Rankism: The Poison that Destroys Relationships

Robert Fuller discusses the roots of discrimination and assaults on human dignity.

Relationships take many forms but they’re all vulnerable to the same poison—rankism.

Relationships can be interpersonal (between friends or strangers; partners or relatives). They can be intergroup (between religions, sects, races, classes, males and females, straights and gays, Republicans and Democrats. And they can be international (Germany and France; the U.S. and China).

Regardless of the level of relationship, when either party presumes its superiority over the other, and treats its opposite number as a “nobody,” things go south. Rankism is a degrading assertion of rank. It’s what’s happening when a person, a group, or nation acts as if it outranks another and attempts to demean, humiliate, or exploit it.

When we suspect we’ve been poisoned, we go to the doctor for a diagnosis and hope there’s an antidote. A toxin that afflicts many relationships is rankism. The universal antidote to rankism is dignity for all parties.

The Familiar “Isms”: Trait-based Excuses for Abuses

I’ll return to rankism and its antidote in a moment, but first let me take a moment to explain where this began for me. I got a close look at the poison of rankism in second grade when my classmate Arlene was sent into the hall for the whole day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school every day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day Miss Belcher told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how Arlene could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us. Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed—hiding her face against the wall, trying to make her­self small. Arlene felt like a nobody. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure it never happened to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as nobodies, and so as legitimate targets of abuse, included Frank, who was shamed with the F-word; Jimmy, who had Down syndrome and was ridiculed with the R-word; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased for their weight. The N-word was used warily, typically from the safety of the bus carrying our all-white basketball team home in the wake of a loss to a school fielding black players.

Not belonging to any of the groups targeted for abuse, I was spared—till I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing a pecking order. I found myself playing games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmate Arlene.

The toxic relationships mentioned above are all based on a trait that marks people for abuse—class (Arlene), sexuality (Frank), disability (Jimmy), body shape (Tommie and Trudy), color, and academic standing. Even with none of the traits that marks you for abuse, you can be treated as a nobody by someone who is simply trying to make him- or herself feel better.

Why Dignity Matters

Emily Dickinson spoke for Arlene and me, and for nobodies everywhere, in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

As Dickinson notes, nobodies are on the lookout for allies, and wary of banishment. As social animals, banishment was long tantamount to a death sentence. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive even to the slightest indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that we have a place, that we’re not in danger of being “nobodied,” ostracized, or exiled.

This article makes the case that there are no valid justifications for treating anyone as a nobody—that is, for rankism—any more than there ever was a justification for racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, or homophobia.

Rankism Is the Poison, Not Rank

By now, you’re probably thinking “But wait. Some people do have higher status than others; some people are more talented.” Yes, some people do outrank other people in the sense that they’re higher in a hierarchy. And some people outrank others in the sense that they’re better at something, e.g., basketball, geometry, violin, attracting suitors, etc. It’s indisputable that such rankings exist, and that when rank is earned in a fair competition, it can be a useful indicator of skill and experience. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. We want the math teacher to teach algebra, not the coach. Movie stars exist, and most of us are not listed among them. We admire people of high rank so long as they’ve earned it and they respect our dignity.

But we do not feel kindly toward people who abuse their rank. Therein lies the poison: not in the fact of rank itself (when it’s legitimate), but rather in the abuse of rank (legitimate or not).

Rankism sours relationships. Indeed, it’s the source of most manmade indignity. Over time, rankism warps relationships, and, left unchallenged, it kills them. Most of the time, the answer to “What poisons relationships?” is rankism. Likewise, what poisons race or gender relations isn’t color or gender differences per se. These differences are simply excuses for abuses which serve another purpose: they impose a handicap on some people to the advantage of others.

Rankism is what people who think of themselves as somebodies do to people they take for nobodies. Rankism is pulling rank, putting people down, advantaging oneself at others’ expense. Rankism is dominating or exploiting others.

Examples of rankism include all the ignoble isms (racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, etc.), as well as bullying of every kind, predatory lending, corporate corruption, sexual abuse, and pay-to-play politics. Whenever rank in one realm is used to undermine fair competition and so win rank in another realm, that’s rankism.

Victims of rankism feel degraded, dismissed, discounted, disenfranchised, dissed, indignified, and humiliated. When we’re put down, when our dignity is insulted, we feel indignant. We then have two options: dish it back, or stifle the desire to strike back, a response that may be dictated by the power advantage that typically comes with higher rank. We may choose to suffer in silence, but we’re apt to remember the insult—for decades!

