Inequality plagues many societies. Our resident psychologist looks at how putting others down, or being put down ourselves, contributes to society’s malaise.
When we think of inequality, we might tend to think of “big” examples such as the fight for civil rights in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, or the subjugation of many women in India. Closer to home, we might consider the struggles of New Zealand Maori fighting for their rights under the Treaty of Waitangi or the difficulties facing Aborigines, both groups being scarily over-represented in the wrong types of statistics: higher drug/alcohol use, a higher prison population, and higher rates of mental illness.
But do we think of inequality in everyday interactions? The team leader who routinely yells at her colleagues, the child who teases another, the smack from a parent to a child, the customer treating waitstaff rudely, the partner who comes home from work reluctant to help with the kids because “I’ve had a hard day”.
In extreme cases, we read of the slaughter of innocent victims by lonely, remote, unknowable people – people who have trouble making and keeping social connections, often brushed aside by society as odd or strange. It’s easy to dismiss these people as mad – “what a shame he never got help for his mental illness” – or bad – “some people are born that way”. But what if there is something far more nuanced at play? What if thousands of everyday interactions contribute to how connected somebody feels to themselves, their community and society as a whole?
Each of the above everyday interactions is an example of using status to hold power over someone else. I recently came across a term, “rankism”, that goes to the heart of the hierarchies in society and the common trap we all fall into from time to time: of using our rank/status to dismiss another’s view.
What is rankism?
According to Robert Fuller, an American physicist and social reformer who coined this word, “rankism is an umbrella term that encompasses racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and any other ism that sets one group or individual apart from another and then claims superiority”.
In other words, we size each other up, recognising where we both fit in the social hierarchy. We feel good if we are “better” than the other person and worse if we are not.
Almost from the minute we’re born, we begin organising our world. We name objects and learn about natural hierarchies: “I have to go to bed because mummy wants me to.” Very quickly the world’s people are categorised: good, bad, heroes, villains … This is an important way of making sense of the world and it is not the fact that there are hierarchies that is the problem. It’s the using of the hierarchy to make oneself or one’s group better than or more important than others. In other words, figuring out who is a “nobody” and who is a “somebody”, and treating people accordingly.
It has been said that rankism is so ingrained and so common that it’s hard to even notice it. Yet, we are fine-tuned to rankism – we see it in small gestures of rejection and disdain. We might cringe and say nothing as a boss publicly harangues a staff member at a restaurant. We may have had experiences of being looked up and down judgementally as we enter parties or particular establishments. From the schoolyard to the business world, we have a choice in how we respond to such interactions: accept things with a shrug because “that’s the way it is” or recognise and call gentle attention to this behaviour.
The main message delivered through the Rainbow Youth education programme in schools is that “people are afraid and tend to bully and discriminate against what they don’t know,” says general manager Duncan Matthews.
“The programmes tend to break down those barriers by talking of sexuality and gender identity as a completely valid way of being and give loads of ways to think about it and talk about it.”
Creating a safe space for people to talk about differences can reduce bullying and discrimination. This is done through identifying stereotypes and derogatory phrases (eg ‘‘you’re so gay”) and examining the impact of these statements.
“The best way to maintain a happy, healthy relationship with your young person and the best way to have a happy, healthy young person is to support them in discovering who they are,” says Matthews. “Leave challenging your own personal beliefs (as to whether you agree with their stance) as something you do in your own time.”
A “big” example in today’s society
While racist and sexist words and behaviours are generally not acceptable in today’s society, one of this generation’s challenges is confronting homophobia and transphobia.
One aspect of this, working its way around Western countries, is marriage equality. It is coming up to the first anniversary of the marriage equality law in New Zealand (New Zealand being the 13th country in the world to recognise same-sex marriages) and the conversation about marriage equality is still continuing in Australia.
In the wake of these moves, how do the organisations that represent queer/trans youth think we are doing as a society in terms of equality and acceptance of difference?
Duncan Matthews is the general manager of Rainbow Youth (RY), an organisation that provides support, information, advocacy and education to queer and trans youth from ages 13 to 28.
He got involved in RY because of the sense of community he felt there as a pansexual person (sexual attraction toward people of all gender identities and biological sexes).
“Often you don’t feel like you fit in to a lot of other sections of life, whether that’s at school or in your home or religious institutions, you might have been bullied for being different …”
From Matthews’ perspective, “the [gay marriage] legislation has caught up with the majority of young people’s way of thinking in New Zealand … which is that being gay, being queer, having a different sexuality or gender identity to what you were named at birth is fine, no problems”.
However, being different (queer/trans in a heterosexual world) can lead to an increased risk of bullying, self-harm, depression and suicidality. A study reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 of more than 9000 New Zealand secondary school students supported this conclusion, with the students reporting same-sex or both-sex attractions much more at risk than their heterosexual peers.
According to Matthews, RY is about “providing the space to have the confidence to be who you are. We’re working towards a situation where we don’t need to exist.”
How do we recognise rankism?
In their book Dignity For All: How to Create a World Without Rankism (2008), Robert Fuller and Pamela Gerloff ask us to ponder the following questions:
“When have I been treated in a rankist way? What feelings did this experience evoke?”
Usually people experience emotions such as shame, humiliation, anxiety, anger, rage, insecurity and loss of confidence.
Next ask yourself: “When have I felt better than someone else? Has this feeling of superiority ever led me to treat someone with less dignity than I would want to be treated?”
Most of us can identify times when we both perpetrated rankism and were a victim of it. It might be from snobbery (looking people up and down, making judgements about them), bullying, intimidation, silencing, blacklisting, nepotism or tipping friends off about jobs or opportunities (exclusionary behaviour), or elitism. It’s useful to remind ourselves that none of us are perfect, but that with awareness we can speak up for ourselves and others.
The solution to rankism is treating people with dignity – which involves respect and a sense of worthiness (a sense that we and others are worthy). It also involves the recognition of the right to belong and to be valued. Focus on a time when you have been treated with dignity. What was that experience like? How was that done?
Our reflex response is to respond to indignity with indignity but while our judgements and justifications might give us a shot of power in the moment, we’re usually acting out of strong emotion, not our values, and we are likely to experience shame as we calm down.
The last word goes to Barack Obama: “Let each of us speak for tolerance, justice and dignity, because if hearts and minds continue to change over time, laws will too.”