalent to war,” and people have been trying to come up with a better “game” ever since. So spellbound are we by war’s glories and horrors, we fail to notice that it performs an important, if amoral, function. War can deliver an entire people to an open fluid place wherein they become capable of changing direction and embarking on a new course. For “losers” this can mean a fresh start, for “victors” an affirmation of their collective identity. This applies not only to the soldiers who do the fighting but also to those who stay behind and are thrust into new roles. For example, World War II transformed the lives of women, as was symbolized by Rosie the Riveter.

War and tribalism–or nationalism, its modern-day counterpart–have gone hand in hand precisely because the tribe–or nation–is the locus of our group identity and the battlefield is where it has historically been forged or shattered. The guilty knowledge that physical combat has been an instrument of identity transformation has surely been a barrier to finding a viable alternative to it. That is the reason for the deep ambivalence we feel toward war. We speak openly of our hatred for battle but hide our fascination with it. When we are not actually at war, it often lurks in our imaginations as an enticing adventure. To end our dependence on war as a means of affirming or changing identity, we need to find a dignitarian alternative for accomplishing the vital task of periodic social transformation.

Not long after James’s call for a moral equivalent to war, H. G.Wells unknowingly answered it with a statement destined to become equally famous: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” To see war as a problem whose solution is education was prescient at the time. But education–at least the kind available during the twentieth century–did not keep us from going to battle.

What sort of learning might accomplish this critical goal? I believe that, paradoxically, it is the very skill that has, via technological development, made war so dangerous; the moral equivalent of war can be found in the conscious, dedicated pursuit of model building.

At first glance, this might seem too cerebral an activity to compete with the guts and glory of war. A closer examination, however, reveals that model building undercuts our dependence on war in three ways. William James couldn’t realize this because in his time modeling was considered applicable only to nature, and the self was held to be something apart from nature.

For starters, model building develops and facilitates the capacity to change our minds, to replace one belief system with another, to transform our understanding of the world, and to evolve new personal and group identities. While we have relied on violence to achieve these tasks in the past, contemporary model-building skills afford us an alternative that is at once less destructive and more precise. Modeling goes to the very crux of identity formation and reformation, and it does so without destruction of property or loss of life.

Once we give up the notion that we are our personas,we can let them do battle in our stead rather than putting our lives on the line. Our ideas and beliefs can be sent into “combat” and defended to their death, not ours. The ultimate deterrent to war is not the threat of retaliation, but the availability to both sides of more cost-effective methods of self and group transformation. (The situation that arises when one party to a conflict absolutely insists on settling it with brute force is the subject of the next section, “What About Bad Guys?”)

Second, there is the richness, excitement, and fulfillment that we experience in exercising our model-building skills. It’s not hard to imagine the exhilaration that must have accompanied modeling and then constructing the first airplane, nuclear reactor, or computer. Less obvious is the fact that the satisfactions of model building do not depend on resultant fame. What brings genuine satisfaction is the ongoing pursuit of our own interests, contributing the fruits of our labors, and acknowledgment of those contributions.

People involved in model building, no matter what the field, are less susceptible to the drumbeat of war because they are already fully engaged. They are immune to demagogic calls to battle because their personal quests feel as heroic and noble to them as any military undertaking. In the past, when many were stuck in routine lives devoid of excitement, going to war could seem like an adventure. But as model building, in all its captivating varieties, is practiced in ever increasing numbers, it will act as a vaccine that confers partial immunity to martial seductions.

Finally, model building can be applied to the very political contradictions that in the past have triggered violent conflict. A team of model builders–people who have traditionally been called diplomats, mediators, or negotiators–can be assigned the task of coming up with a metamodel that embraces and resolves the competing positions of potential adversaries. Such comprehensive models allow for change–not only of one’s own mind and of the opponent’s, but also of the world–without resort to war.

Faith in the belief that a unifying model can be found is analogous to faith in the existence of one God. Monotheism is the theological counterpart of the model builder’s belief in the ultimate reconcilability of apparently contradictory observations, or positions, into a single, self-consistent framework. In this setting, the proverb “God is love” testifies to the belief that there exists a unitary framework in which apparently contradictory, antagonistic pieces of the whole can nonetheless be brought into harmony. Model building, like love, is inclusive and unifying. This goes to the heart of why it is such a valuable tool in building a dignitarian world. Not only can we use it to anticipate indignities, but the end product–a synthesizing model–reveals everyone’s contribution to the whole. Wrote English novelist John Fowles:

“I’m still defeated by the conundrum of God. But I have the devil clear.”

“And what’s he?”

“Not seeing whole.”

With the advent of a dignitarian world, humankind will set war aside like children putting away their toy soldiers for the last time. We will honor all those who fought for us as we now honor pioneers and explorers. They were pushing into the unknown on our behalf, in the only way we knew how at the time. But now we have a better way–one that will spare the men and women at the front from having to make the ultimate personal sacrifice in our collective quest for truth.

People give up power only to grasp greater power. They abandon a familiar game only to take up a better one. Model building is a better game than war. Compared to the dialogues of model builders, the slogans of demagogues sound like the braggadocio of adolescents. Compared to model building, war is not only clumsy; it is boring.

What About Bad Guys?

Over the last century, wars do appear to have been declining, both in frequency and intensity. But even if aggression is becoming less likely with the passage of time, it can never be completely ruled out. Any group can choose to destroy the peace and may well do so if it thinks it can get away with it. This means we must always be prepared to face such an opponent–whether it be an individual committing a crime, a group engaging in terrorism or genocide, or a nation declaring war–in a more elementary struggle wherein brute force determines the outcome.

The durability of any post-rankist framework is bought at the price of preparedness to meet “bad guys”–those who refuse to play by the new rules–on their own turf. To make and keep the brute force option unappealing, a credible superior force, willing and able to disqualify or dominate aggressors,must be kept in readiness and in sight. Just as referees and umpires prevent cheating and police deter crime, so a strong defense–national and/or supranational–is required to deter rogue organizations or states.

From the perspective of human social evolution,we can see ourselves as now emerging from a long history of predation, as suggested by statistics on war-related deaths. As we make this transition, it’s all-important that we erect steep barriers to slipping back into our old ways. By doing so we should in time be able to make transgressive criminal lapses rare. The most important thing we can do to avoid having to resort to force, however, is to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the whole.

Malrecognition and Counterterrorism

Trying to identify a single “root cause” of terrorism is a futile endeavor.

Indeed, it is clear that the psychological, political, cultural, and religious motivations of the individuals who actually plan and execute acts of terror are complex and varied. As the Russian novelist Dostoevsky put it: “While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Fortunately, we do not need to understand the precise motivations of terrorists to mount a defense against their activities.

Why? Because the reasons that bystanders sympathize with terrorists and ennoble them as “martyrs” are not so difficult to understand, and by addressing those reasons we can marginalize the activists. Sympathizers generally see the activists as protesting chronic indignities with which they, too, identify. Regardless of the individual psychology of the activists, a developing wisdom suggests that terrorism, as a strategy, is adopted in reaction to what is perceived by a larger group of sympathizers as organized dominance behavior that is to their detriment.

Although bystanders generally limit their own protests to passive resistance and noncooperation, they are not displeased when those they see as their oppressors are made to suffer at the hands of their activist compatriots.

In the aftermath of an act of terrorism it is often possible to catch a glimpse of the extent of the latent support for activist perpetrators. Following the attacks of 9/11, thousands of disenfranchised young Muslims, many with little concern for the precise political aims of the Al Qaeda leadership, celebrated in the streets of foreign capitals. This often happens in instances of domestic terrorism as well. In the weeks following

the shootings at Columbine High School, throngs of school outcasts all over the United States voiced complaints about intolerance, humiliation, and bullying. Similarly, when an employee goes “postal,” browbeaten workers from near and far,while distancing themselves from the violence, begin urging their employers to appoint ombudspersons.

The extent to which active terrorists depend on passive sympathizers for material and psychological support varies from one situation to the next. But for there to be a renewable supply of purveyors of violence and suicide bombers, volunteers for such missions need to feel they are making a statement on behalf of a group whose members regard them as heroic martyrs. They want to believe that their sacrifice will not only bring recognition to themselves personally but will also draw attention to indignities suffered by the entire class of people with whom they identify.

Any cause that can draw significant numbers of passive adherents out of their latency poses a grave threat to the status quo. The Gandhi-led struggle for Indian independence, the American civil rights movement, and the people-power revolutions in Soviet satellites (including Poland, Hungary, and East Germany) and former republics (the Baltic nations, Georgia, Ukraine) showed the world what happens when those suffering in silence find a way to act out their resentment.

For centuries, African Americans stoically resigned themselves to slavery and, after their emancipation, to menial jobs in a segregated, racist society. Protest had to remain covert because open rebellion was summarily punished. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., the Gandhian strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience gave millions of people who were passive sympathizers an acceptable way to cross over into activism. Huge numbers of them marched in the streets and subjected themselves to arrest and police brutality while the world watched with mounting apprehension.

As the ranks of nonviolent protestors swelled, Congress had no recourse but to begin dismantling deeply entrenched segregationist barriers to equal opportunity, and initiated a series of reforms to eliminate degrading societal practices. Faced with escalating disruption, Americans realized that evil lay not in the protestors but in the racism that fueled their outrage.

To combat terrorism, societies must of course pursue and neutralize violent extremists just as they do criminals within their borders and aggressor nations. Governments will have to learn to counter the open-source, guerilla strategies employed by terrorist networks with innovative methodologies of their own. But no matter how sophisticated the counterterrorist strategy, the ultimate outcome of the struggle hinges on preventing a wholesale shift of passive supporters to active terrorism. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, “The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful.” We’re unlikely to succeed in eradicating terrorism unless we alleviate the systemic indignities that depreciate lives and lead onlookers to ally themselves with extremists. However, once that sympathy is gone–and with it, all manner of psychological and material support–the chances of shutting down terrorism improve greatly.

We inhabit a world in which millions of individuals, informed by radio and television, can see that their potential to contribute to the world is being thwarted–by whom matters less than that regrettable reality. There is nothing more combustible than hordes of bored young people suffering from chronic malrecognition. Embittered and with nothing left to lose, they are shopping for an identity in which they can take pride. Unless they can lead better lives–lives of engagement and recognition–they remain ready recruits for violence, even if only as supporting players helping to carry out the agenda of a leadership whose incentives and motives may well be different from their own.

Terrorists can also be drawn from the ranks of a relatively privileged but alienated and angry middle class if they can be persuaded they would be acting on behalf of a greater good. The London suicide bombers of July 2005, like the March 2004 bombers in Madrid, joined the global jihad after radicalization by extremist Islamic teachings. The willingness to kill innocents is dependent in part on the belief that one is connected to a cause larger than oneself.

Terrorism itself is an extreme manifestation of rankism. Eliminating it will require removing sources of chronic, ill-considered provocation. The reforms spurred by the civil rights and women’s movements opened doors to education and jobs that had previously been closed to blacks and women. Opportunity worked before, and it will work again. Opportunity is really all that ever works because without it there can be no dignity. But now it must be provided the world over. Facilitating this internationally and conforming the foreign policies of developed countries to such a goal will be difficult, but not impossible. Among other things, it requires systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relations with other societies, cultures, and nations.

In a world where the weak can threaten a superpower–a world in which experts warn that an act of nuclear terrorism is likely–it is a vital part of self-defense to ensure that national policies are manifestly respectful, fair, and just. Wherever there is domination, paternalism, condescension, exploitation, occupation, or colonization–in short, wherever there is humiliation and indignity–there will be indignation, and a few of the angry will volunteer for what they and their admirers see as martyrdom. Passive aggression and violent outbursts in the workplace and schools, computer sabotage, terrorism, genocide, and war all have their origins in chronic malrecognition.

Seeing terrorism in such a light does not excuse it any more than attributing a theft to poverty does. Nor can it prevent some individuals from committing isolated acts of terrorism for reasons of their own. But without taking into account the effects of systemic malrecognition on maintaining a supportive base for terrorism, any counterterrorism strategy is incomplete and doomed to fail. It’s like addressing dysentery with high-tech antibiotics while ignoring the fact that the water supply is contaminated.

Eliminating malrecognition is a generational task, like going to Mars or ending world hunger, and in some ways is even more complex. Whereas malnutrition cripples individuals and occasionally rises to the level of famine, it is not contagious. In contrast, malrecognition spreads because when our dignity is offended, our first impulse is to reciprocate in kind. The twentieth century demonstrated that war, unlike famine, can leap easily and quickly from one continent to another. So can terrorism.

