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Filmed on Friday August 12, 02005

Robert Fuller

Patient Revolution: Human Rights Past and Future

From time to time a portion of humanity declares a new human right. Behavior thought normal for thousands of years is suddenly challenged.  What does it take for the new right to prevail?  It takes steady bearing down on the issue over decades and centuries...


Bob Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.  The book defines "rankism"--- the pervasive misuse of power relationships that is expressed not just in racism and sexism but in every form of humiliation.  Humans have the universal right, the new movement insists, to be treated with dignity.  Fuller was president of Oberlin College when it integrated racially in the early 1970s.  Before that he was a highly regarded physicist working with John Wheeler.  After that he was a "citizen diplomat" quietly helping end the Cold War.  On stage he is a vivid story teller.

The culminating human right

What does it take to change human habits of cruelty (such as slavery, genocide) and humiliation (racism, sexism)?

What do past and present efforts for human rights tell about their future?…

Robert Fuller is author of the ground-breaking Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.

“Personal is political,” Robert Fuller began, and he recounted his experience as president of Oberlin College in the early 1970s. It was the time when a number of movements were coming to a focus to empower women, blacks (and native Americans and Latinos), gays, and the disabled. As it happened, Oberlin had dealt with anti-Semitism a half-century earlier, so that was not in the mix but served as an example of how to make things better.

Fuller wondered if all the movements have something in common and eventually concluded that they do. Each is a specific instance of a generic wrong— the abuse of rank.

Rank itself is fine, indeed necessary to any functioning hierarchy. The abuse is taking advantage of rank to deal out humiliation. “Rankism ranges all the way from hurt feelings to genocide,” said Fuller. Misusing rank defeats what value there is in rank. Organizations and societies that indulge in it are only partially functional.

What can be done about it? “The Golden Rule needs teeth.” Fuller observed that in the past it always took someone in the oppressor class to get action moving. Once a movement is under way, it has to just keep bearing down over time. You stand down the bullies one by one. Criminal executives, he noted, are now going to jail, even though most people predicted none would. In time politicians who indulge in ad hominem insults of their opponents should be voted out. Rankists in business should find their careers blighted. Television shows that bank on humiliation (”reality” TV, political wrath programs) should lose their advertisers.

Humiliation worked as a tool in previous movements— women ridiculing sexist men— but it can’t work in this one. “If you sneer at someone for driving an obnoxious Hummer, he’ll just go out and buy a bigger Hummer.” To be treated with dignity you have to treat others with dignity. That was Martin Luther King’s genius, and why he won.

Fuller observed that enormous changes in what is assumed to be human nature can be accomplished in just a few generations. His great-grandparents would have participated in a lynching; his children date interracially. Democracy, one of the tools for defeating rankism, has been growing exponentially since the Magna Carta in 1215.

Rankist behavior could be in full retreat in this century. It will take wide and steady effort. But there no guarantee. If society breaks down from a catastrophic pandemic, climate change, or nuclear war, everything goes backward.

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