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Commentary: Beware treating others like ‘nobodies’

Sept. 7, 2006 

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Clayton Childers*

Have you ever been treated like a nobody, as if you did not matter?

Robert W. Fuller suggests in his book, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies and the Politics of Dignity, that the word “nobody” as an epithet should be stricken from our vocabulary.

Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, believes the movement toward a “dignitarian” society where all people are treated with respect is the latest chapter in the long march toward liberty, justice and dignity for all. It is, as the cover suggests, “democracy’s next step.”

The 20th century, Fuller recalls, began with a liberation movement of suffragette women marching in the streets demanding the right to vote. In the second half of the century, the United States wrestled to overcome its blatant racism, racial discrimination and segregation. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that radically altered the way buildings are built and government programs administered.

All of these movements pulled the country further along in its liberation quest. They each represent important milestones.

Fuller argues that just as we have worked to overcome racism, sexism and other “isms,” we now must work to overcome “rankism.” (Now there’s a word that my spell check has never heard). “Rankism,” according to Fuller, occurs “when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others.”

I know some readers may be recoiling at the thought that there is a whole new area of daily life we now need to be on guard about.

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The Rev. Clayton Childers

Even so, it may be refreshing to others to finally be given a vocabulary to “name” the indignities that are so commonplace and yet so hurtful to so many people every day. Fuller gives us the vocabulary. “Rankism” is treating people as if they don’t matter, as if they are nothing, as if they are nobodies. In fact, Fuller creatively turns the word “nobody” into a verb. Have you ever been “nobodied”? When have you seen someone else being “nobodied?”

In our daily lives, where do we see “rankism”? Watch business transactions. Watch the way customers treat those who are attempting to serve them. Are waiters treated with respect? What about shop employees?

In the sports world, it is commonplace to hear coaches “nobody” their own players, believing this will force them to play better because they will be too afraid to fail. Often players, in turn, “nobody” or “trash talk” players from the other team. Fans “nobody” players, coaches and officials and think nothing of it.

How about in the doctor’s office? Medical professionals must be on guard to treat patients with both care and respect, not as inferiors — and most certainly, never as objects.

Within the church, do pastors pull “spiritual rank” on their parishioners, invoking their “higher authority” in ways that belittle?

And in government agencies, are suspects treated with dignity in the process of being questioned about their role in a crime? Are civilians treated with respect by military authorities? Are soldiers of lower rank treated with respect by their superiors? All of these situations are ripe for “rankism” because in each case there are people of power or rank interacting with persons holding less power or rank. Fuller maintains that the problem is not rank itself, but it is the abuse of rank at the expense of others.

The answer, according to Fuller, is not going to be found in the legal system. It will not come through PC police issuing tickets and fines. Progress will come through growing awareness, sensitivity and cultural change. Even having a name to go with the offense creates greater sensitivity to the issue.

What would it mean if we sincerely made a concerted effort to eliminate “rankism” and indignity from our midst? What effect would it have on our life together? How would it change the way we interact with one another?

One significant footnote should cause all of us to pause. Fuller references a book by Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Stern found in carrying out interviews with 75 terrorists from around the world that the common thread in all of their accounts was a personal experience of humiliation.

“Nobodying” can destroy people. It can destroy lives and can lead people to violently destroy the lives of others. This is serious business. Now that Fuller has given us a name for the offense we have so often witnessed and perhaps experienced ourselves, we can more easily identify “rankism” and “nobodying” and act to eliminate them.

And we can go on to work to create a world — and church — where liberty and justice and dignity can be enjoyed by all.

*Childers is the director of annual conference relations for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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