Terrance Heath

People Who Matter -- An Open Letter to Newsweek

Filed By Terrance Heath | January 06, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Hamid Karzai, Henry Kissinger, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Newsweek, people who make a difference, people who matter, rankism

Note: This is a somewhat extended version of a “Letter to the Editor” I emailed to Newsweek upon seeing their December 19th issue.

To the Editor:

Newsweek 121909

I know what was meant by it, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes when I read the subtitle of your December 19th issue: “People who matter, on what matters most.” Frankly, that struck me as precisely our problem in this country, on so many levels.

The very idea of “people who matter” inevitably comes paired with the idea that there are “people who don’t matter.” It’s the basis of what Robert Fuller calls “rankism” — which, instead of seeing the world in black and white, sees it populated with “somebodies and nobodies.” Fuller writes, “‘Somebodies’ are sought after, given preference, lionized. ‘Nobodies’ get insulted, dissed, exploited, ignored.”

Fuller elaborated further a “Psychology Today” article:

Rankism is what people who take themselves for “somebodies” do to those they mistake for “nobodies.” Whether directed at an individual or a group, rankism aims to put targets in their place and keep them weak so they will do as they’re told and submit to being taken advantage of.

In the examples above, rankism consists of abuse of the power attached to rank. Another expression of rankism occurs when the abuse lies not in how rank is used, but in the very fact of ranking in the first place. There are lots of hierarchies whose only purpose is to justify privileging one group over another. Then, high status is used by the creators of these fabricated hierarchies to rationalize the privileges they’ve arrogated unto themselves. Contrariwise, the inferior status of the less powerful is invoked to justify their on-going exploitation. The irony is that while the less powerful are forced to serve as benefactors to those of higher rank, they are routinely depicted as dependent and inferior.

Examples of rankism based on pseudo rankings include the illicit hierarchies maintained by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexualism (or, homophobia) — in short, the familiar isms that plague societies and that, one by one, are being discredited and dismantled.

Like abuses of legitimate rank, the use of illegitimate rank is a source of humiliation and indignity. Both expressions of rankism are indefensible violations of human dignity. Rankism is simply an umbrella name for the many ways that people put others down to secure advantages for themselves. All forms of rankism have their roots in predation and have evolved from the practice of slavery.

After 15 years of living and working in Washington, D.C., the idea that there are “people who matter” and its corollary that there are then “people who don’t matter,” is at the heart of why so much in this town comes down to what I call “the least worst option.”

Whether it’s equality, energy, the economy, health care or any number of issues — the core question is the same: Who can we afford to leave out? Who can we afford to exclude? Who can we write-off? Who can we sacrifice? Who can we vote off the island? Who can we sacrifice for our own sake? Whose votes can we take for granted? Whose money can we count on after this vote?

Who are the “somebodies” and who are the “nobodies”? Who are the “people who matter” and who are the “people who don’t matter?”

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In the past year, we’ve almost all been “outranked” by “people who matter.” Main Street has been “outranked” by Wall Street, and is still waiting for its bailout. Voters have been “outranked” by the health insurance industry, and will have to wait for the kind of health care reform we hoped for and voted for. We were outranked on the extension of a war that’s been a drain on our economy and doesn’t appear to have made us any safer. We were, in fact, out ranked by some of the very “somebodies” you interviewed for the feature.

I can understand what Newsweek was trying to do. Jon Meacham said as much in his lead article for the feature.

In listening, so to speak, to the voices here, you will, we hope, feel as though you are sitting down with some of the world’s most intriguing people, talking about things that matter. With apologies to Matthew Arnold, that, anyway, is one of the promises of journalism: to give readers intellectual access to the best that is thought and said in the moment.

Still, Meacham’s title — “The View From People Who Make a Difference” — elicited another groan, for reasons stated above.

Corny as it may sound, so long as we think this way, we can only expect to make progress in fits and starts — and then only to a point — until none of us are “nobodies” and we are all “people who matter.”

That day may yet be a long way off, perpetuating the notion of that there are “people who matter” and its corollary that there are “people who don’t matter” puts it even further out of reach.


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Very intriguing article. Legitimate and illegitimate rank is an interesting concept to explore.

Thank you for writing this Terrance.

The obsession with "rank" or false importance prevents us from embracing "ideas." Ideas matter more.

Ideas inspire.
Ideas motivate.
Ideas solve problems.
Ideas create understanding.

I wish NewsWeek had the written about "ideas that matter," it would have been more interesting and more helpful.

Our community needs ideas. For decades we have paid people and organizations and ignored ideas. I think that will change dramatically this year. In order to re-ignite our dysfunctional movement we'll need to embrace new ideas, instead of clinging to people and organizations that "matter." We matter. Ideas matter.

Albert Einstein claimed on many occasions: "imagination is more important than knowledge." Ideas come from imagination. I'm sure he would have made imagination more important than this idea of rank or importance, too.

2010 is the year we begin to actually create our equality.

I think Terrance is a VIP personally.

Rick Elliott | January 7, 2010 5:19 PM

Terrance, your article is right on target. It's the deeply embodied assumption that has plagued humans from the very beginning--the obsession of having someone whom we're better than:
--It's the foundation for competitive sports,
--It's the ambition behind the ridiculous bonuses paid some CEO-types,
--It's the cause of almost all wars--in particular the Cold War we struggled with and what bankrupted the Soviet Union.
And the list could go on and on....
Upholding my honor, bettering my position in the society, and patriotism only scratch the surface of "putting a good spin" on the need to be better than someone else.
In the South it was used to the detriment of the bulk of society. Southern aristocrats saw the natural affinity the freed slaves and poor whites would have. Since there was little middle class and an even smaller ruling class, matters like land reform should have been a common ground for all on the outside looking in. Racism was engendered to split the poor whites from the freed slaves. The success of this malicious policy is still blatantly evident.
I suspect that the founding fathers had in mind a leadership of folks of enough substance that they could make independent decisions. Today that's impossible. Americans yearn for that free-thinker who would mke decisions based on what that individual believes is right. Witness the popularity of movies like "Mr. Smith Comes to Washington." I believe it's what attracted many to President Obama--but now feel measures of disillusionment.
Thanks, Terrance for parsing and interpreting Fuller's words so effectively.