Sunday, July 11, 2004

Rankism -- not so silly?

The New York Times > Arts >Tilting at Windbags: A Crusade Against Rank
Western society has denounced racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, mobilized against ageism and genderism, anguished over postcolonialism and nihilism, taken arms against Marxism, totalitarianism and absolutism, and trashed, at various conferences and cocktail parties, liberalism and conservatism.

Is it possible there is yet another ism to mobilize against?

Robert W. Fuller, a boyishly earnest 67-year-old who has spent most of his life in academia, thinks so, and he calls it 'rankism,' the bullying behavior of people who think they are superior. The manifesto? Nobodies of the world unite! — against mean bosses, disdainful doctors, power-hungry politicians, belittling soccer coaches and arrogant professors.

The journalist starts off with a somewhat dismissive lead, but provides a bit more reasoned review later in the piece. Scorn it not -- this isn't going to go away.

Most human societies have aligned power and moral superiority. We think of talent, brilliance, charm, strength, physical beauty, good character as things worthy of praise. Moreover, we consider success itself as praiseworthy -- some of us (Republicans, conservative christians) consider all of these things as signs of God's approval, and thus a sign of godliness and goodness.

These common sentiments are better than many alternatives, alternatives such as the anti-intellectual assaults of the Red Guard, the Nazi party, and the Iraqi insurgency (which has been assassinating Iraq's intellectuals). They're better than the revenge of the envious common to revolutionary movements from France to Russia.

But times change. We don't praise luck as much as we do brilliance. And yet what is brilliance, but a form of luck? Luck to have the right genes, luck to avoid disease, poverty, injury, neglect. Luck to have a measure of schooling, to be born in a setting where brilliance was approved.

We are human, and we are unlikely to change our genetically programmed responses to the gifted (lucky) and the powerful. Still, were we all knowing, and all wise, I think we would blend an appreciation for the luck of the gifted with compassion and appreciation for all people fast and slow. An appreciation not that far, really, from the most enlightened teachings of that extraordinary radical, J Christ.

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