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Models of Dignity

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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Likewise, we ourselves must expect to be held accountable in this regard. By modeling the uses of power and choosing only those that protect dignity, we can do for standards of justice what modeling nature has done for standards of living.

Some might argue that we already accomplish this, albeit imperfectly, through the various mechanisms of democracy. It's true that democracy provides a recourse when government officials abuse their rank; we can vote them out. But thus far we've applied the democratic idea only to our civic affairs, only within national boundaries, and quite inconsistently.

Democracy's next step is to extend its protections against rankism beyond civic affairs to social institutions and to relations among nation-states. As indicated in the preceding chapter, we can do this in two ways: (1) by conducting dignity impact studies before authorizing a new use of power, and (2) by remodeling existing institutions into dignitarian ones.

Rankism is invariably experienced, by the individual or group suffering it, as an insult to dignity. Indignity therefore provides us with a litmus test that signals a likely abuse of power. But determining which uses of power will damage dignity, and as a result, backfire, can no longer be left to the full-scale, rough-and-tumble tests of power politics. That has become too dangerous because modern weaponry is more destructive and more widely available than ever before. Rather, the process must be brought into the "laboratory," as natural scientists have learned to do, and modeled in thought or other small-scale experiments. As Stewart Brand puts it, "We are as gods, and might as well get good at it."

Despite warnings from a few farseeing individuals, we have typically plunged ahead and learned only by doing. The end result has been the same as that suffered by the succession of foolhardy men who climbed into flying machines without first modeling the consequences of their designs: over and over again, we've crashed and burned.

Conducting dignity impact studies in advance may sound far-fetched and utopian now, but this was once believed true of environmental impact studies, which are now mandatory. Nor are what we're calling dignity impact studies really a new thing. People do the equivalent every time they imagine the effect on someone of something they are about to do or say. Part of conducting ourselves thoughtfully--of not inadvertently giving offense--is projecting ahead before we commit ourselves to a course of action, especially when the stakes are high. Such imaginative thought-experiments have long been a common tool in model building of all sorts. It is now time to apply this tool systematically to our anticipated uses of power with an eye on their impact on dignity.

By modeling the consequences of proposed uses of power, all of which hold the potential for unwelcome if not catastrophic results, we can disallow those that flunk the dignity test and thereby spare ourselves much grief. In doing so we'll be heeding Shylock's warning that victims of villainy are seldom satisfied with merely getting even, but rather are inclined to "better the instruction."

An Example from Higher Education:
A Template for Remodeling Institutions

Although it's possible to delineate the broad features of a dignitarian society, no one can foretell exactly what shape they will take. Likewise, it's impossible to tell in advance precisely what an organization will look like after it is transformed into a dignitarian one. This is because the process of transformation must be one in which everyone involved has a voice and everyone's views have some political weight.

In a dignitarian society, the role of institutional architect is inherently collaborative. Providing a blueprint from outside the design process is contrary to the dignitarian spirit. This is not to suggest that the role of experts in education, health care, organizational development, government, and international relations is unimportant. Quite the contrary. But for the resulting institutions to embody equal dignity, these professionals will have to work directly with the people those institutions are being designed to serve.

That leaders and pundits insist on designing programs without involving those they're meant to serve is one reason their ideas usually fall flat. A paternalistic process is incompatible with a dignitarian outcome because such a process, no matter how benevolent, is inherently rankist. To illustrate the remodeling of an institution, the following is an example I'm familiar with--one from academia. Just change the names, and it illustrates the procedures that apply to transforming any kind of institution into a dignitarian one.

In response to the renascence of the women's movement in the 1960s, many academic institutions established special committees on the status of women. Typically, these committees were composed of women administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and staff, and also included a few men. They began their work by holding open hearings on campus during which anyone could call attention to policies or practices that were felt to demean women or put them at a disadvantage. The committees then compiled a list of specific instances of unfairness or abuse along with potential remedies and presented it to the administrator, group, or governing body with the power to redress the grievances at issue. Their final task was to persuade that official or body to adopt the recommended changes.

This process, widely employed to make institutions less sexist, can serve as a template for making institutions less rankist. Open hearings can allow participants to point out ways in which members of various constituencies feel their dignity is not respected. A portion of the complaints may be contested, with some eventually judged to be ill-founded and withdrawn or dismissed. A number of the valid ones will be relatively easy to address. Other problems may take years or even decades to rectify.

A few words of caution regarding committees--especially those charged with transforming an institution. First, the likelihood of success is greatly enhanced by the participation of a figure of very high rank in the organization who makes it clear that it's safe for others to seriously challenge the status quo. It need not be the president, but if not, it must be someone who everyone knows speaks for the president.

Second, the committee must have a fixed deadline against which it works. As the postwar British Prime Minister Clement Attlee noted, "Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking."

Dignitarian governance does not necessarily mean giving everyone a vote on every issue, but it does mean giving everyone a voice. To ensure those voices are heard usually requires having at least some voting representatives from each of the organization's various constituencies serving at every level of its governance. This is sometimes referred to as multi-stakeholder or collaborative problem-solving. For example, in an academic institution this means adding students and alumni to committees on student life, educational policy, appointments, and promotions, and to the governing faculty body itself and also the board of trustees. Typically, such representatives hold 5 to 15 percent of the seats, but the percentage could go higher. The aim is to ensure every group has an opportunity to make its interests known. This goal is given teeth by providing each group with enough votes to determine the outcome in those situations where the group as a whole is closely divided.

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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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