Will we ever reach true equality?

"Égalité" by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1793. (Wikimedia/Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin)

“Égalité” by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1793. (Wikimedia/Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin)

In an organizing meeting I attended where I didn’t happen to know most people, and all were under 30, I felt the chill. On some faces there was open hostility. On the other hand, when I visit my mom in her retirement community, my rank is high, because to some residents I’m comparatively youthful.

You probably know what rank you hold in the various groups you connect with. In one you might be medium, in another high, in another, low. I’m slowly getting used to being ranked lower in youth-oriented groups because I’m 75 years old.

You can often tell the overall rank that different members have in a group new to you by their body language, as psychologist/activist Arnold Mindell points out. A highly-ranked person unconsciously takes more space, spreads out, puts an arm over the back of an adjoining chair. Men often prefer one leg crossing another over the knee, while women in pants still mostly cross their legs more minutely, across the ankles. After all, society as a whole values men over women, and most people rank each other (and themselves) accordingly.

An upper class man who worked as a community organizer in a low-income neighborhood told me that when he and a few neighborhood leaders walk into a foundation’s office, with everyone a stranger to each other, he’s aware that even his stride in entering the room predicts whom the foundation officers will address when they speak — even though the leaders are in fact the decision-makers. The higher rank that he carries is signaled in his walk: “I, too, own the world.”

The fact that in all groups the members covertly grade each other is discouraging for those of us who value equality. How can we ever shift to a classless society if ranking is so universally human?

I have good news, or at least news that may help you, as it did me, make peace with the reality of ranking.

Rank reflects values

Members of groups generally rank each other according to their group’s culture. At an anarchist meeting I recently went to, it was not a good idea to wear a colorful sweater — I should have gotten out my navy blue one. Sports teams value skill and teamwork, and members usually rank each other accordingly. Drama groups appreciate those who can cry convincingly on command. Quakers rank more highly those who can remain patient and creative through consensus-based business meetings, while Pentecostals rank highly those who speak in tongues.

Rank reflects values. The only way not to have rank would be for groups to give up having values, which is undesirable and impossible anyway. The reward of high rank encourages a group’s members to perform in a way that serves the group’s goals. A group wouldn’t cohere, or couldn’t even exist, without values of some kind. Even criminal gangs value courage, loyalty and money.

So we’re stuck with rank. We can do a lot to reduce the impact of its downside, however. Here I’m again grateful to Mindell, who pointed out the value of when people who happen to be highly ranked can acknowledge it openly.

“Hey, I know I speak really well to the media,” says an activist, maybe adding, “I wish I could do as well building our database. ”

Being transparent about rank brings relief to the group. Often, rank can become the elephant in the room — felt but not named. The highly-ranked person who acknowledges her rank can use the privilege and power that often go with it wisely, and even initiate ways of power-sharing. These ways include training, mentoring, tweaking the decision-making structure, planning better to reduce crisis-points and deliberately staying out of group spaces where their power might slow others down.

In a workshop in which most of the participants were people of color, I facilitated a first-session exercise that gave me an opportunity to name my whiteness. I said, “It occurs to me that condescension is an attitude I sometimes express when I’m facilitating a workshop. It can be the way my white racism shows up.”

The group began to buzz with questions and concerns. Participants of color argued about what it might mean to them that the trainer was acknowledging his racism. White participants became silent, realizing that the work of the people of color needed space. The participants of color gradually reached a consensus that I was okay as their facilitator and there was benefit to my being aware of possible racist dynamics.

The workshop went extremely well, with free and lively interaction by the participants of color as well as the whites. At the evaluation period in the end of the workshop, several participants of color remarked how refreshing it was to have racism addressed in the beginning, so the issue didn’t come up again and again as it often did in other workshops they’d attended. (This story is from my book on diversity-friendly workshop techniques: Facilitating Group Learning.)

Values evolve

Some groups decide to change their own set of values intentionally. It’s smart for an activist group to retain values like courage when confronting authority, having each others’ backs, personal empowerment. But the group might want to discard differential valuing according to gender, race, age and sexual orientation. The most effective way to do this is to invite a trainer to come in and work with the group over time. (It’s not easy.) Training for Change specializes in methods that don’t blame and shame, and therefore empower everyone.

Individuals can also do something about the downside of groups’ inevitable ranking on some value or other. If they want to be ranked more highly in a valued skill or attribute, they can seek training or mentoring. If they want highly-ranked members of the group to become more conscious of their rank, they can talk with them and invite them to become transparent by acknowledging their rank.

What about class?

The class system usually encourages other ranking systems, because rank can divide people from each other and keep the 1 percent safe from a united movement of the 99 percent. It’s very important to the 1 percent to use education to promote rank, which accounts for the obsessive amount of grading that goes on. The big push of the George W. Bush administration in the “No Child Left Behind” initiative meant ever more tests and grading. Note that members of the 1 percent routinely are in the majority on college and university boards; 1 percenters strongly resist equality among races, sexual orientations and genders. (In Norway the Labor/Socialist Left government had to legislate that 40 percent of corporate boards be women in order to make it happen. Much earlier, Labor postponed grading in the schools until middle school!)

Because the 1 percent loves ranking systems, many people jump to the conclusion that the universal existence of rank means that economic class is embedded in humanity. Not so. When the people give up, and mobilize against, a particular value (like that men are best), a ranking system can be changed and even disposed of.

Slave society was once a universal ranking system. After tens of thousands of years in which slavery seemed an inevitable part of human life, society after society decided that it wanted to give it up. In some places on earth there are societies now free of slavery, although of course it’s not completely gone. The good news is that gender oppression is following that same path, as well as sexual orientation and racism.

It’s neither quick nor easy to abolish an entrenched ranking system. But it’s an enormous mistake to use that fact to excuse that system’s existence, or to say it’s inevitable.

Further, optimistic activists (who are often the most effective ones) will also note that victories along the path to the abolition of a ranking system are hugely significant. I don’t know any women who want to go back to the early 1900s, or people of color who would prefer the 1950s, or gays who would say that the oppression we now face is the same as 40 years ago when I first came out. Because I was involved in all three of those struggles, I dare to say that we would not have struggled so hard if we had believed that those systems were locked in place forever.

It’s the same with class. Yes, there will always be rank — but no, there is no need for a class society. We can, and do, create alternatives. We already have the track record that shows that there are economies run by the working class that work better than any economy run by the 1 percent.

To paraphrase the great women’s liberation slogan, society needs class ranking like a fish needs a bicycle.

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