Groups and nations don’t forget either. In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious allies humiliated the Germans, and that made them more susceptible to the racist demagoguery of Hitler and to the resumption of war once there was a chance to get even. One Nazi SS officer, reminiscing about German military victories in the early years of World War II, remarked: “It was with unrivaled pride that we saw the world. We were somebody.” Just a few years later, the “thousand-year Reich” lay in ashes. The difference between WW II and a nuclear WW III will be that after WW III, the world will lie in radioactive ashes.

Isn’t Rankism Human Nature?

But, isn’t rankism one of those unpleasant but immutable facts of life? Isn’t it written in our DNA? Isn’t rankism human nature?

Racism and sexism were long regarded as human nature, but it’s now obvious that we weren’t stuck with them after all. In more and more places, these isms are losing legitimacy. To be openly racist, sexist, or homophobic today is to disqualify yourself for advancement, if not to forfeit your job. How did this come to pass? Could we disallow and delegitimize rankism as we have other isms, or will “Dignity for All” remain a utopian dream?

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had acquired a name—“sexism”—and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and sexism). That’s why pinning a name on the behavior that poisons relationships is a vital step toward ridding ourselves of it. Within a few years of naming sexism, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, and Title Nine had become law.

As president of Oberlin College during the early seventies, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and demand equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, even retired faculty and staff. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was revealed, and rejected, as specious. So, if you believe rankism is human nature, be aware that what is regarded as human nature is highly malleable. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over decades.

The Demise of an Ism

Let me use my own family to illustrate how an ism can lose its grip.

• My great-grandparents regarded racist slurs as self-evident truths.

• My grandparents didn’t parade their racism, but used the N-word.

• My parents muted racism in their speech, but it lurked in their hearts.

• I grew up committed to civil rights, but was initially perplexed by slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and by Gay Pride celebrations.

• My children dated interracially.

• My grandchildren are of different races, and don’t understand what the fuss is about. They wouldn’t object if MLK-day were skipped now and then, not because they find fault with its ideals, but because it’s belaboring something they already know.

It seems to take at least a half-dozen generations to purge society of an ism. Political correctness, though it may rankle initially, helps us replace habits that do others harm with ones that respect others’ dignity. Granted that six generations is a long time, but it’s not forever.

The task confronting us today is to put rankism in the doghouse alongside the other disreputable isms. Make it uncool. This means ceasing to put individuals, groups, or other countries down. It means protecting others’ dignity as if it were our own. Sound familiar? It’s the golden rule of dignity, which rules out bullying, teasing, ridicule, and making fun of others. When these behaviors are permitted, potential targets—and who isn’t one at some point?—must devote considerable energy and attention to protecting their dignity. A culture of indignity imposes a tax on its members’ health, creativity, and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The Dignity Movement Finds Its Feet

All over the world, people are now standing up for their dignity. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Russia, China, and the Occupy Movement. People are no longer willing to be treated like nobodies; they’re demanding to be treated like somebodies. Once people stand up for their dignity, it’s not long before they’re marching for justice.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s immense fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who stands up to the schoolyard bully is another, especially if he is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the bully. What makes rankism especially hard to dislodge is that victims cannot indulge in rankism themselves if they’re truly committed to ending it. Rather, victims of rank abuse must protect the dignity of their tormentors while at the same time bringing about the cessation of rankism.

The familiar isms are not dead and gone, but they’re zombies, running scared. Every one of them is on the defensive. Democracy’s next step is to make “rankist” as undesirable an accusation as “racist” or “sexist.” Rankism is a bigger challenge than the familiar isms, but we’re now ready to take it on.

Rankism Has Reached Its “Sell-by” Date

Rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more.

(1) The weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less of a sure thing. Using weapons of indiscriminate destruction and mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

(2) The power that dignitarian groups can marshal exceeds that of groups driven by fear and force. When everyone has a respected place, everyone is working for him- or herself as well as for the group. That’s why “Dignity for All” is a winning strategy. It facilitates closer cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just “nice,” they’re a formula for group success, and their opposites are a formula for infighting, dysfunctionality, and eventual failure. Rankism now deselects those who practice it.