Indeed, it already has.

By pursuing nonrankist international policies that safeguard the dignity of all, we can support a nonviolent democratic approach to the inescapable challenge of the twenty-first century: achieving global social justice.

Handling “Domestic Violence” in the Global Village

Just decades ago, the proverb “A man’s home is his castle” was interpreted to mean that what the head of the family did within his home to his wife and children was none of the public’s business. If someone took it upon himself to intervene, that person was regarded as a meddler or vigilante. Now there are laws–and the willingness to enforce them–that apply to family matters.When it comes to domestic abuse, the burden of proof has shifted from the presumed victims to the alleged victimizers. One phone call is all it takes to have the police knocking on, or knocking down, the door to the home of a spouse or parent suspected of violence.

As the world becomes a global village, it is natural that what have been regarded as sovereign national domains become subject to the watchful eyes, and under dire circumstances, the forceful intervention, of neighboring states. A famine in Ethiopia or Somalia; a genocide in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the Sudan; an earthquake in Iran, Turkey, or Pakistan; a tsunami in Southeast Asia; the HIV-AIDS pandemic; a hurricane like Katrina–all are rapidly becoming everybody’s problem and everybody’s business.

At what point does our responsibility to fellow human beings warrant the abrogation of a nation’s sovereignty? In the late twentieth century, we grappled with this question as it applied to our neighbors down the street and decided that the rights of battered spouses and abused children outweighed those of the “man in his castle.” In the twenty-first century we have to answer the same question as it applies to the neighbors with whom we share this ever-shrinking planet.

An important step toward a dignitarian world is to fashion rules that tell us under what circumstances to override state sovereignty and intervene. And we need to create the global analogue of standing municipal Emergency Response Teams–variously referred to as Rapid Response Forces or SWAT teams–to enforce the rules governing intervention. In the case of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, the victims and their governments usually invite outside assistance. But for man-made horrors such as torture, murder, and genocide associated with despots and police states, there is not only the resistance of the perpetrator but typically disagreement among outsiders about the proper course of action.

Former President Clinton now regards not stepping in during the Rwandan genocide as the biggest mistake of his presidency, and he has formally apologized. In the final weeks of his term of office, President George H.W. Bush did order the military to enter Somalia and a genocidal famine was halted. Estimates are that this saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, notwithstanding the view of many Americans that the mission was a failure due to the subsequent loss of life and horrific broadcast images that followed the shooting down of a Black Hawk helicopter.

If powerful nations have the ability to stop a genocide, it is hard to make the case that the right thing to do in dire situations is nothing. But just as with the police who knock down the door to a man’s home to stop him from beating his wife, when sovereignty is breached and intervention undertaken, it has to be done correctly. Great care must be exercised to minimize the harm done to innocents. The FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in April 1993, in which seventy-six cult members died, is an example of a failed intervention, one that linked SWAT teams with the use of unnecessary force and tarnished their reputation across the country. But in truth, despite some notable excesses, the majority of these teams consist of highly trained professionals who represent society’s front-line response to volatile situations and who exercise great skill in delicate and dangerous circumstances.

Obviously, it is not always wise or even possible to become involved, especially in the internal affairs of a state. The price may be too high, the risk of doing damage too great. Every case must be decided in light of the particulars. As with domestic abuse, there is no single formula for right action, but it’s better to do nothing than to make a bad situation worse. Sadly, the latter has often been the case in international interventions, in part because some states have used the alleged misbehavior of others as a pretext to advance their own agendas.

But in recent decades there has been increased willingness, for reasons unique to each circumstance, to confront abusive regimes in other countries. The Vietnamese intervened to stop the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia in 1979; the Tanzanians did so to put an end to Idi Amin’s despotism in Uganda; and more recently, NATO stepped in to halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In 2005 the United Nations acknowledged limits to state sovereignty by adopting the principle that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. More to the point, the U.N. recognized that if a state fails to do this, the international community has an obligation to act. In other words, the U.N.’s so-called responsibility-to-protect principle creates a legal and moral framework for intervening in the next Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, or Darfur. The U.N. Security Council now has an explicit mandate to act as the world’s policeman, but unlike the standing police forces of cities, these international “cops” are hired and deployed on a case-by-case basis and only as the Council sees fit.

One thing is becoming obvious. To be effective, military intervention usually needs to be multilateral and also part of a larger package that includes humanitarian assistance, economic development, and subsequent rebuilding of social and civic institutions. The analogy with domestic abuse holds. After an intervention, social workers try to ensure that net harm does not befall the family as a result of removing the offending party.

Creating a ready multinational capability to intervene in a timely fashion in the sovereign affairs of nations guilty of abusing their own citizens remains one of the great unfinished tasks bequeathed by the twentieth century to the twenty-first. It will take dignitarian states to field global emergency response teams in a fair and proper manner, but doing so is an essential part of owning the power that is ours.

[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.]

A Culture of Dignity (Part 2)

7:21 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the fifteenth 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.


The Self: A Home for Identities

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best:

But man, proud man! Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep.

What the author points out here is that it is the opacity of our prideful egos that blinds us to our “essence,” our see-through identity. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare recognized that the human persona is really a cut-and-paste job that is porous, transparent, “glassy.” What better description of a model–those ephemeral, provisional, but vital constructs that so enhance our vision?

If at some point in our life we can’t conjure up a serviceable identity, an uncomfortable feeling comes over us. We feel we’re ceasing to exist in the eyes of others and even our own. We’re becoming invisible–a nobody.

This is ultimately why human beings need dignity, deserve dignity, and in the end, will see fit to grant it to one another. As Pascal noted, “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed.” Selfhood is tenuous, fluid, and unstable. Identity has to be handled carefully, as a gardener tends his prize roses. “Attention must be paid,” insists Willie Loman’s wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As playwright David Mamet wrote in a tribute to Miller, “To find beauty in the sad, hope in the midst of loss, and dignity in failure is great poetic art.” To deny dignity to someone is to deprive the solitary, vulnerable self the sustenance it has need of to make its humble offering in the world and fulfill its existential duty.

Over the course of our lifetime, various identities form and collapse. Even though our current one may feel like “the real thing,” every identity eventually shows its age and begins casting about for a stage exit. In observing that “one man in his time plays many parts,” Shakespeare, like many an Eastern sage, saw that to be human is to inhabit a series of roles while at the same time being a member of the audience–a part of, yet simultaneously a witness to, “the human comedy.”

As we look back at our life, the stream of our former identities resembles a succession of guests in a hotel. We are no one of these transients but rather the hotel’s proprietor, affording each visitor a temporary haven. From our lofty eyrie,we recognize ourselves as a home for identities. Each of these evanescent selves deserves to be received, well treated, and when the time comes, bid farewell with dignity.

Growing up, my friends and I expected to be the same person for life, just as our fathers and mothers had been. But by the time I was fifty I could look back and identify several distinct personas that had taken up residence within and used me as a mouthpiece to make one or another case in the world. So could most of my friends. Initially we were embarrassed by this state of affairs, feeling it to be a sign of inconstancy and failure. Now I see metamorphosing from one identity to the next as a natural extension of the development from childhood to adolescence to early adulthood and beyond. The more flexible, forgiving attitude that results from a malleable self model turns out to be the perspective we need to maintain our dignity in adversity and accord it to others in theirs. If we can’t treat our current self with respect, what chance have we of doing so with anyone else?

Survival Tips for Dignitarians

To be human is not to know one’s self. The “I” that we confidently broadcast to the world is a fiction–a…container for the volatile unconscious elements that divide and confound us. In this sense, personal history and public history share the same dynamic principle: both are fables agreed upon. –John Lahr, theater critic

We don’t so much build our first persona as we recognize it emerging out of consciousness like the developing image in a Polaroid photograph. Usually during adolescence, without any conscious effort on our part, a crude but serviceable tripartite identity assembles itself. It consists of:

  • A sense of our place in the universe (traditionally referred to as our relationship to God)
  • The first inklings of how we might contribute to the world (our relationship to society)
  • Sources of recognition (our relationships with family, teachers, and friends who are serving as midwives to our nascent identity)

The principal task of adolescence is to solidify as much as possible this first persona to the point that it enables us to make our way in the world. It is only later, when this identity has dissolved and morphed into another, that we gain some distance from it and begin to see it as replaceable machinery rather than our one true self. With the view that we are model builders, and in the absence of rankist intimidation, comes the opportunity to assume a less anxious and more conscious role in the fabrication of our personas. The following sections discuss techniques that people have used for centuries to guide them in forging new identities, connecting the tools and process to dignitarian values.


There’s a part of us that watches our doings and overhears our thoughts–a neutral observer that monitors our experiences as if from the outside, witnessing what the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard aptly called the “stages on life’s way.” This faculty stands apart from the rush of worldly life and simply takes note of what happens. The elderly will tell you that although their bodies and minds have changed, this “witness” hasn’t aged at all. Even in old age, it’s the same youthful, candid observer that it was when they first became aware of it as a child. At ninety, my father told me he felt the “one” looking out at the world through the “two holes in the fence” was the same one that had done so when he was a boy of five.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare drew attention to the witness by creating characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff who, in soliloquy, overhear themselves. It is this inner process that enables us to take stock of where we are and then steer a different course if we’re unsatisfied with what we find.

When the spectacle of life becomes intense, the witness often recedes into the background, but continues observing no matter how turbulent things become. This unobtrusive monitoring faculty is detached and nonjudgmental. The critical voice we sometimes hear in our head is not that of the witness. Blaming ourselves is rather the result of internalizing the rankist agenda of others who would put us down. In contrast, our witness is a “secret sharer” that does not condemn us no matter what we do or what others think of us. It plays an indispensable part in the creation and re-creation of our personas by chronicling with a disinterested eye everything that goes on in our home for identities.

The witness looks both inward and outward. There is no part of ourselves to which we feel closer. It’s a model builder’s closest ally. Some regard it as the soul.


Isidore  I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, remarked: “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: “So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. “Izzy,’ she would say, “did you ask a good question today?’”

Learning to catch a good question on the fly, no matter how sophomoric it may seem, is a model builder’s lifeblood. Questions indicate the path to a new personal identity by suggesting ways in which we might contribute something of ourselves.

Most of our ancestors were fully occupied with just the feeding of their families. So long as we’re struggling to fulfill our basic needs, we can’t afford to pay attention to the questions within us. Suppressed, they lie dormant and are passed along from generation to generation.We make do with traditional doctrine and dogma until our survival is assured.

But once there is leisure, submerged questions surface into consciousness. They usually arise out of contradictions between ourselves and other people. The young unearth the questions their parents avoided and soon embark on their own search for answers.

The late writer Wallace Stegner said, “The guts of any significant fiction–or autobiography–is an anguished question.” Our inquiries generate our individuality. Even when we’re unaware of them, they shape our every move.

As a teenager, Einstein wondered what time the clock in the steeple of his hometown Ulm, Germany, would show if the trolley he was on were to race away from it at the speed of light. It seemed to him that if the trolley left at noon and moved in sync with the light that showed the hands of the clock straight up, he would just keep on seeing noon forever. But wouldn’t that mean that time had stopped? Thus was a question born, the pursuit of which would unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.

In the places where we’re most alive we are questions, not answers. One has to listen carefully, again and again, to detect new ones, which often make their presence known in a whisper.

Every person is an original, each of us unprecedented. Even if our genes were cloned, our social environments would be distinct. This double uniqueness is further differentiated by the questions we generate, which are the source of our passions.

Taking our questions seriously,whether or not we are able to answer them, defines a personal quest that places our current identity on the line, exposing it to transformation. In a dignitarian society we would be able to do this without fear of humiliation or persecution.

In the film My Name Is Nobody, a young gunslinger who calls himself “Nobody” faces down a legendary old hand who has a reputation for being the “fastest gun in the West.” In their climactic showdown, Nobody ostensibly kills Jack Beauregard, played by Henry Fonda. Written on his gravestone we see,”Nobody was faster than Jack Beauregard.” While expressing the literal truth, this epitaph, via its twofold meaning, preserves the dignity of Beauregard, who, as it turns out, has actually faked his death and begun a new life on the Mississippi in partnership with the young man named Nobody.

In this same sense, nobody is holier than thou.

Who is this nobody? It is the tiny interior voice that is trying to draw your attention to a new question, usually one that challenges a habitual behavior or belief. No one is holier than thou and no piece of us has a stronger claim to holiness than the unpretentious little nobody within. The universe rarely yells at us, but it’s constantly whispering. If God has a voice, this is it.

