Creating a society grounded in human dignity

A Sunday morning contemplation from Boston: How can we envision a society that embraces human dignity? I’ve gathered some wise words from four individuals, all of whom have been featured on this blog before, to help fuel our thoughts on this question.

Evelin Lindner

Evelin Lindner is the founder of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary, non-profit network of scholars, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation in society. (Note: I serve on the HumanDHS board of directors.) A self-styled global citizen who writes, lectures, and engages in dialogues around the world, Lindner urges us to start with the principle of equal dignity for all. In her latest book, Honor, Humiliation, and Terror: An Explosive Mix And How We Can Diffuse It with Dignity (2017), she writes:

I have coined the term egalization to match the word globalization and at the same time differentiate it from terms such as equality or equity. …The term egalization is short for equal dignity for all. It does not claim that everybody should become equal and that there should be no differences between people. Equal dignity can coexist with functional hierarchy as long as it regards all participants as equal in dignity; it cannot coexist, though, with a hierarchy that defines some people as lesser beings and others as higher beings.

Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller, a physicist, human rights advocate, and former Oberlin College president, calls for the building of a “dignitarian” society that embraces individual dignity. In his 2006 book All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, Fuller writes that the main obstacle to creating a dignitarian society is the ongoing presence of “rankism,” which he defines as “abuses of power associated with rank.”

Rankism may grounded in demographic constructs such as race, sex, or age, as well as general hierarchies in “schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies.” Fuller asserts that reducing rankism and unnecessary hierarchy will help to create a society that values human dignity.

Bertram Gross

Especially because of current political conditions in the U.S., the late Bertram Gross’s book, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), is attracting a lot of attention for its assessment of how political and economic forces have created a form of “friendly fascism” in America. As a contrast, Gross also identified a secondary social and political movement grounded in community and service:

The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. This trend goes beyond mere reaction to authoritarianism. It transcends the activities of progressive groups or movements and their use of formal democratic machinery. It is nourished by establishment promises – too often rendered false – of more human rights, civil rights and civil liberties. It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition. It affects power relations in the household, workplace, community, school, church, synagogue, and even the labyrinths of private and public bureaucracies.

John Ohliger

Finally, for a slightly more impressionistic view, I appeal to the work of a dear late friend, John Ohliger, co-founder of a small, community-based think tank in Madison, Wisconsin called Basic Choices in the mid-1970s. In a  1982 essay, “Adult Education in a World of Excessive riches/Excessive Poverty,” John shared a vision of society that ran counter to the technocratic, materialistic forces that were garnering power:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Ohliger’s essay preceded the advent of the digital age by roughly a decade and thus may sound positively Luddite in light of today’s gadgeted and wired world. Nevertheless, his core vision of a less materialistic society where we lead “more relaxed and modest lives” is enormously appealing.

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The main focus of much of my work is on how to use law and public policy to advance human dignity. Of course, there are limits to how the law may shape a society committed to affirming human dignity. The state of having one’s dignity, and the act of conferring dignity upon another, require human interactions that go far beyond public mandates. However, it is also the case that our laws reflect our core values as a society, and to that extent our legal and policymaking systems can play their respective roles in advancing dignity and reducing denials of the same.

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This post is an edited passage from my forthcoming journal article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy,” to be published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. You may freely download my author’s draft of the piece here.

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