Dialogues about dignity, Part II: Mainstreaming the message

Day 1 participants (Photo: Anna Strout)

Day 1 participants (Photo: Anna Strout)

How do we make human dignity a primary, framing concept for how we look at society and ways to better it?

As I reported in my last post, I spent two days last week participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, held at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The workshop is a global, transdisciplinary gathering of educators, practitioners, and activists devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society. I’ve been a part of HumanDHS for some five years now, including serving on its global advisory board.

At the workshop, one of our small group discussions centered on the question of how to carry the dignity message beyond the choir. In other words, how can we reach others who might be receptive?

Politically speaking, there remains strong, powerful pushback against anything that might be construed as a dignity agenda for public policy, especially when it comes to economics, wealth inequality, human rights, and the environment. As I wrote in a 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” any “dignitarian” view of the workplace must confront a dominant “markets and management” framework that presumes the superiority of the market economy and unbridled management control.

With the benefit of extended reflection, here are some of my thoughts on the realities of breaking through those hedgerows:

  • Limited access — Access to mainstream media is limited. The markets & management, command & control mentality drives the media as well, making it less likely that alternative perspectives will get regular airings.
  • Nuance and detail — The supposed virtues of the free market and top–down control make for easy, uncomplicated messaging. Arguing the virtues of dignity as a framing societal concept requires a respect for nuance and detail.
  • Translating our work — Academicians, in particular, can be woefully bad at communicating their work and ideas to the outside, general public. Furthermore, they often find little support for this role in academe, where notions of the independent, public intellectual have largely given way to exploited part-time instructors, narrowly specialized scholars and, on occasion, celebrity professors.
  • Bridging gaps — Those of us who value the application of research, analysis, and creative thinking to societal problems continually must work on bridging the gaps between scholarship and public education & advocacy.
  • Getting specific — In more concrete terms, platforms such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and independent publishing can provide alternative ways to advance a dignitarian message. Having that presence will also, at least on occasion, attract attention from mainstream media outlets as certain topics expand in the public eye.
  • Resilience and empathy — We have to be willing to take our lumps. In a more public forum, it’s likely that a dignitarian message will attract Internet trolls and others whose purpose is to ridicule and denigrate. But if we stay cocooned, we’re not making the world a safer and better place. Resilience and empathy must go hand-in-hand.

There’s a lot more to be done on this question, and it is very, very relevant to the central challenge of transforming our workplaces. I will continue to explore it in future posts.


Some related posts

Intellectual activism and social change (November 2013) — Collecting some of my writings on intellectual activism.

Dignity work (December 2012) — An extended report on last year’s HumanDHS workshop, with some thoughts on advancing a dignitarian message.

American elders: Human dignity and an aging population (December 2012) — The paper I presented at the 2012 HumanDHS workshop.

Work and human dignity from The Hedgehog Review (November 2012) — Work and human dignity: Shall the twain meet?


2 responses

  1. Dignity is essential for all human beings – whether we agree with each other or not. If we villianize those we disagree with, we are not understanding the meaning of dignity.

    • Hi Debra, thank you for your latest comment. I constantly wrestle with distinctions between “criticize,” “villainize,” and “demonize.” There are times when those distinctions are easy, especially when the latter two are meant to fuel hatred and mob-like behaviors. And yet we need to hold onto the roles of responsible criticism and of personal & institutional accountability. On these points I am finding increasingly helpful how Donna Hicks has said that while everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, we must affirmatively earn respect.

      Last year I wrote a blog post, “Donna Hicks: Demand dignity, earn respect,” exploring this question.

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