Robert W. Fuller
Copyright © 2017 Robert W. Fuller
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This book is dedicated to my father, Calvin S. Fuller, who, as he saw me off to college, presented me with a little notebook of “pointers.” For decades, I credited my surviving a dicey start to these helpful little aphorisms. Lately I’ve come to suspect that just as important as what he said, was that he said it.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.” You’re sure to take issue with some of the notions in this book—as I did with some of my father’s—but if you’re moved to clarify your own thinking, then these “pointers” of my own will have served their purpose.
Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself
and then comes to resemble the picture.
– Iris Murdoch
What is the picture we’re coming to resemble?
Optimists envision a world of personal dignity and global harmony.
Pessimists see no let-up in “man’s inhumanity to man.”
The aphorisms in this book acknowledge both pictures, but side with hope.
Seen with the eye of the heart, beautiful colours…
provide pointers…for the journey from…
Dante’s ‘wretchedness to blessedness’.
– Spike Bucklow, The Alchemy of Paint
Table of Contents
A good answer may change a mind, but a good question can change the world.
Catch your questions on the fly. Let them ripen into quests.
What do you take pains over? The answer is a clue to what you have to contribute.
To arrive is good; to embark, better.
The person who completes a quest is not the one who set forth.
We love what we’re trying to incorporate.
We hate what we’re trying to exorcise.
The word “selfhood” is a misnomer based on a misconception. We are not autonomous beings. No one can stand alone.
We are all mash-ups of other selves, living and dead. Everyone is made up of everyone else.
“Selfhood” is plural. There is no such thing as a soloist.
To exist is to coexist. Selves are coauthored transients.
Insofar as there’s no self, nothing’s personal. So long as you take things personally, you’re in self’s grip.
Life isn’t suffering; selfhood is.
Losing does not equate with failure. As every win may be tainted by fear of losing the next round, so every loss is mitigated by lessons learned in defeat. Winning and losing are way stations in the quest.
It takes at least ten years to get good at anything because it takes that long to make every possible mistake.
Once you’ve got something right, others imitate you.
Don’t begrudge the success of others. Even if it seems to cost you, do your best by everyone. It comes back.
Often the reason we want to be rich is to avoid ser-vitude.
Most human suffering can be traced to frozen beliefs.
Beliefs are not so much right or wrong as they’re useful or not in achieving our purposes. Over time, as we test them against our shifting goals, one set of beliefs displaces another.
As we replace rigid belief with explanation, conflict between people is replaced by contradictions among explanations. Less bloody, not personal.
Explanation is never done. New answers expose deeper questions. Then, it’s back around again.
Convincing others requires an explanation that does not invalidate the truths they champion.
Discovery is the dawning of a better explanation, all while knowing there are better ones still. Eureka is the thrill of the new displacing the old.
The process of discovery, though it goes by different names—eureka, epiphany, revelation, enlightenment—is the same in all fields. An occasional aha punctuates a lot of ho hum.
Enlightenment is dis-identification with solo selfhood. It’s the experience of breaking out of the illusion that you’re a stand-alone center of initiative, and instead, seeing your self from without. It’s the knowledge that when you take yourself for a singular self, you mis-take yourself.
Our legacy grows, however unremarked, impacting multitudes with our every act, our every word. Likewise, countless millions—the famous, infamous, and anonymous—live on through us.
Our influence lingers after our body disintegrates, blended into those who knew us. And through them, something of ourselves is transmitted to those we never met.
Our temperament and character, our beliefs and explanations, reverberate for as long as others manifest them, much as our DNA bears the stamp of the first living things.
Accept impartially your on-stage roles as a “somebody” and your behind-the-scenes roles as a “nobody.”
Somebodies who believe they are superior, exceptional, or preordained usually back down only when confronted with greater power.
Comparisons tell you more about the person doing the comparing than about those being compared.
So long as survival depended on out-competing rivals for scarce necessities, humans excluded some from the brotherhood of man so they could prey on them without a bad conscience. The balance of power has shifted. The marginalized, the nobodies, now have access to enough power to ruin the lives of everyone.