If we can put the spotlight on rankism and, over time, purge relationships of this poison, then we’ll have changed the world, perhaps even saved it. In a dignitarian society, appellations such as “somebody” and “nobody” will only be used ironically because everyone will understand that there are no nobodies, that everyone is a somebody, and dignity a universal birthright. Acting like you’re somebody special or treating anyone else as a nobody, will be seen as self-important, pompous, and ultimately, as barbaric.

Opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. An important part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.

Photo — Shutterstock

About Robert Fuller

Before he was swept up in the movements of the sixties, Robert Fuller taught physics at Columbia University. In the early seventies, as president of Oberlin, he led the College through a series of reforms that drew national attention. During the eighties, he worked on bridge-building projects with Soviet scientists. With the end of the Cold War, he noticed that others had begun treating him like a Nobody. His reflections on his time in Nobodyland, became the subject of two books: Somebodies and Nobodies (introducing the concept of rankism), and All Rise (on the politics of dignity). For the last ten years, he has been speaking worldwide on dignity and rankism. He lives in Berkeley, CA, and has four grown children.


  1. To pwisax: Exactly so: “soldiers respect the rank, but not the rankism shown by the rankholder.” Thanks for this telling example, which also demonstrates the validity of rank in certain circumstances. Imagine trying to fight a battle where decisions are made on the battlefield by democratic voting.

  2. In the military there’s a saying about unpopular or unfair commanders: “we respect the rank, not the man.” Senior enlisted, especially, can be very effective in letting a commander know that he is not making decisions with his unit in mind while still keeping to the Yessir-Nosir protocol of daily military life.

    The analogy here would be that the soldiers respect the rank, but not the rankism shown by the rankholder.

  3. Robert Fuller says:

    The article does not attack rank per se. Rather it attacks abuses of the power that are vested in rank. Hierarchies are indeed often useful. They allow us to make decisions in a timely manner. Some should be flatter, yes, but probably not leveled, at least until we have a better decision-making tool. But rankism is another matter. It’s invariably dysfunctional and handicaps organizations and societies that condone it. As the title of one of the sub-sections of the piece says: “Rankism is the poison, not rank.”

  4. Rankism may not be escapable. Every society ever studied with few exceptions has hierarchy and rank. Our society probably has it to the least extent because of our anonymity. I would say that it is a fundamental feature of being human and it has extremely deep roots, probably biological.

    The other thing I find humorous is that the Left and liberals though they critique rankism when it comes to Race, Sex etc, most certainly do have tonnes of Rankism. What is feminism, anti-racism, other than a way of establishing another form of hierarchy where whoever is most liberal is the BEST.

    This is why someone like Amanda Marcotte brags about how she would never date anyone who isn’t extremely liberal and an ultra-feminist. Its pretty hilarious to me. You won’t accept me unless I think exactly like you do and you think that isn’t exclusionary. Ok. But the way she wrote it always stuck out in my head. As if to say I am such a strong confident amazing progressive that my standards are really high and uncompromising and that is why I am better than you.

    Liberal and lefties basically establish rank by talking about how unacceptable various behaviours are. A great example is SkeptiChick and her post about the couple who left her a naked picture asking her for a threesome.


    She lists 8 points why this wrong in bold. And she proceeds to get really outraged about how dickish some people are because they don’t conform to her own personal whims justified as usual by liberal bullshit. There are only two places where I have seen this contradiction pointed out. One was the Rebel Sell and the other is the site SWPL where they skewer white liberal faux outrage:



    • I’m being snarky here, but someone didn’t have their reading comprehension hat on. As Robert said below, and as I said above, it’s not about escaping rank itself. It’s about people using rank to abuse others. As I said, I have no problem with people being very wealthy. As long as they earned that fairly and without exploitation, then good for them. I don’t aspire to be massively wealthy, since money does not hold that much value to me. I only wish to have enough to comfortably pay my bills and take a vacation every once in a while, which I feel like right now is actually dreaming somewhat big. Or such is the same when someone is physically stronger than me, more talented, more beautiful, etc. These are all things I can live with.

      It crosses the line when those who are more wealthy, stronger, talented, smarter, etc. start to look down on those who are not as ________ as them. That those who do not possess those qualities or wealth are somehow inferior, and not worth any dignity as human beings. That they DESERVE to be exploited. Are people who lean politically to the left capable of rankism? Yes, of course. Just like everyone else. This includes you too. We must all acknowledge our rankism if we are to fix it.

