[This is the 16th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
What People Want – Dignity
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re half way there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Somehow, Someday, Somewhere!
– Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story
What people really want in relationships is dignity, not domination. While it’s not hard to understand why people who have suffered oppression might fantasize taking a turn at domination, to actually do so is to over-reach. Domination is not a reciprocal, symmetrical relationship. It’s one of superior and inferior, and simply reversing the roles of sovereign and subject perpetuates indignity rather than ends it. Reversing the directionality of domination is not a long-term equilibrium solution to inequity, indignity, and injustice. Like other revenge-driven “peace” arrangements, it invariably unravels and the struggle for domination resumes.
Dignity is in a class by itself when it comes to establishing good relationships with our fellow humans. Why? What do we mean by dignity?
Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our individual traits or worldly status. Though religious practice may deny equality of dignity—there are, for example, plenty of sexist precepts in the world’s holy books much as there are many discarded theories in the world’s scientific books—these same holy books also teach that dignity is a birthright that cannot be annulled by any person, circumstance, institution, or government. That god does not play favorites is an article of faith common to most religions, and one of the sources of the egalitarian ideals to which governments of every stripe feel required to pay lip service.
Indignity – An Existential Threat
Dignity is not negotiable.
– Vartan Gregorian
Like other animals vulnerable to being preyed upon, we’re supersensitive to threats to our well-being. 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, we’re often unaware of our dignity until it is slighted. We know at once when we’re treated with disrespect, and for good reason. An intimation or overt gesture of disregard may be a test to gauge our resistance to subservience, or to put us in our place. An insult is often a precursor to ostracism, to casting us as a nobody. Whole groups may be marginalized, as well as individuals. I short, Indignity is an existential threat. No wonder we’re so quick to register it!
While those atop the social pyramid prize liberty above all, most people put dignity first. History is full of examples of humiliated peoples who willingly surrender their freedom to a demagogue promising to restore their pride. One has only to think of Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the punitive Versailles treaty that concluded World War I.
The need for dignity is more than a desire for respect. Dignity grounds us, nurtures us, protects us. It’s the social counterpart of interpersonal love. To affirm people’s dignity confirms their status as valued members of a group. Dignity and self-respect go hand in hand: dignity nourishes our self-respect, and self-respect inclines others to affirm our dignity.
By protecting the dignity of others as if it were our own, we not only give others their due, we simultaneously protect ourselves by not giving offense in the first place.
Every child knows that indignities flow downstream—from “somebodies” of higher rank (indicating greater power) to “nobodies” of lower rank (and relatively less power). No sooner do we understand this, than we imagine a solution: eliminate ranks that signify degrees of power.
But power differences are a fact of life. To bemoan them is like complaining that the sun is brighter than the moon. When rank differences reflect legitimate power differences, they cannot be wished away.
Fortunately, this stark reality does not doom the prospects of achieving equal dignity for all. In and of itself, rank is not a source of indignity. Unless rank is inherently illegitimate—as, for example, specious social rankings that foist second-class citizenship on particular identity groups—then the problem is not with rank per se but rather with its abuse. The distinction between rank and its abuse goes to the heart of many vexing and intractable political issues, domestic and international. In most cases, indignity has its origins in abuse of the power signified by rank.
Confusing rank with its abuse occurs because rank is so commonly misused that young and old alike jump to the conclusion that the only remedy is to abolish ranking. Conflating rank and rank-based abuse is logically unnecessary and it’s a mistake with grave consequences. The socialists of nineteenth-century Europe and communists of the twentieth century often suffered from, or cynically exploited, this misconception.
When egalitarian ideologies did prevail, the self-appointed leaders typically imposed even harsher tyrannies than the ones they replaced. This was the Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel.
When it is legitimately earned and properly used, rank can be a useful organizational tool for achieving group goals. We rightfully admire and love authorities—parents, teachers, bosses, even political leaders—who use the power of their rank in exemplary ways.
Accepting such leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity by those in subordinate roles. It is when people use the power of their position to aggrandize themselves or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown.
Equal dignity is grounded in the fact of our dependence upon specialization and cooperation for survival, or, more fundamentally, in the co-creation of our very identities. This suggests that both the Left and the Right have equal stakes in, and responsibility for, universalizing dignity.
Rankism—The Source of Indignity
To have a name is to be.
– Benoit Mandelbrot
A key insight of identity politics is the importance of naming the malady you want to cure. When women pinned the label “sexism” on the attitudes and practices that had long kept them down, those practices became targetable. In the last half-century, identity politics has given a name to a half-dozen trait-based abuses and delegitimized every one of them. Eradicating a malady takes longer, of course, but it begins with the delegitimization that naming makes possible.
Absent a name for rank-based abuses, targets were in a position similar to that of women before the term “sexism” was coined. Writing in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as “the problem that has no name.” By 1968, the problem had acquired one – “sexism.” That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and public debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power-abuse linked to gender.
When abuse and discrimination are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re age-based, we call it ageism. By analogy, abuse of the power attached to rank is rankism. Once there’s a name for it, you see it everywhere. And once it’s visible, its legitimacy can be questioned.
The relationship between rankism and the various isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as subspecies of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific malignancies all had their origins in cellular malfunction.
In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers, and rankism is the generic malady analogous to cancer itself. Now that it has a name, it’s easier for victims of rankism to stand up for their dignity. Once victims are on their feet, they rarely stand down until their demands are met.
Religion divined the golden rule thousands of years ago, but has failed to bring about its widespread observance. In every society and every religion, leaders have downplayed, if not ignored, its implication of dignity for all and instead lent moral support to the degradation of racial and ethnic minorities, colonial subjects, women and girls, and homosexuals.
The twentieth century witnessed the successful application of the strategies and tactics of identity politics. Those same organizational techniques, applied to overcoming rankism, can render it as insupportable as the isms that identity politics has now put on the defensive.
In the next post, I’ll look at rankism’s many faces, and discuss how targeting it, in all its guises, would systematically operationalize the golden rule.
[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]