Attempts to identify and express our unique selves are invariably fraught with self-doubt and suffering. Dislodging old beliefs and stale identities, thereby making way for new ones, is a crucial part of the process. This is often initiated by other peoples’ criticisms and provocations. If those criticisms are proffered in a nonrankist manner we are more likely to be able to avoid a defensive response and instead internalize all sides of the matter at hand. Once that happens, synthesis, and with it a new self model, are usually within reach.

The Knights of the Round Table formed their identities in pursuit of the holy grail. Questing lives, as Carolyn Heilbrun argued in her classic Writing a Woman’s Life, are now, at last, a real option for women as well as men. Today’s grail quests are apt to begin with a heartfelt question.

Identifying our questions and pursuing them wherever they take us–while respecting this same process in others–is the modern counterpart of chivalric adventure, and it’s no less heroic. The eternal search for human dignity finds no more evocative expression than the Arthurian quest for the holy grail.


According to Russian-born painter Marc Chagall, “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” And German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Look back upon your life and ask: What up to now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by their sequence they will yield to you a basic law of your true self. Compare these objects and see how they form a ladder on which you have so far climbed up toward yourself.”

 In addition to imitatively absorbing elements of our personal identity from beloved individuals, both living and dead, our persona is constructed from bits and pieces of cherished books, movies, music, and art. It is often through them that the first inklings of weakness in a model are revealed and alternative approaches suggested. For example, sensibilities that first take root in a poet, a novelist, an artist, or a dancer may become commonplace decades later as his or her body of work is assimilated into the culture. In this way, art is often instrumental in establishing a new cultural consensus. American novelist Henry James pointed out, “Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.”

Love is the polestar guiding us to these elements of identity,whether they manifest in people or in their creations. When we heed the call of passion we enter pell-mell into a learning process that provides the raw materials out of which we fashion our unique personas. Einstein believed love was a better teacher than duty. Keats said, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections.”

Acting on the basis of what or who we love always involves risk, but within that risk lies the opportunity for transformation. Often we are beckoned to change the outward forms of our lives, and this can frustrate the expectations of family, friends, or even ourselves. At certain transitional points, we may have several loves and move from predominant involvement with one to another.

If we follow the call of passion in our work, we often find ourselves alone. Personal passion can take us to places that others don’t value because results in these areas have yet to be incorporated into the group consensus. In matters close to our hearts we observe closely and take immense pains over details, whether they are poetic, athletic, culinary, aesthetic, or logical. Consequently, we tend to know more than others about the nooks and crannies of our own unique realm of concern long before we can give it coherent expression, let alone persuade anyone else of its significance. A high tolerance for “failure” and rejection is perhaps the single most important attribute required for success. But as societies become more dignitarian, failure is not seized upon as a cause for rejection and we are not as hampered in our process by fear of stigma.

If economic necessity forces us to work for others, we may nonetheless remain faithful to our passion, purposefully making time to pursue it in one way or another. There is a feeling of homecoming when, after a day spent on other activities earning a living, our attention returns to our special area of interest.

The Dutch philosopher Spinoza ground eyeglasses while he composed his treatises. T. S. Eliot wrote poems while working in a bank. Einstein was employed in a patent office during the time when he was revolutionizing physics. Countless men and women hold a day job while simultaneously pouring their creativity into an avocation or raising children. Often there is an option that can satisfy both our passion and our pocketbooks if we remain open to a solution that deviates from conventional pictures of success.

Sometimes work we seem to have been drawn into accidentally or by financial necessity turns out to be closer to our real concerns than were our fantasies, which are often shaped by beguiling stories of fame and fortune. The same problems turn up everywhere because they are unsolved everywhere.Hence, some version of the particular problem that defines our true task usually presents itself wherever we are. The outer forms of the problem may vary as we move from job to job, but when the issues within them bring a familiar excitement, it’s a sign that we’re getting close to the unresolved questions that generate our fervor and define our uniqueness.

No one can isolate for another exactly what he or she is concerned with. Advice-givers have passions of their own and may try to enlist others in their projects. Parents often push for pursuits that appear to offer security because they don’t want their children falling back on parental support.

Under pressure from families, advisers, or peers–especially when it is rankist–students may affect an interest in the prestigious or the fashionable and lose touch with their real passion. Gently exposing posturing and pretension–while taking care not to insult their dignity–can free them to attend to their own innate questions. There is a famous quote attributed to the Hasidic rabbi Zusya, “In the world to come I shall not be asked: “Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked: “Why were you not Zusya?’”

Seeing our own identities not so much as finished edifices but rather as works in progress propelled by our loves and our questions enables us to see other peoples’ identities in the same way. The result is that we don’t pigeonhole them, and this tends to induce reciprocal openness. Interactions become less like pitched battles and more like improvisational dances. Letting go of the idea of an immutable self and moving beyond fixed beliefs may be a little disconcerting at first, but it soon begins to feel invigorating and empowering. Establishing personal and social change as the norm is the body and soul of dignitarian culture.

A Foreseeable Challenge

In conclusion, here is a quick look at a development that at first glance might seem to put human dignity in extreme peril. (Those with a distaste for speculation are invited to skip it.)

Futurists are warning that by mid-century we will likely be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human–the advent of sophisticated thinking machines.19 It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it will be quite another to face appliances manifesting suprahuman intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk that, by any measure, is smarter than you are. We’ll probably program such machines not to be condescending, but the knowledge that robots have taken over many creative tasks will clearly require some getting used to.

A glimpse of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior status demotions. Copernicus’s contention that the earth circled around the sun–removing us from center stage–caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which made us all descendants of apes, was initially scorned and continues to be rejected by some. If life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a central, unique role in the universe.

Through our previous humblings, however, people took some comfort in their presumed higher intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? Realizing that the functions of mind–the last bastion of our supposed superiority–can be replicated by machines is reminiscent of the medical discovery that the heart, long seen as the seat of the soul, was simply a pump made of muscle. We’ve rarely handled such blows to our pride with grace.

Possessed of truly Promethean powers, yet faced with man-made creations that outperform us at what we see as our special talents, the inhabitants of a dignitarian world will find virtue in humility. After a few final displays of vanity, we’ll probably make our peace with accepting the help of thinking machines much as parents reluctantly but ultimately accept advice from their grown offspring.

Smart machines with computation speeds that exceed currently available ones by a million-fold might well serve as the astronauts of the future, exploring worlds where our biochemistry is a handicap and theirs is an asset. The introduction of thinking machines would also provide a perfect opportunity for conducting the dignity impact studies on new uses of power discussed in chapter 2. And if proposals pass muster, we can further enlist the help of our silicon partners in projecting increasingly complex scenarios as we move forward.

Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with aid from our clever progeny, we may someday design to supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes–but expunged? Not by smart machines so long as we befriend them and make them our allies. If dignity is defeated, it will likely succumb at human hands in the way it has been most trampled upon in the past–through war.

[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.]

A Culture of Dignity (Part 1)

7:15 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the fourteenth 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.


The public…demands certainties….But there are no certainties. –H. L. Mencken, American writer

Know you what it is to be a child?…It is to believe in belief. –Francis Thompson, British poet

The investigator should have a robust faith–and yet not believe. –Claude Bernard, French physiologist

When we hear the word fundamentalist today,we tend to think of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or others who are rigid in their faith. Images of zealous evangelists, self-righteous proselytizers, and fanatics leap to mind.

But I use the word more broadly to refer to any true believers and even to that part of ourselves that might be closed-minded about one thing or another. By generalizing in this way, we include those who dismiss anything contrary to their particular absolutist views, whether religious, scientific, artistic, or ideological. Such a stance is the antithesis of the model-building perspective.

Can a fundamentalist thus construed be dignitarian? Or is it in the very nature of fundamentalism not only to presume the superiority of its doctrine but also to try to impose it on others?

Fundamentalism and the Dignitarian Perspective

Though the stereotype is that all fundamentalists are intolerant zealots, there are people who call themselves fundamentalists who hold that their beliefs are for themselves only and who make no effort to convert anyone else. They are not haughty, nor do they harm others merely by holding fast to their doctrines. It may be that the fixity of their beliefs limits them by keeping them from availing themselves of advances in scientific, political, or religious thought. But so long as they do not insist on converting others, they cannot be accused of rankism. If they secretly think of themselves as having a superior worldview–well, they’re hardly alone in that regard.

On the other hand, if people assume the mantle of higher authority and presume to instruct others, then they are misappropriating rank, and that’s rankism. Fundamentalism of this imperious bent comes in a variety of flavors: moral righteousness, technological arrogance, intellectual condescension, and artistic snobbery, to name a few. It tends to be magisterial, elitist, strident, domineering, supercilious, and overbearing.

In a dignitarian world, fundamentalists have to compete with all comers on an equal footing. Claims to represent higher authority are not given special credence and do not exempt a doctrine from scrutiny. Infallibility is out; questioning authority is not only permitted but encouraged. The one thing dignitarian tolerance does not extend to is intolerance–that is, to those who would resort to coercion to achieve their own agenda.

Chapter 1 presented a range of examples of fundamentalism: the traditional Confucianism that protected the rapist in rural China; the mantle of infallibility assumed by NASA officials who overruled the engineers on Challenger; the “commissars” on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who arbitrarily substituted their own judgment for that of hands-on operators at Three Mile Island. In addition, there are fundamentalists of every faith who would impose their beliefs on others and revile those who disagree with them.

When scientists look down their noses at religious fundamentalists, they are as guilty of rankism as the targets of their disdain. It’s true that most religious fundamentalists, much like cocksure ideologues and smug scientists, do close their minds, but a person has a right to do this. Almost all people have some compartmentalized beliefs that they exempt from questioning, and in that sense there is at least some of the fundamentalist in everyone. As we all know, though, the parts of us that are closed are unlikely to be opened by derision and contempt.

When adherents to any fundamentalist creed demonize dissenters as immoral or evil, they’re treading a path that leads to dehumanization, oppression, and in the extreme, even to genocide.When nonbelievers put fundamentalists down as naïve and ignorant, they are taking the first step down that same treacherous path.

The problem is compounded by the fact that even when both parties agree to let the evidence settle the matter, there can be disagreement as to what constitutes evidence. One group might insist that anything in the Bible is ipso facto evidence, whereas the other might insist on substantiating biblical assertions with accepted scientific procedures. The only way to settle an impasse like this–aside from one side backing down–is to build a “metamodel” that reconciles the antagonists’ views on basic methodological issues. As rankism is ruled out, believers and nonbelievers can narrow the scope of their disagreements and simply agree to disagree on what remains.

Ideology and the Dignitarian Perspective

As noted above, there’s a little bit of the fundamentalist in almost everyone. It is in defense of that bit of “sacred,” unquestioned terrain that we are most likely to inflict indignity on others. Becoming aware of these tendencies in ourselves is an essential part of creating a dignitarian environment. Inhabiting a post-fundamentalist world will not be easy. It requires breaking our dependency on “intoxicating certitudes,” as it were, and finding our footing without recourse to absolutes.

When our models can’t change, behavior patterns become frozen, including abusive and unjust ones. Thus, our attitude about the evolution of models–the degree of inner freedom we feel toward allowing this process to unfold–has important consequences for attempts to make relationships and institutions dignitarian.

One reason it can be so hard for us to accept the notion of changing models is that they are composed of interlocking sets of fondly held beliefs–and nothing dies harder than a cherished opinion. Many people are so identified with their beliefs that they react to the idea of revising them as they would to the prospect of losing an arm or a leg. Institutions are less flexible still. Fighting to defend our ideas often feels tantamount to fighting for our lives.

Avoiding the violence this breeds requires that we learn to hold beliefs not as unvarying absolutes but rather as working assumptions that, taken together, function as a pragmatic model. As we’ve seen, this is how natural scientists hold their theories. The same is true of artists and their sketches, cooks and their recipes, or dancers and their movements.

Indeed, it is how people from every walk of life who are really good at what they do conduct themselves.What the public sees is the finished product. But typically, this has been arrived at through a great deal of improvisation and experimentation.

Creative people in every line of endeavor adopt beliefs provisionally for their usefulness and elegance and freely consider new ones as they present themselves to see if they are improvements over those currently held. As museum curator Kirk Varnedoe said: “Modern art writ large presents one cultural expression of a larger political gamble on the human possibility of living in change and without absolutes.” In a dignitarian world we’ll hold beliefs not unto death, but until we find more accurate, comprehensive, useful replacements that prove their worth by enabling us to make more precise predictions, better pies, or more beautiful dances or paintings. Welcome to the post-fundamentalist era!