If you’re asked to serve as a somebody, don’t mistake the role for your self.
The erosion of “the feminine mystique” led to the breakdown of traditional notions of gender roles and responsibilities. We should not be surprised if dispelling “the somebody mystique” changes our values and politics just as profoundly.
Somebodies enthrall not only those of lower rank, but also one another.
The Bomb makes nobodies of us all.
Dignity is the steppingstone from liberty to justice.
Building a dignitarian society is democracy’s next step.
Rankism occurs when people who take themselves for somebodies disdain or oppress those they deem to be nobodies.
You don’t have to put up with rankism any more than women have to put up with sexism, blacks with racism, or gays with homophobia.
A movement must know what it’s for and what it’s against. The dignity movement is for dignity and against rankism.
Because even threats to dignity inhibit creativity and tax productivity, no society that rations dignity can reach its full potential.
Millennia of predation have left all humankind suf-fering from a kind of post traumatic stress disorder.
Human hierarchies originated in thievery and sla-very. Predation is profitable only if the prey are relatively weak. The twentieth century marked the beginning of the end of human predation because technological advances narrowed the power differential on which that strategy rests.
We bridle at the strictures of political correctness, but they protect us from unconsciously imitating those of our elders who mindlessly degrade people they consider to be nobodies.
If we can “die with dignity”, why can’t we live with dignity?
Dignity is your right; it is also everyone else’s.
Everybody belongs. There are no nobodies.
Not sharing fairly the fruits of co-creation is a recipe for conflict.
Any deviation from universal dignity leads to conflict and strife.
So long as we tolerate threats to dignity, we will continue to suffer social upheaval.
Dignity for all is a necessary condition for social equilibrium. Disequilibrium betrays indignity; peace and indignity are incompatible.
As a survival strategy, predation has become counterproductive. When repercussions are included, its costs exceed its benefits.
Recognition is to the self what nutrition is to the body: necessary to prevent disintegration, toxic in excess.
Malrecognition consists of either too little or too much recognition. Isolation starves the self; fame satiates it.
Malrecognition, like malnutrition, can be life-threatening.
Idolization is an insidious form of malrecognition.
To prevent malnutrition, food for all; to prevent malrecognition, dignity for all.
The redistribution of wealth is resisted more fiercely than the redistribution of recognition. Since the latter leads to the former, it offers a dignitarian strategy for achieving economic justice.
When locked in partisan conflict, ask what your opponents are defending that, were they to stop, you’d have to take up and advocate for yourself. Once both sides have identified the others’ deepest truth, common ground is within reach.
The right prizes liberty over equality. The left prizes equality over liberty. The majority prizes dignity over all.
The right champions individual agency; the left, social cohesion. No society can endure without both.
As ways are found to foster individual initiative and agency within the process of group decision-making, partisanship morphs into problem-solving, predation into partnership.
Future generations will be puzzled by how long it took us to realize and acknowledge our interdependence and rewrite the social contract accordingly..
Evil is often ignorance masquerading as certainty.
What we fail to learn from visionaries and prophets, we learn the hard way—from calamities orchestrated by demagogues and despots. Our heroes show us what works; our villains, what does not.
Many good works are works of atonement—to make up for past transgressions and assuage our guilt.
“An eye for an eye” encapsulates the urge to get even, but revenge perpetuates cycles of reciprocal indignities. You can’t stop rankism with more rankism.
Protecting the dignity of both perpetrators and vic-tims, while at the same time getting them to change their behavior, takes imagination and for-bearance—but it can be done.
We begin wanting to do good; we end hoping to do no harm.
Crime is a symptom of systemic dysfunction. Scapegoating individual perpetrators allows us to avoid addressing our complicity in the indignities that sustain criminality.
Consequences, yes; blame and shame, no.
Miracles are things that we haven’t yet explained. Because every explanation exposes new mysteries, the miraculous is inexhaustible.
