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Dignity: An Idea Gone Missing in the Land

Watching the recent coverage of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, I was struck by how often the pro-Democracy activists in those places, like the politically-minded citizens I have known in Spain and Latin America, invoked the concept of “dignity” when asked to explain their motivations.

This, in turn, made me realize just how seldom we hear the term in today’s America.

To speak of dignity is to express the belief, according to a definition I recently found, “that a being has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment”. This being the case, it is probably not surprising that Americans have come to avoid the word like the plague.

To use a word is to run the risk of meditating on the meaning of the concept which lies behind it. And meditating about dignity is to run the risk of seeing how much of what we do, or allow to be done, in our daily lives runs counter to its implied demands.

For example, if we were to once again become interested in dignity, we would have to confront people who think that their wealth or their rank gives them license to play with the emotions and lives of other people in the workplace and in many other face-to-face encounters.

We would have to challenge the idea, which has been repeated over the last three decades to the point where it has come to be seen as an unchallengeable truth, that “everybody has their price”. It would require us to point out that wealth and power are only two of the many, many things that make people tick and that pretending that they are the only things debases the enormous beauty and variety of the human condition and the many ways of leading purposeful lives.

It would lead us to fight in the most vigorous way the invasions of our privacy implemented by the Bush Administration and ratified and extended by the Obama Administration. To have a space in our lives that belongs only to ourselves and that is only to be shared when, and if, we mindfully and conscientiously decide to share it, is a basic tenet of free and dignified societies. More prosaically, we all deserve to be free of the fear (and let’s not pretend that it does not or will not happen) that our private information might be used to defame of blackmail us.


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These ideals were true, as we were then ceaselessly reminded, during the time of the Stasi in East Germany. They are still true in the USA of the TSA, the NSA, the FBI the DIA, the CIA and a whole host of other overly curious government agencies.

Were dignity a concern, we would, in our roles as employees, stockholders and citizens, refuse to nod passively when upper management decides to trade-in the livelihoods of perfectly productive employees, and with it, the peace and stability of their households, to gain a higher marginal return on company stock.

Similarly, we would never allow something as basic as the health care, which is to say the physical and mental well-being of millions of our fellow citizens at the their lowest life ebb, to be controlled by people for whom healing outcomes are, at best, a secondary concern.

Finally, if dignity had a major place in our national imaginary, we would insist that the people who bring us the news stop using the euphemisms invented by government “perception management” experts--terms like “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage”--to refer to the US killing of mostly innocent human beings in far away countries. And rather than assent to the prevention, by executive order and the bullying and banning of Al-Jazeera, of our own necessary encounter with the visible results of our well-funded killing machine, we would beg to know more about the victims and those they left behind and would seek to imagine just what it will take to put their shattered lives back together.

In our work and political spheres we have largely abandoned the search for dignity.....and we know it.

That is probably why we rarely speak its name.

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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