The Somebody Mystique and the Rise of the Uppity Nobody

Once the youngest college president in the nation, the board chair of an international nonprofit corporation, an author and a professor, Robert Fuller knows what it is to be a "somebody." It's to experience the power and the respect conferred upon those with rank. But when he left his position as a college president, he also experienced the disrespect and humiliation visited on those of lower rank -- the "nobodies" of the world.

Fuller's life experience has led him to create an over-arching theory of "rankism," which he defines as "abuse and discrimination based on a power difference as signified by rank." He finds a common thread among all the familiar "isms" like sexism and racism, in that they all consist of the abuse of an existing power structure that results in inequity, injustice, or indignity.

somebodiesFuller, author of the new book, "Somebodies and Nobodies," is not advocating the elimination of rank; he fully recognizes the need for hierarchy in society. Instead, he sees an "unheralded, unnamed revolution unfolding in our midst," in which "people are becoming less willing to put up with disrespect." This "dignitarian movement" is based on equal respect for others regardless of rank. He wants to debunk the "somebody mystique" by exposing the cult of personality surrounding the rich, famous and powerful. He wants rankism named and condemned in its every incarnation, from our private lives to our public officials. He sees rankism in many of our current crises, from American Airlines and Enron to the Catholic clergy. "Somebodies and Nobodies" is his shot at doing for rankism what Betty Friedan did for feminism.

AlterNet spoke with Robert Fuller at his home in Berkeley, California.

AlterNet: You talk about eliminating rankism, but not rank. Can you give me an example of an appropriate use of rank, in contrast with an abuse of rank, preferably with the same rank in mind?

Robert Fuller: The Somalia example is a tough example of where America, as the number one ranked military power, and in defiance of many voices, went in and pulled rank and ended a genocide. We did the same thing in Kosovo a few years later. We exercised our rank and stopped two genocides in the last decade. There's an example at the global level of the use of rank, where I think not to have done anything would have been an abuse of our power.

Another kind of funny example I like to give is the chemistry professor walks into the lab and he sees two students playing with chemicals. One of them is about to pour the nitric acid over the glycerin. BOOM. End of campus. He grabs them and stops them in a way that initially seems like an abuse of rank, but actually it's the right use of his rank. He knows that those two chemicals make nitroglycerin. The students don't. His rank is earned and his use of his power is appropriate. There are many cases where rank is valid and legitimate, where not to have any creates anarchy and endless boring committee meetings. That's the tyranny of structurelessness, an odd reverse form of tyranny where the person ends up being the tyrant who has the greatest tolerance for the most boredom. So rank has its place.

On the other hand when we can get past strict rankings, in the degree to which we can get past them and cooperate in a more flexible and fluid way, with less hierarchical discipline, we gain additional economies. Additional efficiencies come from that. Resourcefulness can come. Where it really applies is Silicon Valley. By getting rid of that strict hierarchy you had a much more creative and flexible and productive research team.

What else does the society that you envision look like in day to day life? How do CEOs treat everyone else? How are they treated, once this evolution has occurred?

My answer would be, once we bring rank out of the closet like we've brought race and gender out of the closet. We're free to talk about them now, we're free to object when they're used as the basis of abuse and discrimination. You just call the boss a sexist and he apologizes humbly and tries to fix his behavior.

When you're lucky.

It's not as finished as I'm pretending and I know that, especially around race. But it's infinitely better than when I was a kid, I mean, when I was a kid if a black person protested he was lynched. Period. So we've come a long way, but not on rankism. In rankism when you protest these things, you're still fired. It's the economic equivalent of a lynching, you're basically fired. And I want to see that change. I think it can be changed within 10 years. I think we're on the verge of a dignitarian movement to overcome rankism that's going to create passions analogous to those generated in the women's movement in the '60s.

So back to the CEO, what would that look like in the workplace?

It looks like the employees feel perfectly comfortable asking the boss about the prerogatives of his rank. They say to the CEO: "What can you decide, what can't you decide? To what extent are we consulted about that? What's your salary, what are your bonuses? Are the board meetings open, so we can hear the decision process. Do we have any meaningful representation on the board?"

