The Difficulty of Dignity

IMG_3777On October 23, a week before leaving for Hungary, I will lead a philosophy roundtable at Columbia Secondary School on the topic of human dignity. Our texts will be Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “Solitude of Self,” and a short excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. This excerpt begins, “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” That strikes me as a good starting point.

At these philosophy roundtables, the discussion takes surprising directions; while I prepare in advance, I do not know what to expect. I am fairly sure, though, that we will spend some time discussing the difficulty of dignity. That’s an inexhaustible topic, so it will not hurt if I lay out a few thoughts here.

It’s easy, when speaking of dignity, to point to egregious violations, such as those we see in the current U.S. presidency. It’s important to call out the egregious and to separate oneself from it (“I deplore this; this is not me”). But take away those extremes, and no one has mastered dignity. Everyone has difficulty with it; each of us fails in some way to perceive and honor others.

If dignity consists in that which is beyond all value and cannot be replaced, then we ignore or harm dignity when treating each other as dispensable or replaceable. Now, we all have aspects that are replaceable; that’s a different matter. If I leave a job, and someone takes over my responsibilities, that person has replaced that aspect of me that fulfilled those responsibilities. Still the person has not replaced me as a whole; I, like the new person, am irreplaceable. Not only did I bring something unique to the work, but I exist beyond it, as does any worker. Also, we often have qualities that we wish to slough off; those qualities do not deserve special honor.

How do we treat others–that is, entire people–as dispensable and replaceable? One common method is gossip. (That doesn’t happen to be my weakness–I gossip “hardly ever“–but don’t worry, I have plenty of other foibles.) Gossip, especially vicious gossip, creates an in-group and an outcast; the outcast has no say, and the gossipers assume that their own words have more status anyway. Also, gossip takes one aspect of a person–one mistake, one unpleasant quality–and treats it as the whole. Now, there’s gossip and gossip; some gossip is on the gentler side, but all the same, it takes advantage of the person’s absence.

But you do not have to be a gossiper (or slanderer, or libeler) to have difficulty with dignity. There are many other ways! For instance, if you try too hard to befriend people who don’t reciprocate, you risk ignoring or damaging their dignity; you assume that your own wishes are worth more than theirs (or that you know what’s good for them). On the other hand, if you shut people out unreasonably, if you push away people who show goodwill and kindness, you are reducing and tossing their gestures and sometimes, with that, their very selves.

If you chronically show up late for appointments and dates, you are rattling others’ dignity by making your day more important than theirs. But sometimes there’s dignity, or at least courtesy, in slight lateness (for instance, when arriving for dinner); it gives your hosts a little more time to prepare and relaxes the expectations. Etiquette has dignity bound up in it, but etiquette taken too far becomes judgmental and self-serving.

Online communications can affect dignity in all sorts of ways; a too-long email can overwhelm, whereas a short text message, in certain contexts, can reduce or erase conversation. Twitter seems to have a built-in indignity; it’s set up for eruptions of semi-thought. Brevity itself isn’t the culprit; it’s a certain kind of brevity, a dismissive kind, that runs rampant online.

Why is dignity so difficult? There are numerous possibilities; one is that we live inside our own minds and do not know what it’s like to be someone else. Everything we do, think, or feel is from our own perspective; while we can experience empathy, it’s essentially an act of imagination. Because of this, it is all too easy to treat others as slightly less real than we are. There’s supreme difficulty in seeing others.

Then there are the limits of a day and a life; there’s only so much we can take in, only so much room we can make for others. People reasonably set up their lives with concentric and sometimes overlapping circles; they have their inner circle and then successive outer rings. Distance can have dignity too–there’s dignity in strangers and privacy–but it’s all too easy to diminish distant people, to treat them as existentially less important.

Is there hope, then? Yes; first of all, dignity is inherent in us and cannot be given or taken away. It can be recognized or ignored, strengthened or damaged, but it stays. (I recognize that some dispute this, but I hold to it for now.) Second, there are thousands of ways of moving closer to it. Just as it can be bruised, so it can be healed. Treating others as beyond all value–that’s the work of a lifetime, but it’s possible,  thought by thought, gesture by gesture, mistake by mistake, repair by repair.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary. You can’t really see the grapes (except for one cluster), but they are there. When I looked at this little vineyard (in person), at first I saw no grapes at all. But then I started noticing one cluster after another.

For an extraordinary investigation of human dignity, see George Kateb’s book on the subject.

The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.