While it would be dangerously naive to imagine that we've overcome racism or sexism, we have dragged them into the light of discussion, they have been legislated against, and they have been given a name. Back in the 1960s, if a boss had patted my mother on the rump by way of "Good morning" (as I'm sure more than one did), she wouldn't have known what to call the behavior. She might even have been confused about whether it constituted an insult or a compliment. Flash-forward four decades, and you have my 11-year-old daughter's generation, ready to say "Hey, that's sexist!" faster than you or I can say "Whoa." If something pernicious has a name, it's easier to draw lines around it.
Sexist, racist, elitist—just ask any politician if these epithets sting. According to the author Robert W. Fuller, we all have a new one to learn: rankist. This is the term he coined for what he says is the mother of all social injustice. His goal in publishing the book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society), was to make it "okay to discuss the uses of power with those holding positions of authority, with an eye toward distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate uses of power."
His bottom line is not that rank itself is bad. He makes it very clear from the start that he thinks humans differ greatly in talent and skill levels and that hierarchical arrangements are the best way we've found to manage our lives. What he means by rankism is a sort of worldwide epidemic of kicking the dog, a perpetual habit of abusing those we perceive as being lower on the ladder and of being abused by those above. A soccer mom yelling at her kid on the sideline, an executive telling his assistant to skip lunch and go pick up his dry cleaning, a tenured professor taking credit for research done by a grad student—all of this is rankist and has to stop.
Rankist behavior can be found at every stage in an organization; it's not always the CEO who's the culprit. One of the most cringe-making examples I've heard of took place at the lowest rung: A magazine intern arrived for her first day on the job as chicly put together as she could be. She had agonized about her outfit all weekend, trying things on and pulling them off again, before finally settling on a black suit with a cream T-shirt and a long silk scarf draped around her neck. When she reported for duty, she was assigned to an assistant editor, just a year or two older than herself, who'd only been employed for a few months. The assistant's workspace was crowded, with papers, books, and CDs everywhere. It was clear they would be busy. What wasn't clear was why the assistant took a cold look at the intern in her smart new clothes and then ordered her to go under the desk and organize the morass of papers stored there. She was not to pull the material out and sort it elsewhere, she was to stay under the desk until it was all done. Apparently, in the hours it took, the assistant sat at the desk talking on the phone, swinging her legs back and forth, occasionally kicking the intern as she spun. When I was first told this story, I was so shocked I laughed. But my revulsion was nothing compared to what the former intern must feel every time she recalls that morning. Fuller believes we've allowed this kind of discrimination to flourish because it seems disconnected from race or age or sexual orientation—seems, in fact, just the way things are. His goal is to have us identify such humiliations so that they can be ended. Put simply, his thesis is that none of us will live balanced lives until we fully embrace the principle that "dignity is not negotiable."