This is in contrast to what's happening now, for example with American Airlines. [American Airlines asked its unions to agree to deep cuts in salaries, benefits and pensions. The next day it came out that the executives had awarded themselves huge bonuses and that their pensions were protected.] It was such a betrayal of trust, it was such rankism of the senior ranks looking out only for themselves and abusing their decision-making power to decide in favor of increasing their own salaries. Can you believe it?

But isn't that why we have unions? Because we expect top management not to give their workers their due unless the workers organize collectively.

Absolutely, so that handles at least the issue of some kind of decent wages, yes, but that's all it handles. Unions represented a tremendous overcoming of rankism 100 years ago. Until then individuals all stood alone, and anyone who protested was immediately fired. But then the unions made that impossible and bargained collectively to get better wages, so unionism is itself exhibit number two of overcoming rankism. Exhibit number one is democracy. That's when we overcame civic rankism -- the king could no longer cut off your head on a whim, etc. Four-hundred years after that, even 18-year-olds can vote in this country.

It's still widely sanctioned in our society for the higher ranking to get rid of the lower ranking, for no reason other than the whim the king used to have when he chopped off your head, or the whim the white guy used to have when he didn't like the black worker. But in many many cases now, when you look into it, you discover that the only reason the lower ranking person was fired was because they protested about something. It had nothing to do with competence.

We've got to be willing to make those distinctions. There's no way to tell in advance, you have to be willing to look at it. But the presumption now is that the high ranking person is always right and that the nobody that protests is an uppity nobody. I'm mirroring the language of the uppity n-word, it's now unspeakable. Well, the uppity n-word was lynched, tortured. The uppity nobody is fired.

However, there's a shift in the wind. Who were Time magazine's persons of the year this year, do you remember?

Wasn't it the woman from Enron?

Precisely, and two other women, three women, all of whom were whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are the quintessential uppity nobodies, and they weren't fired. There's a shift in the wind now.

But isn't it difficult to organize a movement around something that's inherently relative?

Yes, well, we've done this trait-by-trait overcoming of discriminations and when it was black vs. white at least the traits were absolute, they weren't relative and they weren't mutable. Rank is relative, you can be a somebody in one setting and a nobody in another, it can be one day to the next. That's why this form of discrimination has been the most elusive to get our hands around. That's why "Somebodies and Nobodies" is a little more complicated than "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, which it mirrors in many ways. That book was such a bombshell in this country in '63, it was like an earthquake.

Are you expecting a similar earthquake now?

No, I don't expect anything. It's all timing and all whether people are ready. But if you'd been there last night or the night before, when I did Black Oak Books in Berkeley... I had 100 people both evenings. It was the most passionate, intense discussion I've been in since the 1960s.

What are people most passionate about?

Oh, everybody brings wounds to this issue, the time they recall when they were nobodies. Sometimes it's from yesterday. And they also bring guilt because they all know they've been perpetrators of rankism, too. If you'd been present at either thing you would have felt it in the crowd, the interest. After I spoke, I asked for questions, and there was this sustained, huge ovation in the room. I was astonished, I've never had that before. They ate it up. They want to see rankism named, tackled, exposed. People are mad.

Look at two recent, egregious examples. One is the Catholic clergy. One we've hit on is Enron, where they feathered their own nests at everyone's expense, stole people's pensions. And they'll probably get off, just like all the guys who used to lynch blacks all got off. People are getting madder and madder about this, and they're blaming Bush.

On the interpersonal level, you mention the golden rule. Eliminating rankism sounds a lot like the golden rule.

I kind of discovered that as an afterthought. But you can't reduce this to the golden rule, because the golden rule is ineffectual. Everybody ignores the golden rule. If we'd honored the golden rule there would have been no slavery, there would have been no need for a civil rights movement. What you need is not only to know what you're for, which is the golden rule -- wish it were happening -- you need to know what you're against. You need to know what you won't put up with. We have to have a name for it and be willing to use the name against people who do it.

In certain other cultures you do see much greater regard for the dignity of powerless people than you do in America. Although I've been corrected on this, I'm thinking of Japan, where you see certain kind of protections of each other's dignity. But it's within a very formal context that may actually be a cover story for a lot of rankism.