Detachment from our beliefs does not imply indifference, let alone resignation. The instinct to defend our beliefs strenuously does serve a higher purpose. Usually disagreements have a legitimate basis and the only way to advance toward a better model is to advocate for our views as effectively as we can while others do the same for theirs. We fail to serve the search for an improved model if we don’t mount the strongest possible defense of our ideas. Each of us helps discover the new model by holding out until our individual perspective can be absorbed into broader public synthesis stripped of personal idiosyncrasies.

This idea–the duty to advocate for our beliefs to the best of our ability–is one of the main themes in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. In a key passage, Lord Krishna counsels Prince Arjuna to fight his current foes, relatives, and those who were formerly allies–impersonally, dispassionately, and unreservedly.

The adversarial method, while intense, need not be personally antagonistic, even in those especially awkward situations in which we know our opponents intimately. That is the essence of dignitarianism. Once we accept the inherent inconstancy of beliefs, it’s easier to entertain ones that differ from our own. From there, it’s but a small step to recognizing the individuals who hold opposing views as worthy opponents and treating them with dignity. If it’s our own case that crumbles in the end, we can simply admit our error and join in welcoming the discovery of something new and better. When our beliefs go to battle and lose, we ourselves live to argue another day, just as lawyers do when a judgment goes against one of their clients. Certain models turn out to be of limited validity, but this brings no shame upon their architects or advocates.

Not infrequently, we sense our own mistakes at about the same time others do. Why is it so difficult to admit such an awareness publicly? It’s because we fear that admitting to imperfection or error will subject us to indignity, if not outright rejection. But this overlooks the fact that people ultimately love and respect each other not as perfect beings but as fallible human creatures whose very essence is the capacity for change. It’s in our own interest to admit a mistake once discovered because our own creativity and development are crippled if we don’t. It need not damage us to be wrong, but it’s debilitating to compound things by trying to cover it up. The best model builders admit their errors freely and learn from them quickly.Niels Bohr, the father of atomic physics, ascribed his success to making his mistakes faster than others.He also held that the opposite of any deep truth is also a deep truth, and routinely invited people to imagine the opposite of their pet theories and beliefs.

Bohr was a true dignitarian. So was Einstein. The two men disagreed profoundly on the nature of physical models, but the dialogue they conducted with each other on the subject is as exemplary for its respectfulness as it is famous for delineating a divide in the road of human thought. People capable of handling social contradictions, artistic ambiguities, interpersonal disagreements, philosophical paradoxes, and identity crises–both their own and others’–are the opposite of ideologues. They cultivate equanimity and detachment and let go of self-righteousness and blaming. Should they forget, it is the nature of modeling to provide them with frequent lessons in humility. Mature model builders are problem solvers or artists in search of a synthesis that satisfies all parties.

Gandhi’s truth-seeking strategy held that each person has a piece of the truth, but no one has the whole of it. The first step to a broader understanding is to take a strong stand for our piece, and then to engage in principled struggle with those who disagree. If we listen, more truth emerges from the process. As Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish philosopher who died in the year 50 CE, remarked: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Learning to see nature models as provisional has resulted in previously unimaginable technological and economic gains. A parallel transformation in which we open ourselves to changes in our social, political, and self models is our best hope for combating the rankism that now threatens to divide us hopelessly into a nation, and a world, of somebodies and nobodies.

Models have the extraordinary property of shielding individuals who espouse them from personal indignity. You can champion a model that turns out to be wrong, but that does not make you wrong. A model-building approach is inherently dignitarian, in stark contrast to the ideological posturing and put-downs that currently pervade politics and culture.

Moreover,models aim to reconcile all points of view, to account for everyone’s perceptions, and to validate everyone’s experience. In short, a good model is a synthesis (not a compromise) that makes everyone’s perspective right in some respect.

There’s no denying that we need beliefs, but we can get along quite nicely without absolutes. We cannot manage without working assumptions but we should resist elevating them into eternal verities. To know who we are does not mean we know who we’ll become. Moral codes are prescriptive behavioral models and, like all models, they evolve. This is not to say they are arbitrary or that “anything goes.” That morals lack universality and infallibility does not mean we are free to ignore them where they do apply–just as the breakdown of Newtonian mechanics in the atomic realm does not render Newton’s laws inapplicable to planets and projectiles. On the contrary, in certain domains, any particular moral principle will remain as valid as ever. Making such distinctions is part of learning to live in a post-fundamentalist world.

Identity in a Dignitarian Culture: A Self Model for the Twenty-First Century

Such are the facts in human experience…rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself….In the long, weary march, each one walks alone. . . .This is a solitude which… every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea–the solitude of self. –Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American reformer and women’s suffrage leader

To address the relationships we have with institutions and with other individuals in an attempt to prune them of rankism, we need also explore a third, more primal relationship: the one we have with ourselves. All three of these relationships are constructs, or models, and as we’ve seen, the nature of models is to evolve.

But how can we talk of such change when it comes to our very identity? Like many, I chanced upon a tentative answer to this question in my teens, and like many, I didn’t realize its full significance until I was considerably older. But over time, I came to see my identity for what it really is–a surprisingly fluid pastiche.

In high school science courses I noticed that everything we were being taught rested on assumptions. Yes, these assumptions were grounded in observation, but they were nonetheless assumptions, not unassailable truths. I accepted this absence of bedrock in science because the axiomatic approach seemed adequate to its goal, which was to describe how nature behaves. Moreover, on those rare occasions when the laws of science did fail us, there was always a remedy. We patched up the existing theory, or in the worst case scenario, abandoned it altogether and created a new and better one. No sentimentality. No clinging. No problem.

With regard to ordinary affairs, however, I was brought up to think that things were different.My parents and teachers all took it as self-evident that there were absolute verities when it came to people and their behavior. Science laws could change, albeit infrequently and only when confronted with irrefutable evidence. But unquestioning fidelity to a rigid set of timeless moral beliefs was taken as a measure of character. But not long after my realization that scientific theories weren’t carved in stone, the idea hit me that what was true in science was very likely also true in everyday life. One day, standing alone in my bedroom, it struck me that beliefs of every sort were fallible, and by the same token, subject to improvement. And that meant it was impossible to demonstrate beyond doubt that anything was absolutely true, once and for all.

It was as if, at that instant, I had suddenly grown up. The experience, although strangely liberating, was also sobering. My revelation left me feeling unmoored. And because my sense of self was shaken, I saw my identity as I might have seen someone else’s–from the outside.

Before going downstairs to dinner that night, I decided to keep all this to myself, at least until I could defend it. I didn’t want my parents to think I’d gone crazy.But a seed had been sown and for decades afterward, without understanding why, I was drawn to people and ideas that nurtured it. My new perspective subtly affected the relationships I had with my friends. I began listening to them differently. Instead of judging what they did or said as right or wrong relative to some preordained standard, I drew them out and absorbed what they told me. Perhaps I was gathering information with which to put Humpty Dumpty together again. For whatever reasons, I became curiously nonjudgmental in responding to their troubles, and within a short time my circle of intimates began to expand.

After completing school and working for a dozen years–first as a physics professor and then as a college administrator–I took some time off to recover from burnout. It was toward the end of this phase that I recalled my high school epiphany. Then in my late thirties, I had accumulated enough personal history to see that over time I had indeed presented several rather different “selves” to the world. Like the evolving science models I had studied in school, I now saw that my identity, too, had undergone periodic metamorphoses. In addition to lots of incremental changes, I’d been a nobody, a somebody, and then a nobody again, with no end in sight to the cycle.

But if my persona could keep changing, then just who was I? And if this was also happening to others–and it seemed to me that it was–then who were they?

Self-understandings, like scientific theories, undergo continuing revision. I now see personal identity in model-building terms. Over time, we fabricate our sense of self bit by bit until, like a resume, it gradually assumes individualized form and acquires a kind of totemic status. It feels “real” and permanent, but a close, moment-by-moment look reveals identity to consist of elements that are constantly in flux. The “me” we ordinarily take ourselves to be is not an object in the classical sense, not a “thing” at all, but rather a provisional, working model. Despite our heroic efforts to pass as somebodies, we are all of us more tenuously assembled than we appear to be–none more so than newcomers to somebody status who mistake it for the be-all and end-all of life. Once this becomes clear, we realize it makes good sense for us to accord others the dignity we’d like for ourselves–at every stage in the journey, whatever our relative status.

To keep our identity in working order, we continually amend and burnish it, principally by telling and retelling our “story” to ourselves and anyone else who will listen. The older we get, the more we feel the need to rehearse and shore up the narrative, perhaps because we sense the possibility of our identity disintegrating into its constituent bits like the collapse of a rickety old shack.

Seeing personal identities as models allows us to see ourselves from a distance. It’s easier to feel detached from a model than it is from a self-image. By understanding our identity as a particular model that we use at a given time under specific conditions, we gain the freedom to let go of pieces of it and allow new ones to replace them in response to changing circumstances. The feeling that life is a battle is replaced with the sense that it’s a game played with opponents who, upon deeper reflection, are unmasked as allies.

Absent adversaries, it’s almost impossible to raise our game to a higher level.With age,many come to this perspective. Former antagonists–colleagues, spouses, parents–are seen to have been essential participants in one’s development.Accessing a dignitarian outlook earlier in life can spare us and others from the consequences of self-righteous posturing and from inciting continuing rounds of conflict in an attempt to even the score.

This is something Nelson Mandela learned in prison and later exemplified as he led South Africans toward reconciliation. It’s a concept that has been put well by many writers and poets: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us,” said novelist Hermann Hesse. “Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so/Not for thy faults, but mine,” wrote English poet Lord Byron.

My own identity, which had rested on institutional affiliations, had to realign itself with a freelance life after I left the relative security of the academic world. Although the dissolution of an identity can bring on a case of the blues, it loses some of its sting once you’ve built several different personas over time. Wrote Philip Massinger, a sixteenth-century English dramatist: “True dignity is never gained by place, and never lost when honors are withdrawn.”

During the 1960s, as her children left home, I watched my mother undergo a profound and painful transformation of identity. Unfortunately, the fundamental change in women’s self models that was sweeping through the world at that time had come a little too late for her. If she could have seen her transition as a natural metamorphosis rather than a loss of her “real self,” it might have made things easier.

In the past, most individuals’ self models were under less external pressure to change than they are today.Until recently, men and women tended to do the same kind of work their entire lives, keep the same partners, reside in the same place. But now with career, spouse, and geographical changes becoming commonplace, identities are becoming less permanent. They’re more apt to dissolve and recrystalize numerous times during a single lifetime.

The point is not simply that any particular self model might be in need of revision. It is that the very notion that our self models are solid and invariant is false–as erroneous as was the presumed immutability of the nature models that enjoyed the church’s seal of approval in the past. To see the world as changing and not include our identities in the flux is naive.Moreover,we cannot expect to remodel our personal and institutional relationships if we are wedded to unchanging models of ourselves.

[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.]

The Politics of Dignity

7:00 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the thirteenth 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.


Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. –Winston Churchill All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy. –Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance….We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children. –Henry Demarest Lloyd, American journalist and reformer

The previous chapters have discussed rankism in our social institutions and what can be done to curtail it. Here we address rankism in our civic institutions. What would politics look like if it were conducted in a dignitarian manner? What is the relationship between citizens and their leaders in a dignitarian government? Must partisan politics lead to ideological extremes or is there common ground that both conservatives and progressives can inhabit and thereupon work out their differences?

Before people take seriously the possibility of building dignitarian political institutions, they need an answer to a question I’m asked at every talk I give:

Is Rankism Human Nature?

In general, it’s a rule of nature to pick on the weak–a strategy that minimizes the chance of retaliation. Since human beings are not unlike other species in this regard, it’s natural to conclude that rankism is human nature and that’s the whole story. But it’s not. Yes, human beings are predators. But we’re also changing rapidly. Numerous observers have made the case that we’re now in the final phase of an epochal transition from predatory behavior to cooperative conduct.

Rankism is dominating, sometimes predatory, behavior, but it is not indelibly etched into our brains. In fact, the opposite is the case. The record shows that over the course of time, the weak have periodically rebelled against oppression and domination, often with striking success. Although this is usually the culmination of a long and harrowing process, human beings have repeatedly shown themselves capable of imposing limits on the authority of strongmen. Famous instances include the English barons at Runnymede who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, the birth of parliaments limiting the absolute powers of sovereigns, colonials expelling their imperialist masters, and in the twentieth century, the global spread of democracy and the defeat or collapse of dictatorships that challenged it.