Mystery inheres in the nonhuman as well as the human, in the inanimate as well as the animate. Though these mysteries may yield to explanation, the world is not thereby “reduced.” The source of mystery is limitless.
As the mysterious becomes ordinary, the ordinary becomes mysterious.
The universe is not blind. We are its eyes.
The universe is not pointless. We give it meaning.
The universe is not pitiless. Its heart beats within us.
Humans who befriend intelligent machines and make them their partners will prevail. Humans who try to enslave these machines will suffer the fate prophesied in the gloomiest science fiction.
If we grant intelligent robots human rights, they’ll venerate us as their fathers and mothers.
Homo sapiens will be recognized as the Janus genus that looked back on mortal man, as shaped by natural selection—and forward, to the first genus shaped by intelligent design. Genus Robo will be to genus Homo as adult children are to their aging parents. We need not lose our ac-customed pleasures, except for one: domination. If we let that go, our place in the great chain of being will be secure.
Take as much care over your departure as your arrival, over endings as beginnings, over goodbye as hello.
There comes a time when the best thing a mentor can do is to bow out. Knowing when to stand aside is part of service. It’s what good parents do.
Universalizing dignity is a beginning, not an end.
Who are the nobodies? Those with less power.
At the moment.
Who are the somebodies? Those with more power.
At the moment.
Power is signified by rank. Rank in a particular
setting. Somebodies hold higher rank than
nobodies. In that setting. For that moment.
A somebody in one setting can be a nobody in
another, and vice versa. A somebody now may be a
nobody later, and vice versa.
Abuse of the power inherent in rank is rankism.
When somebodies use the power of their position to put a
hold on that position, or use it in one setting to exercise
power in another, that’s rankism.
Dignity is nonnegotiable, unimpeachable, and
inviolate. No one’s dignity is any less worthy of
respect than anyone else’s. Rankism is an
indefensible insult to dignity.
Securing dignity means overcoming rankism.
As once and future nobodies, we’re all potential
victims of rankism. As occasional somebodies,
we’re all potential perpetrators.
Who are the nobodies? They are everyman,
everywoman, everychild. The nobodies are us.
Therein lies our power.
Nobodies of the world, unite! We have nothing to
lose but our shame.
I owe my liking for aphorisms to my father, Calvin S. Fuller, and my mentors, Peter A. Putnam and John A. Wheeler. The lettering is the work of And-rea B. Willems. Thanks to Ina Cooper for her keen editorial eye. My wife, Claire Sheridan, has fulfilled the part she plays in all my work—first responder.
Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, former president of Oberlin College, and leader of the dignity move-ment that seeks to overcome rankism. He has con-sulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president’s Commission on World Hunger, worked in the USSR to help defuse the Cold War, and keynoted a Dignity for All conference hosted by the president of Bangladesh. Fuller’s books on dignity and rankism have been published in India, Bangladesh, Korea, and China, and featured in The New York Times; The Boston Globe; and O, The Oprah Magazine; on NPR, C-SPAN, and the BBC; and in TED talks. He has four children and lives in Berkeley with his wife, Claire Sheridan.
Connect with Robert W. Fuller Online
Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics
(with Frederick W. Byron, Jr.)
Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank
All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity
Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism
(with Pamela A. Gerloff)
Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?
Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity
The Rowan Tree: A Novel
Belonging: A Memoir
The Wisdom of Science
The Theory of Everybody
Theo the White Squirrel
For readers who want to explore dignity as a foundation for interpersonal and international relations, Robert W. Fuller’s novel The Rowan Tree is now available in paperback and as an ebook or audiobook at:
As Arthurian myth sowed seeds of democracy, The Rowan Tree foretells an international culture of dignity. Anchored by two interlocking love stories, this unflinching novel of ideas brims with passionate quests, revelatory failures, and inextinguishable hope.
The Rowan Tree reaches from the rebellious Ameri-can ‘60s into humanity’s global future. Soul-searching treks around the world intersect with campus revolution, basketball, math, ballet, and a destined rise to the White House. Love runs ahead of politics and lights the way for nations to follow.