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Author Robert Fuller tackles bullying and dignity in Sonoma March 12

Racism, sexism, ageism – words that have become familiar in the past few years to identify discrimination based on categories of biology or class. But the categories of discrimination has a newer if less familiar term, thanks to Robert Fuller: Rankism.

“Rankism is the degradation of those with less power or lower rank,” defines Fuller. He explains that it’s somebody “using the power of their rank to humiliate or disadvantage those they see as nobodies.” In general, it’s an abuse of power – and Fuller calls it “the mother of all the ignoble isms.”

“It can be one individual putting down another individual, or it can be one whole group claiming superiority to another group,” Fuller told the Index-Tribune recently, in advance of his visit to Sonoma on Sunday, March 12, for the latest lecture hosted by the Praxis Peace Institute. “Bullying is an example of what I call rankism, which is the pulling of rank for self-aggrandizement.”

It should come as no surprise to followers of Praxis’s lecture series – which most recently featured George Lakoff on political framing – that a key example of “rankism” has become Donald Trump, in Fuller’s view.

“By giving rankism a face — his own scowling, mocking face — President Trump has unmasked it,” Fuller wrote recently at Huffington Post. “Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement — these are all manifestations of rankism.”

Fuller didn’t begin his career as a social critic. He was educated as a physicist at Princeton and taught at Columbia, where he co-authored the textbook “Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics.” His academic career took a turn for the managerial when in 1970 he was named president of Oberlin College at the tender age of 33.

His social activism grew in the following decade, and in 1977 he co-founded the Hunger Project with two more familiar names, Werner Erhard (founder of the 1970s phenomenon EST) and singer-songwriter John Denver. Fuller, who lives in Berkeley, has been working independently on his researches for almost 50 years and has given what he estimates as 500 lectures on the topics of rankism, bullying and similar forms of social predation.

He points out that he was born in the 1930s, and grew up in an era when sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice were so universal they were almost invisible. “They were all regarded as fairly legitimate. And I’ve lived to see every single one of them upended, delegitimized, and disallowed,” he says. “We’re still in the middle of a century-long transition, where we give up the idea that we are superior to other people.”

Such historical phenomenon as colonialism and imperialism are forms of rankism writ large, the sense of entitlement or superiority; on a personal level, it can take the form of abusive relationships.

One tactic that people often take in combating rankism is to oppose it with its mirror image, not its opposite. “Most people try to get rid of it by being more rankist that the rankists,” he said. “They put the rankist down, just as we do now with racists and homophobes. We’re so convinced that it’s wrong that we indignify the remnants of it.”

A recent example was Hillary Clinton’s remark that Trump’s followers fit in what she called a “basket of deplorables,” which he termed “a gaffe of monumental proportions.”

Even though much legislation over the past 40 years has attempted to deflate rankism by outlawing discrimination based on race, gender and the like, Fuller is aware that current political winds may signal a reversal. “There is the phenomenon, and it’s pretty universal, of two steps forward, one step back. And this is our step back,” he says.

The March 12 lecture, “Dignity for All: How to deal with bullying, racism, sexism, and rankism in the age of Trump,” begins at 2 p.m., at Vintage House, 264 First Street East. Tickets are $20 but admission is free to the first 25 people under 18 years of age. For tickets and information go to www.praxispeace.org.

Contact christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.