You touch on this in the book, but in certain kinds of society there is less or no mobility, so rank is fixed. In those societies, the upper ranks are much nicer to lower ranks, basically because there's no threat.

Right. That's perfect.

And that's not what you're advocating by any means.

No, I'm not.

So, you're talking about teaching people to behave well even when they feel very insecure. You could probably trace numerous examples of rankism in your book to feelings of insecurity. But isn't that part of what America gives us, the opportunity to move up, but the risk that you will fall down?

Right, but in many high-tech companies, for example, rising and falling doesn't carry that same dreadful connotation. Because people know, OK, I've been made manager of this research team for three weeks, and by then we have to reach a decision about X, and afterwards it'll all be readjusted and I'll have a different place in it, so the sense of up and down and rank doesn't carry those dreadful fears anymore.

Maybe the small Northern European countries would be good examples of systems in which people are mobile but more secure, but that's partially because they know they can't get too high or too low. I don't know that America could get behind that. We're structured this way on purpose, it's the American dream -- you can get very high and you can fall very hard.

Well, this partially has to do with deconstructing the somebody mystique which Friedan did for the feminine mystique. There's an awful lot of false ideas around what it means to be a somebody and how wonderful it is and how humiliating it is to be a nobody. The language is ambiguous, but I'm using the somebody/nobody language more and more like the masculine/feminine language, in which we see that we have both the masculine and feminine sides in every person, male and female. And likewise we see that within everybody there's a nobody and a somebody, and we need to get on good terms with both those incarnations of ourselves.

For example, right now I'm being a somebody, right now I'm on book tour, I'm a somebody, I appear and I teach as it were. But actually I can hardly wait for my next nobody phase. In nobody-land I feel much more myself, I can have a new idea, I'm not just parroting myself, I'm not just saying something I've already said before. The nobody side is the learning side. The somebody side is the teacher side. Just like masculine and feminine, we need all of us to integrate both. I want to remove the stigma from the word nobody. As it's used generally now in society, nobody is the current n-word.

What does a society look like where we have accomplished this? Are there no celebrities? Are the Academy Awards out the window?

Good question. No, I enjoy the Academy Awards. I enjoy watching that stuff, see what people are wearing. I think that's a legitimate part of our society as a whole, but it has a different meaning. It's like, thank you to Nicole Kidman for sharing your beauty and your acting ability. But that doesn't mean that if I've waited in line an hour that you can come in and walk right in front of me, in a line that has nothing do with either of our professions. In that other line, we're equal. You get in line and stay there and don't expect us to ignore the law about your behavior. I think we're gonna all get good at making those distinctions. And I don't care what Madonna had for breakfast either.

Ah, but there are those people who do care.

Yeah, but they're screwed up. They've lost their sense of self, and they're not treating themselves with any regard and dignity.

You're talking about the cult of personality.

Yes, and it's sick. It's as sick in Hollywood as it was in Stalinist times and as it is now in North Korea which is just an absolutely pathologically sick and suffering society.

Well, I hope we're able to achieve a dignitarian society. You say you feel a lot of energy at your readings, that you see the beginnings of this movement. Where do you see it most?

Young people. Young people get this so quickly. Old people you have to kind of reason them into with a whole bunch of analogies, like racism, which they all went through.

Any movements you would point to, or organizations?

Voice of the Faithful is a dignitarian movement that's arising that thinks of itself as just overcoming rankism in the church, but it's actually much wider.

And another unorganized movement is what's happening in health care, where millions of people are going to see their doctor having been members of Internet-based support groups, so they come in informed about their illness. They go in knowing almost as much as their doc, but not having the experience of their doc with thousands of patients. That's happening everywhere, that's an empowering of people in overcoming the rankism of the medical profession. It still however is egregious for nurses, in terms of what they suffer and how badly they're compensated, and how the docs skim off the top just like the Enron execs.

So we have a long way to go.

We have a huge distance to go. But the book just came out ... you're in the first three weeks of it.

Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a former staff writer at AlterNet.


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