"Panic of 1869" Charles Kroll (1869) Colby College Museum of Art Waterville, Maine
By Richard Girard
"Human Dignity has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority."
James Thurber (1894--1961), U.S. humorist, illustrator. Collecting Himself, "Thinking Ourselves Into Trouble," part 3 (1989; first published 1939).
Dignity lies at the root of all individual worth.
Dignity declares there is a difference between being truly humble and being humbled, and resists the latter with all of its strength; it allows one true humility, but never permits unresisted humiliation; it defines the difference between making a place for ourselves in the world, and accepting one's "place" in the world.
Dignity is the basis for all self-expression; conscious doubt; privacy in our persons, our thoughts, and our homes; our private beliefs; our public dissent. It is the cornerstone of freedom, and the foundation of liberty. Freedom and dignity are inseparable components of one another. To deny another human being their dignity is to surrender any claim you might have to it yourself. And with that forfeiture, all claim to any freedom of your own.
Dignity, or dignitas, was one of the three pillars on which the Roman patrician stood, together with auctoritas (authority or more properly political clout), and gravitas (respect, standing). However, insult any but a former slave's dignitas, and you had made an enemy for life.
To intentionally humiliate another in an attempt to establish your own superiority, is not only an insult to that person, but demonstrates a lack of character and dignity on your part. We have probably all done it at one time or another without thinking, but one hopes only in response to a similar insult. I believe both Kung Fu-tze's and Nietzsche's "superior man" would ignore such a comment for what it is: the attempt of a frightened and insecure individual to re-establish some sense, however fleeting and wrongheaded, of belief in his own superiority. But as Mr. Thurber pointed out, such individuals are "a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority."
Conservatives do not believe in the dignity of the common man; they barely acknowledge the dignity of their peers. They believe in hierarchy, and in people who "know their place." Edmund Burke's statement from his 1756 monograph A Vindication of Natural Society, "The whole business of the poor is to administer to the idleness of the rich," is at the core of their world-view. They believe that people should take whatever job is available, no matter how dangerous or demeaning, and be happy to have it, even if it will not cover their living expenses. However, a man who is forced to take a job out of pure need, because there is nothing else available, is not truly a free man. As the Lord Chancellor of England pointed out in Vernon v. Bethell, Eden 2, 113, (1762), "Necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men: but to answer a present emergency, will submit to any terms the crafty may impose upon them." When a man is forced to take a job out of necessity, because he is given no other choice (the perfect example of this is a parolee sent to a menial job by his parole officer), it denies him the dignity that is inherent in being a useful, contributing member of society, and leaves him only a step above a slave.
One of the conservatives' great lies is that we have little or no poverty in America, because all of our "so-called poor," have TV's, VCR's, DVD players, cars, etc. What these conservatives ignore is that these items that supposedly denote the poor's wealth are invariably relics of better times, hand-me-downs from family and friends, acquisitions at garage sales or pawn shops for pennies on the dollar, or items that have been scrounged from dumpsters in better neighborhoods. In other words, what few creature comforts the poor in this country have, are those that have been acquired at the expense of their dignity.
Our society, with its "me, me, me," do anything to get rich attitude, has shown neither time nor patience for the development or nurturing of human dignity. Too many people think of dignity as a commodity, and like other debased virtues, including honor and justice, believe it is readily available to the highest bidder, whether the purchaser deserves it or not.
Lizzie Ratner, in her August 29, 2011 AlterNet article, "The Failure of Welfare Reform is 'Exhibit A' That the Right's Punish-the-Poor Philosophy Doesn't Work," speaks of the individual tragedies and tribulations suffered by New York City welfare recipients during the Great Recession. The direct cause is one that I foresaw--but since I wasn't writing for OpEdNews or anyone else, can't prove that I did foresee--that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act would fail as soon as we had any sort of long-term (more than 13 months) or severe (7-and-1/2 percent plus unemployment) economic downturn. And it has failed, just like virtually every other ham-handed attempt by President Clinton to modify FDR's New Deal, rather than fight the Republicans and Wall Street.
President Obama, please take note.