If you glanced at my résumé you might assume that the high point of my life was at age thirty-three, being appointed as the president of Oberlin College. But something more significant than anything on my résumé happened a few years after I’d left that job. My awakening, in a shabby Greenwich Village phone booth, marked the beginning of a quest that would culminate, decades later.
I was awaiting a call from a foundation executive with whom I’d done business while at Oberlin. Despite my changed circumstances—no institutional tie, no office, no title, no secretary, not even a phone—as a former insider I knew how easy it is for someone with the right connections to score a grant for almost anything.
As the end of the business day approached and the phone did not ring, my hope faded, it hit me: I had become a nobody—exiled and invisible. It was not that the executive owed me a yes; it was that he’d broken his promise to call. In that moment, I knew that my dignity would never be secure and that so long as anyone’s dignity is at risk, everyone’s is.
Conventional thinking creates the source of dignity violation, rankism. Rankism is abuse of the power attached to rank. People routinely violate others’ dignity, in large and small ways. When the dignity of people is not respected, negative feelings and unhealthy consequences result for individuals and society.
Rankism goes to the heart of all the other “isms.” Rankism is an umbrella term that encompasses racism, sexism, ageism, and any other ism that sets one group or individual apart from another and then claims superiority.
The heart of social justice is dignity. Dignity is a basic human need. It involves respect – respect for oneself and for others. Everybody wants it, craves it, and seeks it. Therefore everyone has a right to be treated with dignity. People’s whole lives change when they’re treated with dignity – and when they’re not.
Fundamentally, dignity means honoring and valuing who we are and what we have to offer. It means creating a culture in which it is safe for everyone to contribute their own gifts and talents.
From intimate relationships to global relations, indignity is commonplace. Think of your own experiences: when have you not been treated with dignity? When have you failed to treat others with dignity?
In my quest, although the more questions that get answered, and the more arise, my life has derived its meaning from the attempt to project a vision of a dignitarian world. The basic tenet of a dignitarian society—in contrast to an egalitarian one—is that it does not aim to abolish, equalize or level ranks but to make everyone equal in dignity, regardless of their rank.
What are your thoughts and suggestions for how you and others can help to create a culture of dignity in your home and community?