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Dignity and Recognition

Message Robert Fuller
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(Article changed on September 24, 2013 at 21:33)

This is the third 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.

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by Berrett-Koehler, 2006


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
--United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
--The Declaration of Independence

Tucked into the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a phrase that, despite its ambiguity, has inspired people the world over for two centuries. Many have struggled with the meaning and implications of "created equal." Certainly, on the face of things, people are more easily seen as unequal, even at birth. In health, wealth, looks, talent, skill, and other qualities, it's obvious that we exhibit a wide range of differences. Moreover, as adults, our differences are often a continual source of the delight we take in each other.

By asserting that "all men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and principal author of the document, implicitly tasked the nation not only with protecting life and liberty but also with embodying fairness and justice. As historian Garry Wills argues in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, when Lincoln invoked Jefferson's proposition in the first line of his famous Civil War address, he was implying that not just different individuals but also different races must be accorded equal rank.

Jefferson, and Lincoln by quoting his words, were both asserting that people are equal not in their endowments or attainments but rather in their intrinsic value as human beings, in their dignity.

Dignity: A Universal Human Right

Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our particular characteristics or our status. Every religion teaches us so. We experience this as a birthright, an immutable cosmic fact that cannot be undone by any person, circumstance, institution, or government. That is why rankism provokes such strong resentment--whether it occurs between individuals or groups, it is experienced on the deepest level as an affront to dignity.

Like any animal vulnerable to being preyed upon, we're super-sensitive to threats to our well-being. Picking on the weak is the strategy of choice for all predators, and human beings have retained those instincts. Among our ancestors, those who missed signs of predatory intent became someone's lunch.

For this same reason, we're alert to subtle attempts to determine our relative strength, from "innocent" opening lines such as "And you are...?" or "Who are you with?" to more probing queries regarding our ancestry or education. All it takes is a faint whiff of presumed superiority or condescension and we're on guard.

Indeed, our dignity is often most easily discerned in the breach. We know at once when we're treated with disregard, and for good reason. An intimation or overt gesture of disrespect may be a feeler put out by someone to gauge the degree of our resistance to subordination, or to remind us of our place. For example, an insult is often a signal of intent to exclude the targeted individual from the group, to make him or her an outcast, a nobody. Likewise, an assertion of rank--even a subtle one--can signal an intention to dominate.

To be "nobodied" carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources critical to our well-being. Such threats are tantamount to blackmail or extortion, forcing people to subordinate themselves so as to avoid the fateful consequences of ostracism.

The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy. Dignity grounds us, nurtures us, protects us. It's the social counterpart of interpersonal love. To be treated with dignity confirms our status as a valued member of a group. Dignity and self-respect go hand in hand: dignity accorded us nourishes our self-respect, and a manifest self-respect inclines others to treat us with dignity.

In proclaiming a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the Founders came tantalizingly close to making dignity a fundamental right. By liberty they meant freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Therefore, the right to liberty, by militating against rankism, affords a large measure of protection to our dignity. Likewise, the right to pursue happiness is meaningless in the absence of the dignity inherent in full and equal citizenship. Hence, it's not that much of a stretch to find in the Founders' intentions an implicit, but as yet generally unacknowledged, right to dignity. The constitutions of Canada, Germany, and South Africa explicitly grant this right to all citizens.

Who cannot identify with Shylock's rejoinder to affront in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: "I am a Jew; hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" Or with the indignant protest of abolitionist Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a woman?" Both these pleas are demands for dignity. In each, the aggrieved speaker is laying claim to the status of full and equal membership in the human family.

Insults to dignity immediately shift our focus and divert our energy. The costs, whether expressed or suppressed, are high in every realm--the workplace, health care, education, and relations between individuals, groups, and nations. Most dangerously, chronic disrespect can set in motion a psychological dynamic whose end point may be violence and destruction. As Shylock continues, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" His warning concludes with the threat of escalation: "The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

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