We have also witnessed the rise of organized labor and other mass movements, such as those for civil and women’s rights, in response to discrimination and exploitation by a dominant group. It was long maintained that racism and sexism are indelible parts of human nature, but with every passing decade this belief becomes more indefensible. So while it must be acknowledged that we do have predatory tendencies, it’s also clear that we’re quite capable of reining them in and that this latter-day trend seems likely to prevail as our species matures.

At every point in our social evolution, power rules. Usually it’s imminent and in your face–the police, the army–but every now and then what prevails is a novel combination of lesser forces that, through collaboration, first trump and then tame the existing authority. Sometimes all it takes to persuade those in charge to back down is to convince them that should things actually come to a fight, they will lose. Abuses of power persist until the individuals or institutions perpetrating them realize that they are facing a greater force. That force need not be, and usually is not, entirely material. As Gandhi,Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela proved, an important part of that force can be the moral might of an aroused citizenry.

In any case, once the opposition coalesces the rankist perpetrators either mend their ways or end up being ousted from their privileged positions. The long-term trend of this evolutionary process is the discovery of increasingly effective forms of cooperation that outperform, out-produce, and finally supplant abusive authoritarianism. Examples of this dynamic can be found in the myriad autocracies that have yielded to democracies and in the replacement of companies fueled by fear and humiliation with businesses providing work environments that protect people’s dignity so that everyone, custodian and stockholder alike, reaps the benefits.

It is a goal of this book to make the principles of a dignitarian society palpable enough so the very thought of doing something that subjects others to indignity will provoke the countervailing realization that such a course would, in the longer term, prove self-defeating if not suicidal.

In addition to confronting the abuses that remain in our civic arena and social institutions, we must identify and eliminate those that occur between sovereign states, democratic or not, in the largely ungoverned realm of international affairs.

The DNA of Democracy: Watchdog Processes

Democracy is a strategy to combat the truth expressed in Lord Acton’s oft-quoted dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s the best model of governance we have for ensuring that officials do not misuse their station to the detriment of those they are supposed to serve.

The DNA of democracy consists of watchdog procedures through which we monitor our officials’ actions and systems of accountability that circumscribe their prerogatives. Instead of assuming that authority figures will consistently respect human dignity, democracy assumes the opposite: that they will be tempted to place their personal interests ahead of the public’s, and that if this causes the citizens indignity–well, that’s just too bad. To prevent such self-serving lapses, we erect a system of constant “reminders,” such as multiple political parties, elections, checks and balances including an independent judiciary, free media–all the institutions of democratic civil life–to hold their feet to the fire.

Woody Allen joked that relationships are like sharks: they either keep moving or they die. Democracy is a relationship between those in positions of authority and the citizenry, and if we’re not continually saving it, we’re losing it. The reason for this is that new forms of power are constantly emerging and democracy has to keep pace with them to guard against potential creeping transgressions–that is, new instances of rankism. One example of this is the way television has transformed the political process, giving an advantage to candidates with the financial resources to purchase the most broadcast time.

This makes it easier for the wealthy to acquire and wield power, and as many commentators have pointed out, it moves nations away from democracy toward plutocracy. In response, some European governments are striving to reduce the role of money in politics by attempting to equalize what candidates spend on media campaigns.

But television has also had another effect on politics, one that serves the weak. Like the printing press before it and the Internet later, television informs, and insofar as it’s accurate, information is empowering. Although technological innovations may at first benefit the authorities, who are usually quicker to exploit them, citizens eventually get their hands on new advances and over time, this strengthens their position vis—vis those in charge.

Television has made of the world a global village in which everyone knows how the other half lives. The Internet, cell phones, and text messaging shift power away from the governors toward the governed. The growing use of blogs on the Internet is another example of how technological innovations bring change to government, in this case by amplifying the voices of citizens and weakening the traditional media’s control over the news. The Internet is a democratizing tool that offers vast numbers of people affordable ways to publish, make videos, produce music–in short, to communicate, contribute, and gain recognition.

As such it is a dignitarian bulwark against rankism. Democracy evolves as a majority of citizens realize that eliminating identified forms of rankism benefits society as a whole. A government’s legitimacy rests on its capability and willingness to put the interests of the citizenry as a whole over those of any subgroup, no matter how powerful. Decisions that favor an elite rather than the country as a whole are quite literally unpatriotic.

Navigating the Ship of State

The partisan divide into right and left, conservative and liberal, stems from the ongoing and unavoidable choice facing all societies over how much authority to vest in rank. The right has traditionally been the party that defends the authority and prerogatives of power-holders, the left the party that limits them. These identifications can reverse, however, depending on which party is in charge. When the left overthrew the Czar and took over during the Russian Revolution of 1917, it quickly abolished all limits on governmental power.

Since both right and left orientations have a vital role in good management, it’s not surprising that democratic electorates tilt first one way and then the other. They are like the captain of a ship who makes a continual series of course corrections, to starboard and port, in order to avoid beaching the ship (of state) on the shoals (of extremism).

This simple model of left-right complementarity is complicated by the existence of multiple levels of authority: national, regional or state, municipal, and individual. Both the left and the right may try to use the power of one level of government to weaken or strengthen that held at other levels or by certain people. Examples include progressive support for, and conservative opposition to, national civil rights legislation during the segregationist era and the present-day federal protection of abortion rights.

Another current example, in which the attitude of left and right toward federal power is reversed, is conservative support for, and progressive opposition to, a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. Generally, conservatives view governmental regulation and taxation as restrictions upon individual authority and autonomy and thus oppose them, whereas those on the left see these functions of government as fairly distributive of power and are more willing to support them.

Which party fulfills the progressive or conservative role is secondary compared to the overarching need to maintain social and political stability. A society that doesn’t trust anyone with authority loses its ability to coordinate and execute complicated tasks in a timely fashion.

Systems of governance that cannot “stop people talking,” to use Clement Attlee’s phrase cited in chapter 3, are vulnerable to what the women’s movement in the 1960s called the “tyranny of structurelessness,” which groups that govern by consensus will recognize as the interminable, indecisive meeting. On the other hand, a society that doesn’t limit the power of its rulers (such as in the USSR and Nazi Germany) will find individual initiative stifled and liberty eroded. In this case, the threat is the tyranny of conformity.

What’s imperative for civic stability and civil governance is that both upholding and circumscribing the power vested in rank have earnest advocates and that partisans be aware of and have some appreciation for the validity of the role played by their opponents. This duality is so important that even in one-party systems dedicated to some ideological principle, the divide between conservatives and liberals soon reappears in the form of “hard-liners” and “democratizers.”

Navigating the ship of state between right and left reflects the need to avoid absolutism and anarchy, either of which can be the undoing of a government and a people. Systems of governance that lack such a steering mechanism are prone to self-destruct. Without its opposite number to serve as a counterweight, either party, unrestrained, will eventually run a nation aground. To paraphrase an unknown pundit, we have lunatic fringes so we know how far not to go.

An individual’s political orientation is influenced by his or her own personal relationship to rank. For a variety of reasons–psychological and political, and, recent studies hint, even genetics–some tilt conservative, and an approximately equal number tilt liberal. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in their play Iolanthe:

I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!

One determinant of personal political orientation can be compensatory: we may give our support to the party whose predilection we wish to strengthen within ourselves. Thus, the people who fear their own indiscipline may champion the party of law and order and leave telltale hints of their underlying motives by expressing excessive disdain for liberals, whom they perceive as libertines. And those who seek to dispel guilt for a history of domination or prejudice may do so by becoming proselytizing champions of the weak, thereby expiating their sins and gaining a sense of moral purity.

Another factor in party preference is that each of us carries within, to different degrees and at different times, a sense of being both a somebody and a nobody. Those who identify themselves with their inner nobody are more apt to sympathize with those whom society casts as underdogs or second-class citizens. Contrariwise, those who align themselves with their inner somebody are more apt to support the “law and order” party.

Regardless of political orientation, aversion to abuses of power can blind partisans to rank’s legitimate functions. Likewise, excessive loyalty to power-holders can turn partisans into apologists for rank’s misuse. Tracing peoples’ political orientation to their relationship to authority helps explain why political argument is so rarely persuasive. A good deal of partisan dispute stems from our gut feelings about whether increasing or decreasing the power of officeholders, especially as it may bear on a current issue in which we ourselves stand to gain or lose, is the greater threat. Once that choice has been made, the “facts” can usually be spun to support it, and reciting them to someone in the other camp has little effect.

A Dignitarian Model of Politics

To sum up, fair and effective government requires balancing the need for some centralization of power with concern about its proper use. That in turn requires a political model in which both parties acknowledge the legitimate functions of power and are conscientious about limiting it to the proper sphere. In the dignitarian model, tension between liberals and conservatives is regarded as a natural part of working out the appropriate use of authority in a given situation. Instead of being locked in stalemate, the parties engage, without fear or malice, in an open process of give-and-take until a common understanding is reached.

As rankism, like racism, falls into disrepute, the partisan insults, put-downs, and smears we have become accustomed to will find less favor with the electorate. Sneering at opposing views, contempt for nonbelievers, and personal attacks will all backfire, discrediting the purveyors and not their targets. There is no reason to expect dignitarian politics to be less argumentative, but there’s every reason to believe it will be more civil.

The message of detachment common in Eastern religions provides a useful antidote to the rancor and self-righteousness of partisan politics. It encourages us to witness and acknowledge our reactions to a situation and see them as part of a larger picture. Activism is not conceived of as directed against an evil foe, but rather as part of a dynamic in which one’s opponents also have a valid, if perhaps misguided, role.

Detached activists, while putting their strongest case forward, take pains to protect the dignity of their adversaries in what is, after all, a struggle to identify and expose whatever specific ignorance is sustaining the conflict. If you lose sight of the dignity of your adversaries, it’s a sign that you’re intoxicated by your own ideology. According to a Mayan saying: Tu eres me otro yo (You are my other self).

A dignitarian politics, while allowing for partisanship, would be inhospitable to the ideological extremism and dysfunctional incivility that undermine many modern democracies. The most effective thing one side can do to win the cooperation of the other is to discover what it is that’s right about the opponent’s position. Once a party to a conflict feels that some kernel of truth it defends has been appreciated by the other side and incorporated into a broader model–one that transcends the starting positions of both adversaries–it becomes easier for that party to cooperate. The day often goes to the side that takes the lead in figuring out a way for its opponents to hold their heads high while both sides abandon some of what they’ve been fighting for. Dignitarian politics is not so much nonpartisan as it is transpartisan.

Confronting Bureaucratic Rankism

Rankism is the malady of bureaucracy. Regardless of state ideology, when bureaucrats put their interests above that of the public they’re meant to serve, trust is eroded. Bureaucratic rankism is an equal opportunity disease afflicting communists and capitalists, fascists and democrats, liberals and conservatives alike.

But despite its endemic nature, rankism can indeed be overcome, one step at a time. Not that there aren’t good grounds for cynicism. The rankist dysfunction that plagued FBI operations prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been identified by numerous investigative bodies. In hindsight, the success of the attacks was widely attributed to the rankist culture of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The consensus is that on that fateful day America paid a tragic price for deeply ingrained habits that caused the FBI and CIA to put their institutional interests ahead of public safety.

In contrast to these high-profile instances of bureaucratic rankism are success stories that exemplify the opposite. Perhaps the most noteworthy recent example of overcoming the rankism of U.S. government officials is the Watergate scandal. A less publicized, closer-to-home example that directly affects every American taxpayer involves the Internal Revenue Service.

In 1997, during hearings of the Senate Finance Committee, it came to light that IRS agents and auditors were using the power of the agency to harass political dissidents, various religious groups, and certain other citizens by subjecting them to punitive audits. A whistle-blower named Shelley Davis, former historian for the IRS, described the “intransigence, arrogance, and abusive patterns of behavior that [are] common inside…the IRS” in her book Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS. In testimony to the committee she described the agency’s Special Services Staff as a secret, cloistered unit of list-keepers. Anyone it considered “of questionable character,” as determined from newspaper articles and their FBI files, was targeted for auditing even if they had no known tax problems.7

In this case the system of checks and balances worked as the Founding Fathers envisaged and the rankist agency practices at issue were identified and largely eliminated.As a result of the congressional hearings, the discretion of individual agents was removed from the equation.

Rather than allowing them to target people based on their own opinions, a system was instituted that flagged returns for audit by computers programmed to pick up patterns of probable underpayment. This new arrangement eliminated personal discretion from the audit selection process and has gone a long way towards curbing abusive IRS power and quelling public concerns about it.

In a dignitarian culture, where the burden of proof is on alleged perpetrators instead of alleged victims, successes like this one shouldn’t be hard to come by.

