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Dignity and Recognition

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In contrast to malnutrition, malrecognition afflicts both rich and poor. Both maladies reduce the body's resistance to disease and lower life expectancy. For most people, just the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world is enough to stifle the inclination to lash out. This means that malrecognition, like its physical counterpart, is a preventable and treatable ailment.

One important place to treat malrecognition is in the criminal justice system. Work by Morgan Moss and Penny Patton, under the auspices of the Center for Therapeutic Justice, strongly suggests that treating prison inmates with dignity reduces the recidivism rate upon their release.

A strategy of recognizing dignity can nip an escalation to violence in the bud. In a personal communication with the author, a teacher described an incident she witnessed in a post office, noting that the humble response, under stress, of the young man involved was indeed inspired:

I was waiting in line. A young guy about twenty was at the counter buying stamps. Suddenly some ratty, crazed-looking man who was ahead of me in line started screaming obscenities at the guy. Young Guy turned around and said,"What? What did I do?" to the livid man, who screamed back, "You KNOW what you're doing!" like he was sensing evil rays coming out of Young Guy's forehead or something.

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Young Guy kept saying "What?" and then he just stood there. Everyone in the room just froze up. It was extremely tense. Then Young Guy said to the crazed man, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disrespect you."

That comment was like a pin deflating the man's anger. He suddenly calmed down and backed off, because he felt he had his dignity back. An incendiary situation had been defused.

Similarly, art therapist Candace Blase tells of standing in a crowd waiting for luggage at a carousel in the Sacramento airport. Nearby, two women were unself-consciously and loudly voicing their prejudices against lesbians. Candace turned to them and said, "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation. I'm a lesbian, and I don't think I'm that bad or dangerous." By speaking evenly, without anger or accusation, Candace made it possible for the women to take in and consider her words instead of defensively lashing back.

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The supreme importance we attach to dignity and respect is revealed in, of all places, pirate life. In a personal communication with the author, Noah Brand, a writer who has studied the culture of buccaneers, explains:

Given that the life of a pirate was very tough, frequently involved no pay, and usually terminated at the end of a rope, why did so many seamen turn their backs on the navy in favor of piracy? The respectability and regular pay that came with a naval career was guaranteed, but these benefits came at the price of enduring chronic rankism.

In the navy, discipline was rigid and rank was everything. You could get flogged for looking at the captain cross-eyed, and officers were often incompetent, sadistic, or both.

In contrast, on pirate vessels there were usually a few simple rules--concerning behavior, division of plunder, and so on--that everyone had to agree to in writing. From there on in, the majority generally ruled. Captains tended to be men of enormous personal charisma, because those who weren't were quickly replaced by more popular members of the crew.

That men would choose the short happy life of a pirate over a career of servile misery in the navy shows just how objectionable the dignity and recognition experience of rankism can be. The chance to live, however briefly, as peers sharing an impossible dream trumps the security of living a long life as menials without hope.

The hoards of ill-prepared young people dropping out of our schools today testify to the fact that we are still forcing many to choose between the short-term gratification of flouting the system and the long-term security that can be had by knuckling under to its routine humiliations.

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As things stand now, when it comes to recognition, it's either feast or famine. A few individuals get the lion's share while a great many others must settle for crumbs. But unlike the supply of food, the supply of recognition is unlimited. Neither are there limits on the dignity we can accord to others. We needn't disparage Peter in order to acknowledge Paul. To increase the supply of recognition we need only discern people's contributions, acknowledge them appropriately, and compensate them equitably.

Recognition is something like love: when we give it to others it comes back to us; when we withhold it from others, they respond in kind. The hallmark of a dignitarian society will be interpersonal, cultural, and institutional relations that provide recognition and dignity to all, regardless of circumstances or rank.

What Would a Dignity Movement Look Like?

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