Rankism: The Poison that Destroys Relationships

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

  6. 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.


  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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