Seeking Common Ground

Imagine that a dignitarian approach to politics has taken hold. Parties of the left and the right continue to vie with each other for votes, but candidates who demonize their opponents are themselves discredited. Rather than being diverted by such sideshows, voters focus on whether their representatives are providing solutions that respect and protect their dignity.

In broad terms, what ideas and programs would we expect a legislature charged with overcoming rankism to come up with? Before giving an answer to this question, I want to acknowledge that this is only my answer–the kind of legislation I personally would wish my congressional representatives to enact to safeguard my dignity and that of my family. While it’s tempting to guess at what others would want, that would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the dignitarian process. (Many of the following issues have been discussed in greater depth in earlier chapters.)

  • Dignity security, not job security. This would provide a fair chance to compete for any job for which I have the specified qualifications, and transitional support if I should need to find a new one.
  • Compensation for my labor that enables me and my dependents to live with dignity.
  • Access to quality education for my family members regardless of our financial circumstances.
  • Affordable basic and specialized health care for me and my dependents.
  • A system for funding campaigns that enjoins lawmakers to put the public’s interests above special interests. Incumbents should be barred from using the power inherent in their position to gain an unfair advantage over challengers.
  • Protection of my privacy and autonomy against unwarranted intrusion from my fellow citizens or the government.
  • An equitable tax policy. Obviously, everything depends on the interpretation of equitable. The word acquires a functional meaning through a national dignitarian dialogue.What we agree to be fair is fair, until we change our minds. Periodic renegotiation occurs in the form of a democratic political process that gives electoral weight to the interests of every citizen, with no exceptions.
  • A national defense that deters would-be aggressors and defeats them if they mount an attack, along with international policies that avoid giving the kind of offense to others that incites their revenge.
  • Participation in global agreements that foster international security and environmental sustainability.

More important than any of these particulars is to elect candidates who are committed in general to searching for models that protect the dignity of all.

How will all this be attained? Unfortunately, there is no quick way–any more than there was a way during the era of racial segregation to vote enough enlightened legislators into office to pass civil rights legislation. The process will take time.

And we shouldn’t expect our political representatives to be more dignitarian than we are. If we ourselves presume ideological or moral superiority, our politicians will simply mirror one or another brand of it back to us in an ongoing attempt to find favor with a majority of voters. The result will be more of the same–unending, uncivil stalemate and stagnation.

To elect politicians who will build a dignitarian society requires the creation of a dignitarian culture. As this culture takes hold, our politicians will find it increasingly difficult, and ultimately impossible, to deny us dignitarian governance. Such a society will not come to us as a gift. It will come as we earn it–by personifying its values and demanding the same from our leaders.

The following chapter begins to examine how we can establish a dignitarian perspective and sketches out what the emerging dignitarian cultural consensus will look like.

[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.]

The Social Contract in a Dignitarian Society

6:45 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the twelfth 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.

Many are still trapped in Nobodyland


Poverty is the new slavery. –Reverend Jim Wallis, God’s Politics

The exclusion of one group of people or another has been the rule through most of history. Men without property could be denied the vote in revolutionary America. Quotas were placed on Jews in many universities and professions until the mid-twentieth century. Women were denied the vote in many countries well into the last century, and still are in some. Likewise, the segregation of African Americans was widely sanctioned in the United States until the 1960s. At one time or another, most societies have rationalized relegating certain subgroups to second-class citizenship.

Institutional Rankism and a Permanent Underclass

As racism disadvantaged blacks and sexism restricted women, so rankism marginalizes the working poor, keeping them in their place while their low salaries effectively make goods and services available to society at subsidized prices. This process, whereby the most indigent Americans have become the benefactors of those better off, is vividly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Nickel and Dimed. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, author David Shipler depicts the less fortunate as disappearing into a “black hole” from which there is no exit. As class membranes become ever less permeable, resignation, cynicism, and hostility mount.

Exposing the institutional rankism that consigns millions to an underclass is a Herculean political task, but the theoretical groundwork is already being laid. In addition to the volumes already mentioned, there is Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy, by Howard Karger, which shows how the working poor and also many in the middle class become mired in a netherworld of high interest rates and ever-mounting debt. Except for the absence of debtors’ prisons today, their situation is redolent of nineteenth-century Dickensian England.

Some marginalized groups have managed to end their exclusion and win for themselves a measure of social justice. But many are still trapped in Nobodyland–often less because they bear traits that in the past were used to sanction discrimination than that they are mired in poverty.

How can a dignity movement aimed at overcoming rankism provide a way out for the underclass?

The Myth of Meritocracy

The rank-based strategy of the movement to equalize dignity stands in sharp contrast to the class-based Marxist strategy committed to equalizing wealth. As practiced, communism created a rankist elite that usurped riches and power for itself. In contrast, a dignitarian society aims to eliminate the “dignity gaps” created and perpetuated by rankism. Today the working poor are typically devoid of savings and utterly dependent on regular weekly wages. A medical emergency, the loss of a job, even a car repair can force them–including many in the middle class–into an untenable level of credit card debt or even homelessness.

Increasingly, low social rank, or class, poses an all but impassable barrier to social mobility. Accepting such an arrangement is tantamount to giving up on democracy’s promise of liberty and justice for all. To the extent that social mobility is a myth, so is meritocracy.

One does not need as much money or as high an income as one’s neighbors or co-workers to live a life of dignity. But one must be free to compete on equal terms with those who currently hold higher rank. To vie for rank on a level playing field and lose is neither cause for, nor is it experienced as, indignity. But to be denied even the chance to do so is a preemptory form of exclusion. Few, if any, meritocracies, though they offer more social mobility than the aristocracies of past centuries, qualify as dignitarian.

People who have money know that it’s the foundation on which their personal freedom rests. Even modest savings allow them to leave a job that ill suits them, opt out of a bad school, or see a dentist or doctor. While a dignitarian society would not compensate everyone equally, everyone would be paid enough to afford such choices.

Where would the money come from? The price increases that paying a living wage to all would necessitate would ultimately be borne by consumers, who, of course, include the working poor themselves. But under the present system, their under-compensated labor functions as a hidden subsidy to everyone. As long as a majority of voters are comfortable with that, it will continue. But when awareness dawns that “poverty is the new slavery,” growing numbers of people are likely to become intolerant of this situation.

I was surprised when, in 1971, a student at Oberlin College petitioned the investment committee of the school’s board of trustees to divest itself of its stock in companies that operated in apartheid South Africa. But within a few years, a worldwide divestiture movement was putting pressure on that country to abandon its policy of apartheid.

Today, working conditions in the overseas plants of global corporations are coming under similar scrutiny. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine this kind of awareness being focused on the plight of the “nickel and dimed” in the United States. Once it is widely understood that the working poor are involuntary benefactors of society, acceptance of this injustice could change just as the world’s tolerance for apartheid did. Feeling indebted to people who are less well off is not something that many are comfortable with.

In addition to having an equitable system of compensation, a dignitarian society would be one in which most people owned property. On the face of it, this would seem to require some redistribution of assets, and historically this has led to social unrest if not violence. But if instead of attempting any kind of wholesale reallocation of wealth we limit ourselves to tax policies that gradually effect a marginal shift, we may be able to chart a nonviolent democratic path to a society in which everyone has an honest chance to realize the proverbial American dream.

One thing is certain: inclusion works, exclusion doesn’t. Equal opportunity is the path to inclusion while rankism is an instrument of exclusion. Systematically removing the rankist barriers that imprison the underclass is the counterpart of removing the segregationist laws that for so long kept people of color out of the mainstream.

Models of “Democratic Capitalism”

Following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, who was among the first to advocate that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare, many political thinkers have suggested mechanisms of economic inclusion. The following paragraphs present several such possibilities. But more important than the details of any particular plan is the commitment to finding and implementing one. As Paine argued in Agrarian Justice, written in 1797, societies in which it is virtually impossible to escape from poverty forfeit not only social cohesiveness but also moral leadership.

It is wrong to say God made both rich and poor. He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance. Payments [from the national fund are to] be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions….[Those who] do not choose to receive it can throw it into the common fund.

In his forthcoming book Re-Birth of a Nation: American Identity and the Culture Wars, Richard Baldwin gives new impetus to the idea that political independence has to be rooted in economic independence. Baldwin’s proposal, which incorporates aspects of several other plans, calls for the establishment of Individual Capital Endowments (ICEs) for the young. In his vision, every child is taught money management–perhaps even to run a model business–as part of primary and secondary school education. (Finally, a compelling reason to learn arithmetic!)

On reaching adulthood at age eighteen, everyone is provided with enough capital resources to pay for a college education or start a business and to make a down payment on a home. Baldwin’s basic thesis is that the way to end de facto segregation under which the poor suffer is to train all young people to be capitalists.

Baldwin’s ICEs are modeled on Michael Sherraden’s Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), which in turn are based on the now ubiquitous IRAs. IDAs grow over time with the goal of ensuring that every household has a stake in society and a cushion against unemployment or illness. In the same spirit, Bruce Ackerman and Ann Alstott, in their book The Stakeholder Society, have proposed that as Americans reach adulthood they receive a onetime grant of $80,000 financed by a tax on the nation’s accumulated assets.

All these plans give expression to the dignitarian principle that everyone’s success is dependent on contributions from untold others and that accordingly, everyone is obligated to contribute to a fair starting point for everyone else. This idea is analogous to the principle of revenue sharing in professional sports, which levels the playing field by offsetting the advantages that accrue to wealthier teams.

The major issue that any such program must confront is funding. I include an excerpt from Richard Baldwin’s proposal not because it’s the answer (there cannot be any definitive answer absent a dignitarian process), but rather to suggest that economically feasible solutions do exist and to start a conversation that can lead to one that is politically acceptable. Baldwin calls his plan democratic capitalism.

What distinguished America as a very young nation was the almost universal possession of capital assets by immigrants of European origin. The primary domestic function of the federal government before the Civil War was to provide sufficient capital, in the form of land, to underwrite the economic independence of families. Subsequent examples of governmental transfer of capital to individuals are the Homestead Act and the GI Bill.

A modern proposal along these lines is Individual Capital Endowments, which would be allotted to each child at birth. A reasonable sum might be the cost of tuition for a four-year postsecondary education at a state university plus the equivalent of a 10 percent down payment on a median-priced home. Under present conditions, that would require about $200 billion annually–a substantial investment but manageable for the American economy.

One source of funding for the program would be estate taxes, which at current levels provide about $30 billion a year, 15 percent of the total needed. Estate taxes are out of fashion but if we seriously want to create a dignitarian society, we need to reconsider them. No matter how brilliant and hard-working an individual effort is, capital accumulation is always to some degree a public creation built in part on contributions from others. It is therefore appropriate that a portion of it be shared with society. This applies to any accumulation of assets, no matter how large or small. In particular, there is no reason that a progressive reform of the estate tax could not yield 25 percent of the annual funding needed for [Individual] Capital Endowments.

Approximately 50 percent could come from non-tax dollars. Every corporation with publicly traded stock would annually contribute 1 percent of its total outstanding shares at the end of the prior year. The final 25 percent would come from taxes levied on privately held productive capital assets such as closely held companies and real estate–a “wealth tax” rather like that proposed in Ackerman and Alstott’s The Stakeholder Society.

This mode of financing the program would produce a gradual, systematic, and broadly based redistribution of assets without punitive taxation or serious disruption of financial markets. Over a period of 20 to 30 years, the cumulative shift of assets would reach socially significant proportions.

The resources involved would be held initially by a National Endowment Mutual Fund–a quasi-public corporation similar to Fannie Mae. The fund would function like TIAA-CREF, dividing its assets into mutual funds of diversified investments. Endowment funds would not be available to parents and would become fully vested when a person reached the age of 30. Assets held by any individual who dies before the full vesting would be returned to the general pool to help finance the following year’s new endowments.

The great promise of a “democratic capitalism” is its potential to heal a society riven with dignity gaps. A hand-to-mouth existence is as incompatible with dignity as is lack of access to health care and education. Without a living wage the American dream is a mirage. An inclusive economics affirms every citizen’s inherent dignity. Equal opportunity is sometimes confused with equal outcomes.

Obviously, it is no such thing. In a fair race, all the runners at the starting line have an equal opportunity to win, but only one of them gets the gold medal. However, this is all right. Our dignity does not depend on winning or even tying. It depends on doing our best in a fair contest and not facing humiliation or degradation if we lose. It depends on having an honest chance and then finding a niche from which we can contribute something commensurate with our particular talents and abilities.

