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Dignity and Recognition

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A sports cliche' has it that the best defense is a good offense. In life, an equally important component of a good defense is not giving offense dignity and recognition in the first place. By protecting the dignity of others as if it were our own, we not only give them their due but simultaneously protect ourselves by preempting the desire for retaliation. Thomas Paine recognized this dynamic when he wrote, "He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

Despite injunctions toward morality--like that implicit in Shakespeare's lines and Paine's admonition--and lip service paid to ethical behavior, history repeatedly demonstrates that morals are often ignored in practice, by the secular and religious alike. Had everyone honored the golden rule, segregation and other forms of racial discrimination would have been unthinkable and there would have been no need for the civil rights movement.

Though moral precepts may point the way, politics plays an indispensable role in actually changing human behavior. Political principles, as embodied in law, are essential if we want to close the gap that often exists between ethical ideals and common practice. A dignitarian politics gives teeth to the golden rule by making explicit a standard of compliance--equal dignity regardless of rank. It also calls to account those charged with enforcing this principle.

Given the remarkable achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, it's not unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone's equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone's right to own property or to vote. (The current exception to the right to vote--people below the age of eighteen in most countries--will be addressed in chapter 5.) As others' right to dignity becomes axiomatic, our own responsibility not to insult their dignity becomes a corollary.

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Indignity and Malrecognition

Peter Gloystein, economy minister in the state of Bremen..., poured wine over the head of homeless Udo Oelschlaeger during the launch of German Wine Week. "Here's something for you to drink," he said as he doused Mr.Oelschlaeger,who was standing next to the podium at the public, open-air event.

"Who are you? Why are you doing this?" a tearful Mr.Oelschlaeger retorted.

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Mr. Gloystein, who was subsequently forced to resign his ministerial post, said he'd later met Mr. Oelschlaeger, who explained his difficult life. Mr. Gloystein apologized and they departed on friendly terms.

-- Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4547227.stm

The preventive for indignity and its many far-ranging consequences is recognition.What is required is an understanding and appreciation of each person's role and the contributions he or she makes to others and the world. These can be anything into which time, effort, and care have been put--a home, a scientific theory, a dance, a business plan, a garden, a cake, an office, or vacuuming the floor of that office at midnight.

Ultimately, it is through contributing to others that individuals, groups, and nations secure their dignity. For example, parental acknowledgment for setting the family table affirms a child's dignity. At the group level, the influence that African-American blues had on music is a source of black pride. The defeat of the German army on the eastern front during World War II remains a source of national pride to citizens of the former Soviet Union.

To be effective, recognition must be commensurate with contribution. Genuine recognition must be differentiated from false or inflated praise, which is experienced as condescension and can be worse than no recognition at all. The self-esteem movement fell into disrepute because the respect it offered was too often fake and exaggerated. Too much recognition for too little actually undermines dignity; we feel patronized. Likewise, disproportionately little recognition is experienced as disrespectful.

Perhaps worst of all is denying people even the opportunity to contribute. That says to someone,"You are so obviously worthless that we're not even going to give you a chance to show us what you can do. You might as well not exist. Here, let me pour some wine on your head."

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Recognition is to the identity what food is to the body--indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, recognition provides assurance that our membership in the group is secure. Absent this, our survival is at risk.Without recognition, individuals may sink dignity and recognition into self-doubt and subgroups are marginalized and primed for exploitation.

Dignity and recognition are inseparable.We can't all be famous, but fortunately, recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek it or from whom it is otherwise withheld, and take steps to prevent malrecognition--that is, too little or no recognition at all--as we now do to prevent malnutrition.

Despite many attempts to eradicate the latter--and assurances from experts that it is actually within our power to do so--hunger and malnutrition persist. Eliminating invisibility and malrecognition is no less daunting a challenge. But with respect to this task, we've only just begun. The science of malrecognition is in its infancy.

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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