      • Robert Fuller says:

        Thanks for adding that all parts of the political spectrum indulge in rankism. In different ways and styles, perhaps, but abuses of the power attached to rank crop up everywhere, just as racism and sexism and homophobia used to be supported by both parties. What right and left should be able to agree upon, however, is that no one deserves indignity. “Even” prisoners (especially prisoners) must be treated with dignity while they serve their time (the recidivism rate drops remarkably when they are) as demonstrated in this prison in Virginia: Dignitarian Community Model of Prison Reform:

      • The comment by Steph makes me uneasy.

        Above, Steph states some identification with the message of the Occupy movement. Steph goes on to argue that wealth is okay so long as it is earned “fairly and without exploitation.”

        Having spent time talking with Occupiers in my local city, I’m certain that Steph’s definitions of “fair” and “exploitation” are very different than mine. As a result, there will appear to be “rankism” to Steph in places where I do not feel there is any at all.

        It seems great saying that “rankism is the problem,” but if this just means certain groups begin to see “rankism” everywhere, does this really help at all?

        • Well there are certainly grey areas about what is considered exploiting. I consider the Beauty Industry as exploitative – it capitalises and fuels people’s insecurities in order to get them to buy a product. A company that offers only unpaid internships and no future job security to young graduates is exploitative. Any company that takes taxpayer money and does not pay it back or misuses it is unfair. Overworking employees and underpaying them is exploitative.

          Generally speaking, what is considered unethical behavior, like cheating or lying to get money, is how I rate anyone not deserving of their wealth. Huge, monolithic corporations that buy out the average citizen’s vote and voice is unethical. Monopolies are unfair, that’s why we had anti-trust laws, to prevent them from becoming too big and wiping out competitors. By buying out competition, it stagnates innovation. Which is silly, because competition is better for business. Makes it so the company has to become more efficient, more creative. Starve the beast, so they say.

          Ayn Rand was all about rationalized self-interest, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, no help from anyone, etc. Which is fine, up until the point where she says that those who earn less are inherently inferior and deserve no dignity simply because they aren’t out becoming millionaires. Not everyone can be a millionaire or billionaire. That’s just not possible. I certainly don’t expect to be one, and I don’t want to be one. I don’t need a billion dollars. I simply want a comfortable middle class life. Why does this make me lazy? Why isn’t it considered realistic? Why can’t I lobby for my right to a livable wage? That’s all I’m asking for. The ability to pay my bills and take a vacation every once in a while. How is it that my satisfaction or contentment with living comfortably but within my means suddenly contemptible and that I now deserve no dignity? That I do not deserve pay at an internship for the work I do? Why is poverty demonized?

          This is what I mean. That I am looked down upon because I am happy with middle class. That this somehow makes me lazy. And that because I am “lazy”, I am inferior. Something to be exploited. This is what I find wrong. I just want to buy a house one day. I fear that I will not be able to do that.

          • Steph,

            We are not ever going to agree.

            You keep mentioning Ayn Rand, and I don’t really understand why. Disagreeing with the Occupy movement does not automatically mean you agree with Rand’s writings. There are a great many of us that disagree with the Occupy movement for reasons that have nothing to do with a school of philosophy founded by a fiction writer.

            To address some of your other points:
            The beauty industry, like any other industry, cannot sell a product that people do not want to buy. Thousands of products fail every single year because people actually have to want a product in order for it to succeed. There is nothing exploitative about selling people things they want.

            The “average citizen’s vote” cannot actually be purchased. The links between money and elections have been studied by economists and there is no evidence that elections are purchased. When a politician outspends another (like when Obama outspent McCain), this is usually indicative of the more popular politician being able to attract more donations in the first place. In other words, the causation is reversed: popular politicians attract donations, donations do not create popular politicians.

            In instances where an unpopular politician attempts to “buy” the vote, they fail. In California Meg Whitman vastly outspent her opponent, Jerry Brown, by reaching into her own pocket. This failed because votes cannot actually be purchased.

            The arguments on monopolies are weak and outdated. First, some monopolies are necessary in order to achieve economies of scale. Examples include your local power and water companies. It is simply not economical to build a power plant unless you can guarantee a certain minimum number of customers. However, most people would rather have electricity and buy it from a local monopoly than have no electricity at all. As a result, some monopolies are necessary.