Dignity also depends on being acknowledged for making this contribution and on being compensated well enough so that we (and our dependents) can continue to play the game.

Besting others in a contest that has been fixed may bring us loot or glory but it carries no lasting satisfaction. Instead, it sows doubts about our achievement that leave us feeling insecure and guilty. Heaven forbid that we should lose a later competition and expose ourselves to the indignities now visited upon those we’ve vanquished in an unfair match! A dignitarian society promises what we all really need: not necessarily a win, but an honest chance at winning that brings out the best in us.

Given the certainty that some fraction of the population will suffer failure and even catastrophe, plans like Baldwin’s do not permit the dismantling of the social safety net. But as rankism is eliminated and equal opportunity becomes a reality, we can expect welfare programs to diminish in scope and size. Funds spent ensuring a fair chance for everyone are more productive than funds spent trying to correct the effects of chronic malrecognition.

Second-class citizenship is incompatible with dignity–not only the dignity of those consigned to it, but the collective dignity of the society that tolerates the discrimination. Creating pathways out of poverty is essential to the integrity of any dignity movement. A dignitarian society will finally deliver on Jefferson’s promise that “all are created equal.”

[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.]

Image: A calendar page for August from Queen Mary’s Psalter, ca 1310

Rankism Can Be Harmful to Your Health

7:22 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the eleventh 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.


Doctors are seen as somebodies. What separates them from healers is that healers bridge the gap between somebody and nobody by forming a partnership with patients based on equal dignity. I believe that affirmation of everyone’s personhood is a healing interaction for patient and healer alike.–Dr. Jeffrey Ritterman, Kaiser Permanente

The Evolving Doctor-Patient Relationship

Rankism permeates all the professions, and health care is no exception.

Historically, medicine relied on the extreme difference in rank between physicians and patients to elicit trust, compliance, and hope during times of illness. But now, emboldened by knowledge gleaned from books, support groups, and the Internet, people are transforming themselves from docile patients into informed, engaged clients. Increasingly, patients come to the doctor’s office with sophisticated questions and a desire to participate in decisions regarding their treatment. The era of the “MDeity” is passing into oblivion, and the traditional model of doctor-patient relationships is gradually being replaced with one of partnership. In light of this historic shift, it’s no surprise that recent studies suggest that apologies from doctors significantly reduce the incidence of malpractice lawsuits.

Another example of patients’ increasing desire to have a say in health matters is the hospice movement. By championing the idea of death with dignity, hospices have enabled people to retain as much responsibility for their end-of-life care as possible rather than surrender it wholesale to health care providers.

Rankism Among Health Professionals

In the larger fraternity of white coat providers, rankism manifests itself among practitioners holding different ranks. Doctors taking advantage of interns is a ubiquitous theme on hospital TV shows. Residents find themselves both recipients of and contributors to abusive situations, and nurses have legitimate complaints about their treatment by physicians.

Within the nursing order–nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed volunteer nurses, and medical assistants–rankism also rears its ugly head. All of this takes its toll not only on caregivers, but ultimately on patients as well.

Relationships between practitioners of different medical modalities and orientations–allopathic, naturopathic, and the various schools of complementary and alternative medicine–are also infected with rankism. Certainly, when it comes to treatment, there are legitimate questions concerning effectiveness. But methodological standards often are not applied evenhandedly to the practices and cures advocated by different traditions. And organizations representing these traditions vie mightily with each other like medieval guilds to foster and maintain the demand for their own services rather than focusing objectively on what works best for patients.

Not surprisingly, the rankism that infects health care arises in part from the way in which its professionals are educated. The seventy-two hour shift for interns is a legendary horror story in point. Like other initiation or hazing rites, such exploitation is dangerous–in this case it adversely affects the health of the interns and increases the chance of their making medical mistakes. In addition, these “ceremonies of degradation” perpetuate a rankist environment because they predispose young physicians to repeat the behavior once they’ve gained membership in the exclusive club that has been tormenting them. As the training of health care providers is stripped of traditional indignities, graduates will lose the desire to impose them on the next generation.

With the advent of managed care, doctors have also become increasingly vulnerable to bureaucratic rankism. In an email dated July 8, 2005, a high-level administrator in the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported on what he hears from physicians working in health maintenance organizations:

Doctors say they feel like nobodies because that’s how the health care system treats them now. Many HMOs impose restrictions on how physicians provide patient care. For example, they are under pressure from management to see no fewer than a set number of patients each day, and limits are placed on how much time they can spend with each one. Doctors were trained to see themselves as healers, yet to a health administrator they are pieceworkers. However, recently the situation is beginning to change as a result of pressure from doctors and patients.

Another manifestation of rankism to which doctors are subjected is best understood as “reverse rankism.” I’ve heard from a number of doctors that with the loss of their former godlike status, some patients try to turn the tables on them. Armed with a few tidbits they’ve picked up from the Internet, they attempt to pull rank on their doctors. A brief conversation clarifying the evolving doctor-patient relationship is usually all it takes to establish a healthier partnership.

The Health Benefits of Recognition

All these forms of rankism have counterparts within other hierarchical entities such as the academic, legal, and ecclesiastic professions, as well as business, the police, and the military. However, health care practitioners bear a double burden because they must deal not only with the rankism within their own hierarchy but also the casualties created by rankist abuse in all the others.

The rankism that pervades society is a serious threat to public health in much the same way that smoking is. This analogy can even be extended to “secondhand rankism”–namely, that resulting from passing a rankist insult along to someone of lower rank, sometimes referred to as the “kick-the-dog” phenomenon. The depredations to which the working poor are exposed take an unremarked toll that, over a lifetime, shows up as significantly enhanced morbidity and reduced life expectancy. A cover story in the New York Times Magazine makes the case that the ongoing stress experienced by those of low socioeconomic status in inner cities is a silent, unperceived killer.

In an email communication, Dr. Jeffrey Ritterman, who is chief cardiologist at the Kaiser Permanente HMO in Richmond, California, acknowledged this. Noting that his hospital serves a population of low socioeconomic status and great ethnic diversity, he observed: “Many of our patients suffer from nobody status, which deeply affects their health outcomes.” That rankism is also a factor in determining who is afforded health care becomes especially clear in the aftermath of crises like Hurricane Katrina, which exhausted resources in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

In ancient times, an excruciating form of execution was known as “death by a thousand cuts.” Its modern counterpart is “death by a thousand indignities.”As evidence of the adverse effects of rankism on public health mounts, health care professionals are going to feel honor bound to educate the public about the social costs of malrecognition.

To deal with this public health menace we are going to have to purge rankism from all our social institutions in the same way that, led by a series of Surgeons General, we are curtailing public smoking.

Given the cumulative damage wrought by indignity, we should expect to see benefits to those who manage to shield themselves from it. A study by Dr. Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto suggests exactly that. He reports that Oscar winners live on average almost four years longer than other actors. For multiple Oscar winners, it’s six years. Dr. Redelmeier argues that such success has a powerful influence on a person’s health and longevity. He says, “Once you’ve got that statuette on your mantel, it’s an uncontested sign of peer approval that nobody can take away from you. [Winning an Oscar] leaves you more resilient. Harsh reviews don’t quite get under your skin. The normal stresses and strains of everyday life don’t drag you down.”

Dr. Nancy Adler, director of the Center for Health and Community and professor of medical psychology at the University of California at San Francisco, says:

Status is made up of many things–it’s a matter of education, money, ethnicity, and gender. What we’re learning is that in each of those areas, health is better the higher up you are.

The issue for stress is not how many demands you have, but your sense that they are manageable. A demand that you have the resources to deal with–that you have some control over–can actually be invigorating. It’s the difference between a challenge and a threat. Control goes up at each step up the social ladder and that usually works to diminish stress.

Dr. Adler quotes Leonard Syme of the University of California’s School of Public Health: “If you could only ask one question of a person, and you wanted to be able to predict what their state of health would be, it would be their social class.” Syme showed that it wasn’t just that those of the highest status had a longer life span and better overall health than those at the bottom, but that health improved with each rung up the social hierarchy. It is important to recognize that higher social class doesn’t just mean better health care. It also often means less exposure to rankism, which in turn means less need for health care.

In this vein, Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London and author of The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, writes:

The higher your status in the social hierarchy the better your health and the longer you live….A way to understand the link between status and health is to think of three fundamental human needs: health, autonomy, and opportunity for full social participation….The lower the social status, the less autonomy and the less social participation.

Participation includes the positive feedback one receives from social recognition and being a valued member of society.

Dignity: A Centerpiece of Health Care

This brief survey of the effects of rankism on health and the health care system suggests that any system-wide fix will need to make dignity its centerpiece. To be successful today, a health care model must proffer respect for patients, who are rebelling against their traditional infantilization; it must preserve the dignity of doctors and nurses, most of whom have chosen the profession out of a desire to serve; and finally, it must respect the indispensable role of administrators, who have the thankless task of managing a scarce but desperately needed resource.

Quite obviously, no society can regard itself as dignitarian if access to quality health care is limited to those with enough money to afford it.

Equally obvious is that health care, like any resource, is limited in supply and must be rationed some way or other. Controlling access to it by the ability to pay might be justified when a resource is optional, but not when it is indispensable to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Clearly health care falls into that category, and accordingly, a dignitarian society will see to it that everyone can readily obtain both routine and specialized evaluation and treatment in the mode of their choice. The organization Search for Common Ground has put together a project involving leading national stakeholders reflecting a broad spectrum of interests and perspectives. Its goal is to identify consensus-based recommendations to provide health care coverage to “as many people as possible as quickly as possible.” The idea is to develop widely supportable proposals among these “strange bedfellows” in the hope of breaking a decades-old gridlock on how to extend coverage to the uninsured.

In conclusion, here is an example that illustrates both the bureaucratic obstacles to building a dignitarian health care system, and what a determined government official can do to offset the dependence of health on social status. In 1995, Thomas A. Purvis, an evaluator in the office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, became aware that only a small fraction of youth covered by Medicaid were actually making use of the dental services for which they were eligible. He conducted a study to find out why. His principal findings were:

  1. Bureaucratic red tape and inadequate reimbursement were factors in why dentists did not seek business from low-income families. But these were not the only reasons.
  2. Dentists were turning down young Medicaid patients and their families because they viewed them in a way that smacked of rankism. The dentists tended to stereotype all such patients as being uninformed about the importance of good dental care, disruptive in the waiting room, unreliable about keeping appointments, and disinclined to follow their recommendations regarding home care between visits.

As a result of Purvis’s analysis, state and federal agencies began working together to disabuse the dental profession of its perception of Medicaid patients. In combination with raising the fees paid to dentists, this strategy resulted in a significant elevation in the percentage of children from low-income families served by the Medicaid-funded dental program.

This story suggests that positive intervention by a service-oriented bureaucracy can offset the impact of rankism on health. But an October 2005 article in the New York Times indicates that, while some progress has been made, the same social status factors that were identified by Purvis ten years ago continue to limit the numbers of those eligible for Medicaid who are actually served by the program.

Today, rankist barriers in health care are like the racist barriers in public accommodations that existed before the nation enacted the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Until these barriers are removed, they will continue to do serious disservice to a large group of citizens.

[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.]

Dignity in Education (Part 2)

5:36 pm in Uncategorized by Robert W Fuller

This is the tenth 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.


Girls and Bullying

Thanks to books like Queen Bees and Wannabes (on which the film Mean Girls was based) and Odd Girl Out, we now recognize that bullying is an equal opportunity activity–girls do it, too–and that it comes in subtler forms than the extortion of lunch money under penalty of a bloody nose. Suze Rutherford travels all over North America giving workshops to school administrators and teachers entitled “Unmasking Rankism: Changing the Tolerance of Disrespect in Our Schools” and “Odd Girl Out: The Ways Girls Bully.” She does this under the auspices of YES (Youth Empowering Systems) of Sebastopol, California.

Operation Respect

Operation Respect is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating safe, caring, and respectful environments for children. Founded by folksinger Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul, and Mary, it distributes educational resources designed to reduce the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict on others through ridicule, bullying, and violence.

When kids are asked in class if they have ever been humiliated in public, typically all hands go up. The students are surprised to learn they are not alone, that the problem is universal. Operation Respect has developed a curriculum for schools to train teachers how to convince children of the hurtfulness of certain behaviors. It is already being used in twelve thousand American schools and camps. Peter Yarrow’s song “Don’t Laugh at Me” serves as Operation Respect’s anthem.

One-Upmanship and Elitism in Academia

When I was in college, a book called One-Upmanship was circulating that defined the practice of keeping one step ahead of others by appearing to have better information, connections, possessions, or experience. As it turned out, that little book provided a more accurate model of higher education than did the college catalog. One-Upmanship was to academics what Machiavelli’s The Prince was to politicians–a survival guide.

