Rankism- The Abuse of Rank

Rankism: The Abuse of Rank

March 1, 2004

In the attempts to overcome racism and sexism, there is another kind of discrimination being overlooked: the abuse of rank.

Each of these practices is an abuse of the weak by the strong.Each of these offences is an instance of lording over another…of pulling rank.

In the on-going attempts to overcome racism and sexism, there is another kind of discrimination being overlooked that is no less damaging and equally unjustifiable. It is a form of injustice that everyone knows, but no one sees: discrimination based on rank. Low rank, signifying weakness, vulnerability, and the absence of power, marks a person for abuse in much the same way that race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation have long done.

An executive pulls up to valet parking at a restaurant, late to a business lunch, and finds no one to take his car keys. Anxious and fuming, he spots a teenager running toward him in the rear-view mirror and yells, “Where the hell were you? I haven’t got all day.”

He tosses the keys in the kid’s general direction and they fall to the pavement. Bending to pick them up, the boy says, “Sorry, sir. About how long do you expect to be?”

The executive hollers over his shoulder, “You’ll know when you see me, won’t you?” The valet winces, but holds his tongue. Postscript: the teenager goes home and bullies his kid brother.

It’s easy to multiply examples like these: a customer demeans a waitress, a coach bullies a player, a doctor disparages a nurse, a school principal insults a teacher, a teacher humiliates a student, students ostracize other students, a parent belittles a child, an officer abuses a suspect, a professor exploits a teaching assistant, a boss harasses an employee, a caretaker mistreats an invalid.

Most of these behaviours have nothing to do with racism or sexism. Yet the effect on the victims is no different from how it felt to be Jewish, black, or gay until things began to change for those groups. The perpetrators of these insults, like racists and sexists, select their targets with circumspection. In the world of business, it is common for the high-ranking to use the power inherent in their rank to exploit the low-ranking. In each of these examples, what triggers unequal treatment is rank–rank as measured on the somebody-nobody scale.

“Somebodies” are sought after, given preference, lionized. “Nobodies” get insulted, exploited, ignored. Low-rank functions exactly like race and gender–as an unjustifiable impediment to advancement.

Rank-based discrimination deserves a name of its own to distinguish it from racism, sexism, and bad manners. When abuse, discrimination, and injustice are race-based, we call the result racism. When the abuse is gender-based, we call it sexism. By analogy, rank-based abuse, discrimination, and injustice might be called “rankism.”  Once you have a name for it you see it everywhere.

Rankism is abuse and discrimination stemming from a misuse of rank. It’s a dysfunction that occurs in all hierarchies–in government, business, families, the workplace, education and healthcare organizations.

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I left the “working world” from the time my first child was born until my second entered preschool. Except for nap-times, stretches without the children were rare. We couldn’t afford babysitters on one salary. Once in a while we’d manage to escape and attend parties given by my husband’s co-workers, most of them young and child-free. At first I looked forward to getting out into the adult world again, but soon I began to dread it because of the inevitable question, “And what do you do?” Having never before worked so hard, on call 24 hours a day and overwhelmed by the demands of two toddlers, I began to resent being made to feel apologetic for being “just” a mom.

Rank is generally less conspicuous than race or gender, but every bit as consequential. No sooner do people meet, than they begin probing to determine each other’s rank. What do you do? is a soft question with a hard edge. Depending on the answer we may be treated with deference or disregard.

During my [first year at university] I enrolled in a course in English literature. There were only about 16 students and I was looking forward to the kind of learning experience that a small class would afford. The professor conducted the first meeting in his home. As a kind of “getting to know you exercise” he began with, “I’d like all of you to introduce yourselves and tell the rest of us what your father does for a living.” I was dumbfounded. My father was a bus driver. He was a hardworking man and had always taken satisfaction in the fact that he could send me to this prestigious school without even a request for financial aid. Knowing that he was proud of himself and of me, and that suddenly I felt ashamed of him, made the shame doubly acute. One by one the students introduced themselves and followed with their glamorous pedigrees: “My father is a Dean of Harvard Medical School.” “My father teaches at Temple.” “My father is an attorney.”As my turn approached I felt my mouth getting dry. I simply couldn’t bear to tell the truth. I introduced myself and followed with a quick “My father is a transportation engineer.”

Rank entitles, and it limits. It’s a source of pride, and of shame. We struggle for rank, and if we get it, we hang on. People will die in defence of rank titles, and the ranks they distinguish are important to us because they tell us who rules and who is expected to submit to whom. The problem isn’t that rank counts. When it signifies excellence, rank should count and it does. The trouble is that rank counts twice. No sooner is rank assigned than holders of higher rank can use their newfound power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those of lower ranks. Some exercise their rank properly within their area of competence and in a way that respects the dignity of those under their authority, others do not.

Institutional rank abuse skews the judgement of both management and employees away from organizational goals to self-aggrandizement in the first case, self-preservation in the latter. As rank abuse is identified and reduced, individual energy is engaged and mobilized. People who feel recognized as individuals and who feel they have a fair chance at promotion give their companies their best.

In itself, rank, like colour and gender, is neither good nor bad. When it is earned and exercised appropriately, rank is a legitimate and virtually indispensable tool of management. But when the high-ranking abuse their authority, those of lower rank experience discrimination and injustice not different in their material and psychological effects from the discrimination and injustice that we have learned to disallow when the targets belong to trait-based identity-groups.

