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.