Occupy Wall Street and the Promise of Dignity

From Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Calif., a thirst for dignity is driving protest and heralding social transformation. In every major city and countless small towns, people are refusing to let their voices -- ninety-nine percent of the nation's voices -- be drowned out by the whispers of the most powerful one percent.

Everywhere, people are refusing to be taken for nobodies. They're demanding to be treated like somebodies.

A vision of a new America is emerging, one in which each person's dignity is affirmed and acknowledged. The nation's traditional rallying cry, "Give me liberty or give me death," has found a resounding replacement: "Dignity for all."

The growing movement to occupy Wall Street embodies this universal quest for dignity. The face of Occupy Wall Street is the "We Are the 99 Percent" movement. We are the ninety-nine percent of Americans who cannot buy political representation. We reject the chronic indignity of powerlessness. We demand that our dignity be upheld by those to whom we have entrusted power.

Whereas every effective movement must stand for something, it must also stand against something. The Occupy Wall Street protestors have a litany of problems that they're against -- greed, corruption, exploitation, discrimination -- and it might seem that the items on the list are amorphous and distinct. Without a single lens through which to view these apparently separate problems, the protest may succumb to centrifugal forces that dissipate the moral strength of the spontaneous solidarity shown to date.

Powerful interests are counting on disorganization and internal divisions to cripple this potentially transformative movement. But if an itemized list of the objectives of this movement has not yet been vocalized by protestors, a tacit consensus on what the movement is for and what it's against does, in fact, exist.

First, a note on what this consensus is not. Occupy Wall Street is not about the haves versus the have-nots, as evidenced by the fact that a fair number of one-percenters -- people whose wealth places them in the top 1 percent -- are protesting in solidarity with their fellow ninety-niners. The message of Occupy Wall Street is not that power differences should be eliminated or that executives should make the same salaries as entry-level employees. Occupy Wall Street is not, in the literal sense of the word, an egalitarian movement.

No, Occupy Wall Street is a dignitarian movement. Occupy Wall Street is about ordinary people standing up against abuse by people who hold positions of higher social, political, and financial rank. It's about a segment of the elite one percent abusing the enormous power that money affords it in a political system where dollars buy influence.

Truly, Occupy Wall Street is fighting the problem of our era: rankism.

Rankism is what people who consider themselves somebodies do to people whom they regard as nobodies. It often amounts to a degrading assertion of rank: a customer demeaning a waitress, a boss humiliating an employee, or, perhaps more pertinent to the OWS movement, executives using the powers of their office to enrich themselves or prolong their tenure.

Prototypical forms of rankism are bullying, corruption, cronyism, predatory lending, and insider trading. The world got a look at rankism's ugly face in the aftermath of the housing crisis as previously middle-class families suffered foreclosure and even slipped into homelessness while banks filled their coffers with taxpayer money.

Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted benefits for themselves. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement: for example, higher compensation for executives than the market requires, and perpetual job security. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders do not tolerate rankism; bad ones indulge in it.

Rankism takes years off lives. The indignities it sows excite indignation and, often, a desire for vengeance. Yet it's hard to imagine a world without rankism, just as, not long ago, it was difficult to imagine an end to racism and sexism.

Racism and sexism were long regarded as human nature, but in more and more places, these "isms" are losing legitimacy. To be racist or sexist today is to disqualify yourself from professional advancement, if not to forfeit your job.

If we can learn to stop disadvantaging people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, we ought to be able to stop doing so, period, for any reason. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank or abolishing competition any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender. Rank itself is not the culprit; rankism is. The antidote to rankism is dignity for all.

The Dignity Movement to overcome rankism is an inclusive, unifying one that reduces the injunctions of political correctness to just one: "Protect and defend the dignity of others as you would have them protect and defend yours."

This does not and cannot mean countering one indignity with another. We can only bring about a net reduction of rankism by interrupting the rankism-begets-rankism cycle. This means protecting the dignity of the perpetrators even as we reject their rankist behavior. While this Is not easy to do -- because it means stifling the impulse to get even -- it is possible. What's more, nothing else works to end cycles of reciprocating indignities.

The familiar "isms" are not gone, but they are on the defensive. The next step is to make rankism as inappropriate in public life as are racism and sexism. The Occupy Wall Street protestors are standing up for our dignity. Once a movement is on its feet, it's usually not long before it's on the march for justice.

Disallowing rankism will take time, energy and boundless courage. But thanks to the Occupy Wall Street protestors, the indignities of rankism have, at last, come into focus, and our journey to becoming a nation that recognizes each person's dignity is underway.

The views expressed in this piece are those of Charlotte Hill and Robert Fuller and do not represent the views of Change.org or any other organization.