What if our society was built around advancing human dignity and well-being?

Let’s pretend, for even a few minutes, that we could build our society around the advancement of human dignity and well-being.

What would our educational, social, economic, and governance institutions look like? How would we balance opportunity, individual responsibility, societal safety nets, and shared obligations? How would we address health care and public health issues? How would our laws and legal systems operate? How would we define our relationships with the planet and other species that inhabit it? How would we operate our workplaces?

Most importantly, how would each of us choose to conduct our own lives?

For many reasons, I think we’re at a juncture where we need to be steadfast and unapologetic about making human dignity and well-being the defining priorities for our society. The ensuing discussion may take us in many different directions, and we won’t always be in agreement about what approaches to take, but at least we’d get the framing concept right.


Related posts

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go (2014) — “Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014) — “One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health.”

Dialogues about dignity (2013), Parts I (Meeting in Manhattan), II (Mainstreaming the message), and III (Claiming and using power to do good) — “The founding president of [the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network] is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. In her remarks to the group, Evelin talked about the need to “embrace the world as our university.” She urged that in the face of powerful political and economic forces that operate to advance the interests of the most privileged, we must “build a new culture of global cohesion, global friendship.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues (2013) —  “By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.”


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Competing visions of the “good life”

These days I find myself thinking about a lot of “big picture” subjects, like the future of society. (Yup, that’s pretty big picture stuff.) I  am deeply concerned about how the coming decades will unfold in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, and I believe that we will have to reassess our relationships with technology, the planet, our workplaces, and each other.

Among those who anticipated this state of affairs many years ago was John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. John also was my good friend, and his voluminous writings, many of which were self-published through his independent center, Basic Choices, Inc., have had a strong influence on my thinking.

In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, “first world” society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a “technological, top-down, service society” that defined “the ‘good life’ as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.” The other vision saw the “good life” as embracing “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.”

John expounded upon on how that latter vision could unfold:

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.

It’s fair to say that supporters of the “technological, top-down, service society” to which John referred have had their way of things, at least during the past three decades. Against this backdrop, advancing a healthier vision for society is a challenging task, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing it. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written later in his life, John suggested that a combination of spirituality, personal growth, and social action could be at the core of this transformation. I’d say he was right on target about that.


For more about John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role, see my book chapter, David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

The prices we pay for stuff: A value system gone haywire?

Earlier this spring, the New York Times reported on an interesting and disturbing twist: Over the years, “wired” devices and electronics have plummeted in price, while the costs of education, health care, and child care have shot up. Here’s Annie Lowrey, reporting:

Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory. The result is that Americans can buy much more stuff at bargain prices.

Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared.

…Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

Add to that the high costs of quality, unprocessed food and good, safe housing and you have a pretty fair idea of what’s more affordable in terms of everyday needs and wants. One could say this reflects a value system gone haywire, where basic health, education, nutrition, and housing needs are harder to pay for, while the latest digital gizmos are relatively affordable.

It’s something to think about the next time you see a person who appears to be homeless talking on a cellphone.

Have we fallen prey to the “curse of conformity”?

There is only meager evidence that we Americans recognize the urgent task confronting us — to shift the emphasis from “bigger” to “better,” from the quantitative to the qualitative, and to give significant form and beauty to our environment. An evolution of this kind would add moral authority to material abundance, would open up frontiers that we have been slow to explore.

The writer of the piece from which this passage is drawn criticized the conformity and “extreme specialization” in our society. He noted the “triumphal march of the practical sciences ” over the “magic of life,” and he lamented how “(t)he artist, the poet, the prophet have become stepchildren of the ‘organization man.'”

Back to the future, once again?

These are the words of Walter Gropius, renowned architect and professor, from a 1958 essay — “The Curse of Conformity” — in the Saturday Evening Post. Founder of the Bauhaus school of design, he normally critiqued the lack of diversity and variety in modern architecture, but he diverted his focus in this piece to address society and organizations generally.

Significant elements of Gropius’s conceptualization of America circa 1958 certainly manifest themselves in our nation today. In fact, the Great Recession and the ongoing mess that has followed seem like a natural consequence of what Gropius wrote about some 54 years ago.