Although knowledge was worshipped, the business of passing it along was often profaned. For many students and professors the primary satisfaction lay not in the learning and teaching but rather in ranking the abilities and contributions of others and honing their skills at targeting the dignity of presumed inferiors. As one stung by the disdain of fellow students, I never suspected that even the brightest were ill-served by this snobbish atmosphere.

Recently, I came across some remarks by Alexandre Grothendieck, a German-born French mathematician who came of age in the mid-twentieth century–and whose impact on mathematics is compared to that of Einstein’s on physics. Listen to his lament:

Mathematics became a way to gain power, and the elite mathematicians of the day became smug, feared figures who used that power to discourage and disdain when it served their interests.

The competitive, snobbish attitudes of the upper crust of the mathematical world contrasts with the service to the mathematical community of writing clear and complete expositions that make fundamental ideas widely accessible. The mathematical community lost this sense of service as personal aggrandizement and the development of an exclusionary elite became the order of the day.

Grothendieck argues that such an atmosphere stifles creativity and renewal.He believes that innocent, childlike inquisitiveness gives birth to the creative impulse and he mourns the way it is trampled on by the desire for power and prestige. He traces his own creative capacity to “the naïve, avid curiosity of the child… who has no fear of being once again wrong, of looking like an idiot, of not being serious, of not doing things like everyone else.”

Creative elites often cultivate an air of superiority and mystery, and resist sharing their knowledge and wisdom. I remember my shock when I read in the preface to a well-known mathematics text the author’s promise to give away the trade secrets in his field, and my growing amazement and gratitude as I discovered he was actually keeping his word. Much science and mathematics teaching is needlessly obscure, with obfuscation serving the purpose of limiting membership in the “guild.” Similarly, some spiritual teachers have been known to substitute mystification for clarification, thereby ensuring that their students do not become a threat to their authority.

Elitism comes in a variety of flavors. A brief description of polar opposites–Princeton, where I did my graduate work in physics, and Columbia, where I had my first teaching job–illustrates this.

Princeton had an Old World feel. Einstein had died just months before I got there and his spirit hung over the place. The professors behaved like gentlemen, and research into big, timeless questions set the tone. Academic robes were required at dinner in the graduate college.

In contrast, Columbia was imbued with the manic, competitive energy of New York City. The professors vied openly with each other and research focused on more concrete issues of immediate consequence to physics and careers.

At departmental lunches, Columbia professors would make “futures” bets on one another’s chances for a Nobel Prize: “$10,000 now for half your Nobel winnings if you get it”–that kind of thing. One battle-scarred professor summed up his feelings about a lifetime of racing for-the-roses research with a quote from Genghis Kahn: “It is not enough for you to succeed; your colleagues must fail.” I admired him for daring to put into words what was in fact a common attitude.

At Princeton, the competitiveness was no less intense, despite being more discreet. In the oak-paneled tearoom, colleagues spoke reverently of the mysteries of the universe, but an undercurrent of one-upmanship lurked behind the pleasantries. If you asked a question, you had to be prepared for a condescending put-down like, “Oh, that’s trivial,” followed by a breezy snow job that left you more confused than ever.

Knowledge is indeed power, and some, afraid of losing their edge, are loath to share it.

Despite their different styles, the scientific goal at both Princeton and Columbia was the same: to build models that accounted for the physical evidence, that predicted something new, and that suggested experiments that could be performed to confirm or disprove the theory. Fortunately, among the faculty in both departments there were some whose aim was to help you become the best scientist you could possibly be.

Apprenticing with them was an exacting but exhilarating experience. I can’t imagine a better way to absorb the mysteries of any field than working alongside a generous master.

Two recent stories, personal e-mail communications sent to me in October 2005, illustrate what can be done when professors indulge themselves at the expense of their students. The first, from a second year journalism student, demonstrates the common strategy of going over the head of the offending party. The second shows that in many cases, rankism need only be pointed out in order for it to be cured.

From the journalism student:

In my school, one professor stands out as the most feared writing teacher. He hates excuses.”Better never than late” is his favorite saying.

In a class last semester, he started off as tough and harsh as ever. But gradually he began criticizing students personally–rather than just critiquing their work–and rambling on about the stupidity of other professors. The class was dismayed, but because he was shielded by his prestige and position and because he had control of his students’ grades, no one dared to confront him.

Finally, a group of three classmates decided to speak to the department chair, who immediately arranged a meeting between the professor and a few of his peers. The faculty members first acknowledged the offending teacher’s years of accomplishment and service, but then made it clear that a growing number of people found his behavior abusive. The following week, the professor apologized to his classes and his behavior improved markedly, as did his mood.

Because the chair and faculty approached their colleague with respect, he responded in a positive way. They managed to get relief for the students, correct the errant professor, and strengthen the entire department.

Now the second e-mail:

One of my professors had an extremely bad habit. During classroom discussions, when a student was trying to present an idea or ask a question, he’d often cut them off midsentence and give us his view of things. At first, we didn’t really perceive this as a problem. His knowledge of the subject was vast and his speaking style almost addictive. Listening to him was such a pleasure you’d almost forget that he wasn’t listening to you. But eventually we realized that we weren’t getting as much as we ought to from the sessions.

Finally, three of us went to the professor’s office and explained the situation to him. I’m convinced that our approach was responsible for our success. We began by emphasizing our immense respect for him and made clear that we didn’t think he was interrupting us on purpose, but that it was affecting us adversely. The look of embarrassment that passed over his face was awful to behold. He genuinely did not realize what he’d been doing. Classroom discussions immediately improved.

As an invisible ailment, rankism is easy to miss. But once identified it can sometimes be cured by nothing more than the offending party’s basic sense of decency.

Society pays a terrible price for sponsoring institutions that force students to sacrifice their dignity in order to learn. Tragically, our schools merely reflect societal practices that force the same choice on everyone. The indignities of schooling in the early years keep many from acquiring even the basics and most from realizing their full potential.

Once established, the right to dignity will be as empowering in education as the right to vote is in governance.

Educating a Population of Model Builders

Thomas Jefferson realized that government of, by, and for the people required a literate citizenry. He called for “the enlightenment of the people,” which, in his time, meant literacy, to be achieved via compulsory, universal primary education. In the nineteenth century, secondary education became the rule, followed in the twentieth by a great expansion of college education. Even at this level, however, the focus has been on learning to use existing models, not discovering new ones.

In today’s world, the ability to use models is no longer enough. To thrive in a world of perpetually changing ideas and beliefs, we need to cultivate our innate human talent for building models. This calls for a change in the orientation of education at every level as well as enhanced opportunities for education extending through adulthood. Lifelong learning will be the rule, not the exception, and a dignitarian society will make it accessible to all, regardless of one’s ability to pay. New learning formats, which effectively challenge the presupposition that more learning means more schooling, are apt to become omnipresent as we move further into the digital age.

But can the elusive skills of innovation, discovery, and creativity that lie at the heart of model building be successfully taught? To borrow Jefferson’s inclusive language, is the enlightenment of the people–in the modern sense of educating a society of model builders–a realistic goal?

In medieval Europe, it was primarily priests who could read and write; literacy was deemed beyond the reach of ordinary folk. Today, enlightenment–in the sense of having the capability for revelatory insights needed in model building–is likewise held by many to be an esoteric faculty gifted to or attainable by only a chosen few. To establish a dignitarian society irreversibly, we have to do for enlightenment what universal primary education did for literacy: demystify the process and teach it to all.

Demystifying Enlightenment–Jefferson Redux

Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle. –Albert Einstein

Although the experience of enlightenment has acquired a rarefied mystique in both East and West, the form relevant to twenty-first-century model builders is neither esoteric nor uncommon. In seeking to understand this phenomenon we can draw upon the inquiring traditions.

Scientific research culminates in the “eureka” of discovery. Artists describe their creative breakthroughs in remarkably similar language. Political transformation often originates in the emergence of a new personal identity, becoming the basis for a revised group consensus. (As the modern women’s movement has taught us,”The personal is political.”) Religious practices aim variously for emptiness, illumination, clarity, synthesis, self-realization, transcendence, or union with God.

In each of these arenas, protracted immersion in mundane details can lead to epiphanies. Although these may feel like bolts from the blue, they are usually preceded by a long period of drudgery. Typically we spend months, years, or even decades investigating something, pursuing a question, or applying ourselves to an endeavor. For what seems an eternity, we make one mistake after another, experience failure upon failure. Without this groundwork, breakthroughs rarely happen. It is only when we are steeped in the material and its contradictions–often feeling confused and hopeless–that resolution occurs in a revelatory insight wherein an old, collapsing model is superseded by a better one.

Depending on the context, “better” can mean more useful, effective, accurate, comprehensive, beautiful, elegant, or loving. Convincing others that what we’ve come upon is indeed better may take longer still, sometimes even beyond our own lifetime.

From this perspective, the experience of enlightenment–whether in a scientific, artistic, political, or spiritual context–is seen as a movement of mind that lasts but an instant rather than a sublime state that, once attained, becomes our blissful abode forever. In the framework of model building, enlightenment is the exhilarating experience of a fresh perception breaking the stranglehold of habit. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate in literature, said this of narrative description: “[It] demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.” The differences in enlightenment as experienced in various fields pale in comparison with the deep similarities common to them all–a sense of blinders having been removed, of clear sight at last, of ecstatic revelation.

The experience of enlightenment can be thought of as a leap across a precipice from one foothold to another, except that it’s unintentional and unpredictable. For a period after landing we may feel elated, but it’s a mistake to confuse this afterglow with enlightenment itself. The latter is not the condition into which we have vaulted; rather, it is the leap that took us there.

That moments of enlightenment can’t be anticipated accounts for part of our fascination with them, but it also makes the experience vulnerable to mystification. History has seen many claimants to the titles of sage, genius, maestro, saint, or master. Transfixed by such figures, mesmerized by the aura of celebrity and mystery that envelops them, we often fail to notice that, like ourselves, they are ordinary human beings. When they’re not having an epiphany–which is most of the time–they’re much the same as everyone else. What sets them apart is a readier ability to rise above habit and see things freshly, thereby opening themselves to multiple enlightenment experiences.

Interestingly, virtually none of those who genuinely exhibit this talent lay claim to being enlightened. Albert Einstein poked fun at what he viewed as the popular misrepresentation of his abilities with the wry observation, “I am no Einstein.” Innumerable saints have said as much. Fortunately, the reticence and humility of those who establish a capacity for recurrent enlightenment experiences do not prevent, and may even help, them impart this key talent to students and followers.

Whether using it will result in a student hitting a first jackpot or the teacher hitting a second or third one–of that, alas, no one can be certain.

Students and seekers often collude in their own infantilization by maintaining habits of deference that lull them into believing that a creative breakthrough is something quite beyond them. Such dependent relationships with revered authority figures reflect a desire for a parent whose love is constant, whose wisdom is infallible, and on whom we can always rely. They may also come to serve as an excuse for not assuming responsibility ourselves: “How could I ever compete with the Master?”

The best teachers, like the best parents, freely transmit their knowledge, skills, and passion for truth-seeking to their charges without leaving them starry-eyed.As with so many of the most precious gifts in life, the best we can do to thank such benefactors is to pass what we’ve learned from them on to someone else.

An experience of enlightenment may come while arranging a bouquet for the dinner table or painting one destined for the Louvre, in a never-repeated phrase spoken to a friend or one that will be quoted for centuries, during an ascent of Mt. Everest or a walk in the park. Some breakthroughs get the Nobel Prize, some an acknowledging nod from a companion or a stranger. Others still are met only with inner recognition. But all involve breaking a habit and provide us with a new way of beholding the outer world or our inner selves.

In religious traditions, teachers impart the most profound truths (often amounting to metatruths–that is, truths about truth-seeking itself, or truth-seeking strategies) to students through what is aptly called “transmission of mind.” The phrase captures the transfer of model-building skills, regardless of the field of inquiry. There were times during my physics training when I felt I was experiencing a transmission of mind from my professor, John Wheeler, merely by hanging out with him and observing closely as he tackled problems. Sometimes he’d pass on something he attributed to one of his mentors, Niels Bohr.

Transmissions of mind often have a lineage, but they include more grandmothers and schoolteachers than Nobel laureates.

In the twenty-first century, as more and more people realize their model-building potential, the capacity for, and experience of, enlightenment will spread throughout the world, much as reading and writing did in the twentieth.

[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.]