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Robert Fuller

. . . social critic and author. Once a physics professor at Columbia University, Dr. Fuller was president of Oberlin College in the 1970s where he led educational reforms that got national attention. He participated for many years as an international advocate for “citizen diplomacy.” Now Robert Fuller exposes and explores wide spread abuses of power which he calls “rankism” in his book, Somebodies and Nobodies.

Excerpts3:11 secs

“Rankism” is the mother of all “isms,” according to Robert Fuller. A former physicist and once a college president, he coined “rankism” to describe the abuse of power based on a person’s rank, having experienced it first hand. Now he champions a “dignitarian” movement as an alternative to “rankism.”  

Rank connects to power, Dr. Fuller says, because power is what rank measures in our relationships. He believes addressing rankism is both a strategy for social justice -- disallow all abuses of power based on a person’s rank -- and the basis for operationalizing an ethical system -- follow the Golden Rule.

It’s the abuses of power -- not power itself -- that Dr. Fuller finds objectionable. Yes, it’s silly to protest power differences, he says, they’re just a fact of life. And, yes, we are a predator species, he maintains, we exploit any power advantage available.  But, he says, we’re also smart enough to build elaborate countervailing forces.  Democracy is his Exhibit Number One, the labor and union movements Exhibit Number Two, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement Number Three and Four. A “dignitarian” movement to end “rankism” would be a worthy Exhibit Number Five.

This “rankism” -- people taking unfair advantage of their positions of authority, from the very top to the very bottom of societies -- is a chronic condition among individuals at all levels and positions, Dr. Fuller says, from the guy at the counter yelling at a waitress because he’s the customer to corporate executives slashing jobs while padding their own bonuses. But the abuses go much further, he believes. “Rankism” is acceptable in practically every institution across society -- from businesses, organizations and government to families, schools, workplaces, social settings and the church. Just as racism and sexism were once acceptable but no longer are tolerated, it’s time to bring “rankism” and the harm it does out of the closet, he says.

Robert Fuller sees great precedents for “de-constructing” rankism in the United States: America’s ongoing experiment with democracy; the labor and union movements; the civil rights movement and the women’s movement all bode well, he says. The next step, Dr. Fuller believes, is for America to stay this noble course by moving beyond abuses of power. Disallow rankism.

Attitudes are beginning to change and people are beginning to demand dignity, he believes. Just as certain racist and sexist indignities are simply no longer acceptable, it’s time to build dignity. End today’s taboo about discussing the harm rankism does. Assign responsibility to those who abuse their positions of power, whether in the home, the church, the classroom, the corporate executive suite, the halls of government or the international scene.  Robert Fuller is convinced that the society that is first to end rankism and champion dignity will lead the world in the 21st century.

[This Program was recorded May 1, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Robert Fuller tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how a strategy for social justice and a theory of ethics grew out of his consideration of rank and its abuses. Dr. Fuller describes hierarchy and its paradoxes.

Conversation 2

Dr. Fuller gives a series of examples of the authority that comes with high rank being exercised appropriately and contrasts it to when that authority is improper. He introduces an active role for the “Golden Rule.”  He compares “rankism” to racism and sexism and recalls how the latter two “isms” fell out of favor during his lifetime, hopeful rankism is next. He describes his own experiences, when people of greater power feel free to break promises to those of lesser power. Rankism is the mother of all ‘isms,” Dr. Fuller declares, confident that the country in the world that first overcomes rankism will prevail.

Conversation 3

There are already institutions and businesses which have moved beyond rankism, Dr. Fuller says, with a range of examples. He defines “rankism” and expands on one kind of rankism over the centuries -- when powerful men have abused their rank to demand sexual relations with less powerful people. Now, Dr. Fuller notes, sexual harassment is generally considered unacceptable and illegal.

Conversation 4

Rankism in the educational system is unacceptable, Dr. Fuller says.  He explains why he objects to “requirements” for students and what he sees as the weakness of the tenure system for faculty. He draws from his own experience on both counts, confident that especially college students stand a better chance of becoming life-long learners if they have the final choice on what courses they take. He describes the strength of people working together when abuse is absent from rank, giving examples of how this might work.

Conversation 5

“Rankism” is crippling to the “Nobodies” who are denied respect or rights, Dr. Fuller believes, adding that it is also crippling to the “Somebodies,”because it distorts their character and their souls. He expresses his confidence that America could exercise leadership in the world if it were to lead in overcoming “rankism.” Power differences are a fact of life, he observes, but that does not justify abusing those differences. He offers examples on the international scene and in issues of domestic American governance. Democracy is a wonderful invention for overcoming rankism, he says, and expands. While humans are a predator species, Dr. Fuller remains confident we can build a “dignitarian” movement against rankism.

Conversation 6

The level of indignity attached to rankism is not acceptable, Dr. Fuller insists. He expresses his conviction that the abuse of power causes indignity and indignity causes indignation, with ethical lapses resulting from abuses. He urges us to operationalize the Golden Rule.


We thank Bob Fuller and his wife, Claire Sheridan, for making sure that they included us when they were traveling the country in support of Somebodies and Nobodies.

Special appreciation to Jacquie Lowell at “A-HA! Creativity + Humor” and Oberlin Class of ‘69, for introducing us to Bob Fuller and his ideas.

Related Links:
You can find more from and about Robert Fuller and others who are concerned that “Dignity is Not Negotiable” at the “Breaking Ranks” website.

Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank is published by New Society Publishers

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