I was introduced to “The Curse of Conformity” via a delightful 1960 volume of Saturday Evening Post essays titled Adventures of the Mind, edited by Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, once distributed as a dividend-book by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Inexpensive used copies are available from booksellers.

Dignity, where art thou?

Our goal-oriented society is full of political platforms, strategic plans, long-range plans, position papers, white papers, proposals, action memos, and self-study reports.

How many of them feature human dignity as a framing theme and objective?

Oh sure, we talk plenty about growth, outcomes, opportunities, profits, “measurables,” and the like.

But as for “dignity”? Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

In the workplace, a “markets and management” framework that embraces unregulated industries and unfettered management control continues to hold sway. It spills into our political realm, where trickle-down economic theories and practices dominate our domestic and international policy debates. It has been this way for at least the past 30 years.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to embrace the concept and practice of dignity. Does it make us uncomfortable? Do we see it as an impossibility? Is it too threatening to the centers of profit and power?


Related posts

Donna Hicks on dignity (2012)

Building a global society that embraces human dignity (2011)

George Lakoff, Frameworks, and Dignity at Work (2010)

Human Dignity and American Employment Law (2009)

Websites of the Week: Dignity, Humiliation, and Rankism (2008)

Does fear of vulnerability explain our culture of cruelty?

During a recent Republican presidential candidate debate sponsored by the Tea Party and CNN, audience members cheered the suggestion of leaving a man to die for lack of health insurance coverage.

As reported by Amy Bingham for ABC News, the debate moderator posed to candidate Ron Paul a “hypothetical question about whether an uninsured 30-year-old working man in [a] coma” should receive health care:

“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul responded, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…”

The audience erupted into cheers, cutting off the Congressman’s sentence.

After a pause, Blitzer followed up by asking “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” to which a small number of audience members shouted “Yeah!”

Fear of vulnerability

Differences of opinion over health care policy are fine, but how do we explain this spontaneous expression of cruelty?

In a recent essay (see below for details), Dr. Brené Brown, a leading scholar and commentator on shame, vulnerability, and moral courage, believes that cruelty is often a manifestation of our fear of vulnerability:

Cruelty is both a type of invulnerability shield and the outcome of a culture that is collectively losing its tolerance for vulnerability. In a world facing political, environmental, economic, and social uncertainty, we rage and humiliate to discharge our own fear and anxiety.

Could this explain the reactions of the Tea Party debate audience? It’s the most charitable explanation I’ve encountered: By cheering the possibility of leaving someone to die because he doesn’t have health insurance coverage, they are shielding themselves from the reality that they are one job loss away from being in the same position.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this cruel, punitive, “I’ve got mine” thinking around this country right now. If we don’t start to recognize our common vulnerabilities, a lot of people will suffer for it.


Brené Brown’s “The Strength of Vulnerability” appears in End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life (2011), a collection of 62 essays by leading thinkers and business leaders, compiled as a fundraising book to combat malaria by the Domino Project, associated with Amazon.com.

A better way to live, work, and prosper?

In closing out my blog posts for this year, I’d once again like to share a vision for a truly kinder and gentler society, offered in 1981 by John Ohliger (1926-2004), a pioneering, iconoclastic adult educator, community activist, and writer (not to mention dear friend):

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.

Although John’s political views placed him squarely to the left of center, he was not one for ideological browbeating. Even his frequent use of the term “radical” suggested more a general distancing from mainstream technocratic and consumer culture than a rigid sociopolitical and economic worldview.

Now more than ever?

The society John envisioned becomes ever more compelling in the wake of this economic meltdown.  It is likely that many of us will have to moderate our buying and owning of “stuff” during the years to come. As the obscene term “jobless recovery” is shaping into a reality, we are knocking on the door of a long-term period of a difficult job market and lower pay and benefits.  Retirement, where possible for those in their later years, will require judicious spending.

In sum, the years ahead may require us to think about what makes for a good and fulfilling life.  John’s vision invites us to consider a potentially healthier and more satisfying way of living, even if material goods are in shorter supply.


For more about John Ohliger, go here.

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