This is the tenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.
CHAPTER 9: A CULTURE OF DIGNITY
The public . . . demands certainties.
. . . But there are no certainties.
--H. L. Mencken, American writer
Know you what it is to be a child?The investigator should have a robust
. . . It is to believe in belief.
--Francis Thompson, British poet
faith--and yet not believe.
--Claude Bernard, French physiologist
When we hear the word fundamentalist today,we tend to think of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or others who are rigid in their faith. Images of zealous evangelists, self-righteous proselytizers, and fanatics leap to mind.
But I use the word more broadly to refer to any true believers and even to that part of ourselves that might be closed-minded about one thing or another. By generalizing in this way, we include those who dismiss anything contrary to their particular absolutist views, whether religious, scientific, artistic, or ideological. Such a stance is the antithesis of the model-building perspective.
Can a fundamentalist thus construed be dignitarian? Or is it in the very nature of fundamentalism not only to presume the superiority of its doctrine but also to try to impose it on others?
Fundamentalism and the Dignitarian Perspective
Though the stereotype is that all fundamentalists are intolerant zealots, there are people who call themselves fundamentalists who hold that their beliefs are for themselves only and who make no effort to convert anyone else. They are not haughty, nor do they harm others merely by holding fast to their doctrines. It may be that the fixity of their beliefs limits them by keeping them from availing themselves of advances in scientific, political, or religious thought. But so long as they do not insist on converting others, they cannot be accused of rankism. If they secretly think of themselves as having a superior worldview--well, they're hardly alone in that regard.
On the other hand, if people assume the mantle of higher authority and presume to instruct others, then they are misappropriating rank, and that's rankism. Fundamentalism of this imperious bent comes in a variety of flavors: moral righteousness, technological arrogance, intellectual condescension, and artistic snobbery, to name a few. It tends to be magisterial, elitist, strident, domineering, supercilious, and overbearing.
In a dignitarian world, fundamentalists have to compete with all comers on an equal footing. Claims to represent higher authority are not given special credence and do not exempt a doctrine from scrutiny. Infallibility is out; questioning authority is not only permitted but encouraged. The one thing dignitarian tolerance does not extend to is intolerance--that is, to those who would resort to coercion to achieve their own agenda.
Chapter 1 presented a range of examples of fundamentalism: the traditional Confucianism that protected the rapist in rural China; the mantle of infallibility assumed by NASA officials who overruled the engineers on Challenger; the "commissars" on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who arbitrarily substituted their own judgment for that of hands-on operators at Three Mile Island. In addition, there are fundamentalists of every faith who would impose their beliefs on others and revile those who disagree with them.
When scientists look down their noses at religious fundamentalists, they are as guilty of rankism as the targets of their disdain. It's true that most religious fundamentalists, much like cocksure ideologues and smug scientists, do close their minds, but a person has a right to do this. Almost all people have some compartmentalized beliefs that they exempt from questioning, and in that sense there is at least some of the fundamentalist in everyone. As we all know, though, the parts of us that are closed are unlikely to be opened by derision and contempt.
When adherents to any fundamentalist creed demonize dissenters as immoral or evil, they're treading a path that leads to dehumanization, oppression, and in the extreme, even to genocide.When nonbelievers put fundamentalists down as naïve and ignorant, they are taking the first step down that same treacherous path.
The problem is compounded by the fact that even when both parties agree to let the evidence settle the matter, there can be disagreement as to what constitutes evidence. One group might insist that anything in the Bible is ipso facto evidence, whereas the other might insist on substantiating biblical assertions with accepted scientific procedures. The only way to settle an impasse like this--aside from one side backing down--is to build a "metamodel" that reconciles the antagonists' views on basic methodological issues. As rankism is ruled out, believers and nonbelievers can narrow the scope of their disagreements and simply agree to disagree on what remains.
Ideology and the Dignitarian Perspective
As noted above, there's a little bit of the fundamentalist in almost everyone. It is in defense of that bit of "sacred," unquestioned terrain that we are most likely to inflict indignity on others. Becoming aware of these tendencies in ourselves is an essential part of creating a dignitarian environment. Inhabiting a post-fundamentalist world will not be easy. It requires breaking our dependency on "intoxicating certitudes," as it were, and finding our footing without recourse to absolutes.