A closer look at racism and sexism, however, reveals that colour and gender differences are not the actual sources of abuse and discrimination. Colour and gender function rather as indicators of vulnerability. As with the victims of corruption, the actual targeting criterion for perpetrators of the familiar isms is rank.

Our society no longer condones abuse based on race or gender, but inequity based on rank is, for the most part, still overlooked. One could presume that if one overcomes tendencies to racism, sexism, ageism and other narrowly defined forms of prejudice, one would be purged of rankism as well. But rankism is not just another ism; it’s the mother of them all. The familiar kinds of discrimination are simply special cases of rankism. Colour, gender, etc. are excuses for exploiting power differences, not the cause of the resulting injustices.

The notion of “rank” is much more complex than the dichotomy between male and female, the continuum between straight and gay, or even the multi-poled concepts of race and ethnicity. Bob Fuller, author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, writes, “Until mid-century, whole categories of people had no equal opportunity at all.  And then in succession, we focused on colour, and gender, and age, and disability, and sexual orientation. Rank is completely different; rank is mutable.” Not only is it mutable, with each person likely to change rank several times throughout his/her lifetime, but it is also relative. Others can change even as you stay the same, which means that your rank may become different relative to theirs. You can be taken for a nobody one day and for a somebody the next. You can be a nobody at home and a somebody at work, or vice versa. “Nobody” is an epithet used to justify further denigration and inequity. “Nobody” is the N-word of our time.

Fuller continues: “Today, ‘uppity nobodies’ risk their jobs. Yes, there are some protections, but what there isn’t yet is a systematic, society-wide consensus that rankism is wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated any more than racism and sexism. I think we can get there. I think what we have to do is break the taboo about talking about rank as we learned to do with regard to gender and race. Having a name makes the phenomenon visible.”

Bringing fresh eyes to an old malady with a new name can bring a whole new perspective. Our youth today are acting in ways that seem out-of-sync with the more senior members of the workforce. Increasingly, the young are demanding that jobs be compatible with inner satisfaction. They are questioning the assumptions of the somebody mystique, and refusing to play by old rules. Millions of them have postponed employment to search for something that offers meaning and value. Many are choosing to extend their stay in Nobodyland.

Like all newcomers, their seniors initially see the young as a bunch of nobodies or slackers. But unlike in the past, today’s youth seem unconvinced that by subordinating themselves to the current set of somebodies, they’ll eventually join their ranks. They are refusing to delay the pursuit of happiness until after they are successful. Instead, they’re attempting to shape careers that fit into life, and not the other way around.

As each generation comes of age, it takes a critical outsiders look at those that preceded theirs. The young today accuse their seniors of unbalanced ambition, acquisitiveness, status-seeking, cynicism, condescension to underlings, and a willingness to sacrifice personal life for professional advancement.

Like those that came before, they are determined to change the way the career game is played. Unlike their predecessors, however, they are staying out of the game for years, instead of months.

For those now joining the labour force, slavish workaholism, unfair treatment in the office, and other such indignities are unacceptable. They prefer to hang out on their own rather than be ciphers within a group whose goals they do not share. They are mobile, resourceful, multi-skilled, and more prepared than any generation before them to take their chances. Unlike their parents, they do not give their loyalty to a firm, nor do they expect commitment in return. Instead, they consider such work as a simple transaction: the swapping of time and abilities for money. Groping toward a new set of principles that downplay hierarchy and status, they stand for the notions of equal dignity and a more equitable distribution of rewards.

Some time ago, I took my friend Susan out for dinner for her birthday. We ordered an appetizer and main courses, and soon both arrived at the same time. I was upset. Either the appetizer would go uneaten, or the salmon entrée would be cold by the time we got to it. I called the waitress over and began to express my displeasure. She suggested that she take the entrées back to the kitchen.

I could see what that would mean. The main dishes would sit back there and then she’d bring them out again in ten minutes, wilted and lukewarm. I looked her in the eye and told her I wouldn’t accept such a solution. With my jaw set and using my most intimidating tone, I told her in no uncertain terms that if the entrées were not cooked fresh for us, I would be very unhappy. The implied threat couldn’t have been clearer, and I felt so righteously justified about it.

While I was delivering my ultimatum, I glanced at my friend and saw she had a shocked look on her face. I suddenly realized, with stinging embarrassment, what I was doing. I was using my rank, as a customer to a “servant,” and as an older woman to a much younger one, to put the waitress down, threatening her as if she were a child.

In targeting rankism, it is vital to recognize that there is nothing wrong with rank per se; any more than there is anything wrong with race or with gender. When it has been earned and signifies excellence, rank is generally accepted. But when rank is exercised beyond its appropriate domain, or when others are “nobodied,” that’s rankism. Democracy provides recourse to rankism in civic affairs, but in the workplace and in education we must often buckle under or risk our position.

In Fuller’s mind, making rankism visible makes good business sense. “Businesses who have fixed this have improved their bottom line,” he said. “We all got more productive and richer when we rooted out racism and sexism. If you want to make more money, get rid of rankism.” Rankism, in both its interpersonal and institutional guises, still enjoys wide tacit support. Overcoming rankism–in the family, the schools, health care and the workplace–is democracy’s next step. Given its proper name, “rankism” will be seen for what it is–abusive, discriminatory, and unjust–and it will become as hard to defend.

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