            The bit about “that’s why we have anti-monopoly laws” is silly. We also have laws against gay marriage in many states. This does not mean gay marriage is bad for society. Saying “but it’s against the law!” does not mean it is actually bad for society.

            I don’t know if you know anyone who works in the banking industry, but I do. I majored in economics (I’m in grad school now) and many of my friends work in finance. Believe it or not, they never get together and hold “We hate poor people!” meetings.

            None of my friends went to Harvard or Yale, nor are they from “old families” with trust funds. A large number are the children of first generation immigrants from countries in Asia whose parents worked in restaurants as waiters, cooks, and dishwashers. They got jobs with companies like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo by working very hard in classes with titles like “Matrix Algebra” and “Time Series Econometrics” and “Proof-Based Statistical Analysis.” They took these classes at public schools like UC Berkeley and UCLA.

            Yet, because of their chosen profession members of the Occupy movement (and indeed Good Men Project contributors as well) argue that they should be jailed for things like “exploitation.” They are derided as “privileged” even as they continue to pay off student loans. They are labeled “what is wrong with America” for the crime of doing the jobs that they worked so hard to get in the first place.

            Is there rankism in this story? Sure. But it’s not coming from the bankers.

          • Steph, if it’s okay just to be middle class, that hints that maybe there is something substantial and worth concern behind all the criticism leveled at our age’s cut-throat competition and relentless consumerism.

            I think a lot of people cling to those things because they’re known, familiar, and status quo – or might bring them wealth and status if they don’t have it yet. So they adjust their beliefs to fit.

            The alternative would be the unknown: something to fear. Insert your boogeyperson here (socialism, feminazism, social pussification, national decline).

    • @assman 6/12 “Rankism may not be escapable. Every society ever studied with few exceptions has hierarchy and rank. Our society probably has it to the least extent because of our anonymity. I would say that it is a fundamental feature of being human and it has extremely deep roots, probably biological.”

      Biological or not (I don’t buy that line of thought), the real question is [i]not[/i] “let’s make everyone equal.” That’s a strawman so full of holes it’s come to stand for “I refuse to discuss this substantively.” What the question is – or ought to be anyway – is “how much rank? how high? over whom, and when?”

      Now that’s complicated. At least a 4-way question and probably more-way. No wonder many refuse to discuss it. It threatens to blow the lid off a lot of unquestioned assumptions we have about our society. But it’s the brave thing, and the wise thing, to do. Not to be afraid of.

  5. Karuna Nundy says:

    This is great ideation, elegantly framed. It invites one to step forward into a gentler, kinder world; in which we know that those parts of ourselves that are less than brilliant are as welcome as those that shine.

  6. Such is the reason why I have a huge problem with Ayn Randian thinking and policy. I do not have a problem with someone becoming wealthy. I don’t “want to steal their mercedes”. I have a problem with that person if they think their money somehow makes them better than me. More special, more worthy, more whatever. That I’m a nobody, simply because I don’t have a lot of money nor do I aspire to be insanely wealthy. I think that’s a problem that most of the people in my generation have as well. It’s the main message of the Occupy movement. It’s not that we hate people with money. It’s that we hate people who use their money to abuse those who don’t. Or they use their money to take even more from the already poor. Or they use their money to gain more power over what happens in this country, and drowning out the poor person’s voice. To treat those with less wealth or material possessions as not worthy of dignity. That is what I have a problem with.

    • Robert Fuller says:

      That’s it exactly. Thanks for your illuminating comment.

    • Poester99 says:

      Them having more money simply means they have more money. There are many possible reasons for this and it should not be assumed that they are better that anybody else for that. The problem is that the worship of success is frequently a two way street, with the “little people” (and I use that facetiously) treating famous and rich people as if they are special, in categories other than simply the possession of wealth or fame.


  1. […] As for today, I believe progress toward equal dignity will be faster if we target not one narrowly-defined ism after another—as if they were unrelated maladies—but rather attack the common source of them all. All the ignoble isms have their source in predation; they are all subspecies of rankism in the same way that all the organ-specific cancers originate in genetic malfunction. We can go after the various kinds of cancer, one at a time, or we can eliminate malignancy in general by intervening at the “genomic” level where the problem arises. I explain this broad “genetic-level” strategy for attacking the trait-based isms in this article—Rankism: The Poison that Destroys Relationships. […]

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