Inching Our Way Towards Universal Dignity: An Interview with Robert Fuller


Robert Fuller discusses his new novel, The Rowan Tree, as well as his favorite subjects: rankism and the dignity movement.


Robert Fuller is the author of a new novel, The Rowan Tree . He is also a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and a leader of the dignity movement to overcome rankism. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president’s Commission on World Hunger, worked in the USSR to defuse the Cold War, and keynoted a Dignity for All conference hosted by the president of Bangladesh.

We spoke to him about his novel, which in many ways is a reflection of his own career political ideals.


GMP: You are an authority on many things—you coined the word “rankism” and you try to foster the dignity movement which aims to overcome rank-based abuse. You also hold a PH.D. in physics at Princeton, and have authored two non-fiction books. With so much work that you are doing in reality, how did you come to write a novel?

RWF: Actually I began the novel before my book on rankism (Somebodies and Nobodies), and it was in the unfettered realm of the imagination that I first saw clearly what had been staring me in the face as an activist for civil, women’s, and gay rights. Namely, that everyone wants dignity for him or herself, but is not always willing to grant it to others. Then, I clarified this idea in non-fictional form, and finally returned to the novel where I made it the through-line that connects the dots.

Fiction and non-fiction often go hand-in-hand. If you’ve got something you want to say, it can as well take either form. The important thing is to start. More often than not, if something is sounding in your head, it will, over time, do so in several genres, and they will mutually illuminate each other. Fiction shows; non-fiction explains. They complement each other.



GMP: You became President of Oberlin in 1970, much like the protagonist Rowan in the book. Is there a particular difficulty figuring out how to tell a story that is part fiction, part grounded in your own reality?

RWF: Yes, there are times that a story cuts close to the bone, but often that’s what gives it an edge. The Rowan Tree draws on my insider’s knowledge of Academia. It is not a pretty picture. The public’s idealization of academic life is as naive as was my generation’s (people alive during World War II) idealization of American life.



GMP: You start out the novel letting us know that Rowan has come to Jefferson College as President in order to create change. What words of advice would you give to the activists of today who really want to create change – especially when it comes to the areas of racism, sexism and homophobia?

RWF: A different strategy is needed today than in the sixties and seventies. I remember that when I arrived at Oberlin College in 1970, one of the few African-Americans there pulled me aside and told me that I should, “either lead the parade or go fishing.” I had not taken the job to go fishing, but his words confirmed my instinct to get out front and confront the stand-pat majority. A decade later, all across America, those who opposed minority rights had been put on the defensive. This may not sound like much to those still struggling for equal rights, but it was a milestone in social evolution.

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.



GMP: What books or characters in books were your inspiration for The Rowan Tree?

RWF: Les Misérables (Hugo); War and Peace (Tolstoy); Life and Fate (Grossman); Of Time and the River (Wolfe); Dr. Zhivago (Pasternak); The King Arthur story as told in Sword at Sunset (Sutcliffe); East of Eden (Steinbeck); The Education of Henry Adams (Adams); Portrait of a Lady (James); The Great Fire (Hazzard)



GMP: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen on college campuses since the 1970’s? And what do you think is the biggest problem still to be solved?

RWF: The cost of a college education has risen beyond the means of the middle class. This breaks the promise implicit in the American dream. The biggest problem that remains is the same one that plagues American society: rankism—abuses of power signified by rank.

Rankism is rampant in Academia and in America. My generation put a dent in the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, etc., but they all persist. Identifying and rooting out rankism is the task of the generation now coming of age. The Rowan Tree begins in the turbulent sixties, and concludes by showing how a dignitarian society—one that disallows rankism—might emerge.



GMP: There’s a scene in the novel where Rowan is at a dinner party, speaking to guests about the reforms he plans to make. And Rowan notes, “As at Jefferson, the conservatives were full of questions but didn’t want them answered, and the liberals were full of answers and didn’t want them questioned.” Do you see that same divide happening in the political parties of today? Can you give some examples?

RWF: Yes, the stand-off between liberals and conservatives persists unabated. I think we’re headed toward a dramatic showdown, perhaps late in this second decade of the 21st century. In stark terms, the issue is whether we are a society with mutual responsibilities and obligations to all who contribute, or do most of the rewards go to the managerial class while everyone else subsists? I think the voting public will reverse the anti-egalitiarian trend of recent decades and opt for a dignitarian society as described in The Rowan Tree. Dignity is not negotiable: It’s your right, and it’s also everyone else’s.



GMP: A theme throughout your book is “love shapes politics”. Do you think the political problems of our nation could be solved through more love? What would that look like?

RW: Our problems would indeed be solved if love “broke out all over,” but it won’t happen that way. It never does. In the novel, the idea that “love leads politics” means that forbidden love can point the way to overcoming entrenched political conflict. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Their love defied social expectations but it pointed to a harmony beyond sectarian strife.

A precondition for a society to manifest love is the affirmation and protection of the dignity of every last one of its members. We are not there yet. But, as progress in overcoming racism, sexism, and all the other ignoble isms shows, the human species is inching its way toward universal dignity. Then, only then, begins a world without war, predation, discrimination, and inequity. In the face of the abuses that fill the news, this sounds utopian. The Rowan Tree shows that such a world is actually within reach.

As Iris Murdock says, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” The Rowan Tree paints a picture that humankind could come to resemble.

The Rowan Tree is reviewed on The Good Men Project here.

Also from Robert Fuller on GMP: What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?

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  1. Valter Viglietti says:

    I agree with Fuller’s ideal and I admire him for his works.

    Nevertheless, I have some doubt about “the human species is inching its way toward universal dignity. Then, only then, begins a world without war, predation, discrimination, and inequity. In the face of the abuses that fill the news, this sounds utopian”.
    And my doubts are especially about the way we treat animals and Nature. If I get it correctly, Fuller’s “universal dignity” is about human beings ONLY. Most people would think “That’s fine, human beings are what really matters”.

    But this attitude would still be dividing the world into “superior” and “inferior” beings; it would still be rankism.
    Until we exploit, predate and abuse animals and Nature (and we feel entitled to do that because we hold ourselves as “superior”), we would be just a step away from exploit, predate and abuse another human being (as long as we can look at him as different from us).

    The problem with rankism is greed.
    Until we feed our greed, until we give it any excuse in order to get something more (disregarding the harm to other beings), our greed will want more and more (it’s its nature), and it will not stop – no matter what.
    Thus, IMO, universal dignity, to be really effective, should encompass EVERY living being. Otherwise, it will be just an improvement, not a solution.

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