Monday, November 21, 2011

Trying to be Human 101: Dignity

"I always thought of dignity at being similar to ego" Athena said. We were talking about a series of posts I have lined up, and one of them relied heavily upon one's understanding of the word dignity. It was then I realized how important relative context will be. Before we proceed to the real meat and potatoes awaiting we must first be certain everyone knows what I mean when I speak of "inherent dignity".

The dictionary reference above has a variety of meanings but none of them quite capture my thinking. All the definitions refer to rank, merit, and relative position as governed by outside forces. What I wish to discuss, however, is dignity inherent to being human.

I believe all humans are born with dignity. The best definition I can come up with is something like this:

Dignity is the inalienable, intrinsic worth of a human. That dignity is deserving of appreciation, recognition, and admiration. The worthiness of a human cannot be measured against another as all are of equal value. Neither can this worthiness be diminished by actions of the individual, nor actions taken against the individual. Respecting the dignity of others also means recognizing that the worth, value, honor, merit, moral/ethical standing, and importance of those around us do not hinge on our opinion.

To borrow a Taoist perspective, nothing a person does can ever make them less "person". They will always have person-ness, just as a tree will always have tree-ness and a squirrel will always have squirrel-ness. The essence of being isn't contingent on qualifying value assessments. The same is true of human dignity. A human, in fact all humans, will always have human dignity. It may be ignored, abused, and taken for granted, but never removed, and never diminished.

None of this means that people don't try to reduce, damage, and destroy the worthiness of those around them. In fact, seeing worth as both intrinsic and indestructible appears to place me in a minority. Of course some will play devil's advocate and ask questions like "did Adolph Hitler have intrinsic worth?" or "was Genghis Khan worthy of admiration as a human?" My answer is a resounding "yes". I have no praise for these men based upon their actions nor the choices they made in their lives. Let's face fact; Vladimir the Impaler was a decidedly cruel and twisted individual. But none of them could shake their humanity. It is possible to simultaneously have worth and make evil choices that debase one's ability to see the worth of those around them. Did you note how I phrased that? Evil choices, not evil people. People cannot be evil. People are people. Sometimes they do horrible things to one another. That fact makes me both angry and sad.

For those of you who give any traction to the judeo-christian perspective, let me give one last little tid-bit to act as an example:

The good Samaritan. Most of us have heard the story. Most of us were told it meant to treat people the way you want them to treat you. That completely misses the point of the story. Let me break it down. First off, we start with the man who was beaten and stripped, robbed, and left by the side of the road. There are very important connotations to the man being unconscious, bleeding, and mostly naked. He can't speak to identify himself. His clothing can't indicate his nationality. He's bleeding, and may be dead, which would make anyone who touched him (should he be dead) unclean and require ritual cleansing according to Levitical law. The road where he was left is, in fact, less a road and more like a small path on the face of a cliff with a precipitous plunge down to a river at the side. So we have a couple guys from the local temple that pass by, humorously, on the "other side of the road". Eventually it's the Samaritan who takes pity on the man. The gent from Samaria picks up him, takes him into town to an inn, cares for him, and then pays to have the locals care for him until he's healed.

Here's where everything we thought we knew goes to hell.

The Samaritans were, at the time the parable was told, at war with the Jewish nation. There were several occasions when the Samaritans scattered human remains in the courtyard of the Jewish temples, intentionally desecrating them. Here's the fantastic part. This story was told to answer a question from a local Pharisee (Jewish holy/political figures at the time). There was significant controversy at the time about what the "neighbor" in "love your neighbor as yourself" meant. A lot of people thought "neighbor" only applied to fellow Jews. Some of the more radical people of the time believed it meant everyone. So in asking, "who is my neighbor" the response is this story about an enemy of the state being the only person to show concern for a fellow human. So, who is my neighbor? Who am I to love as completely as I love myself? My worst enemy. The person I hate and fear the most.

In modern day terms it's like telling a staunch militaristic, socially conservative, family in the United States to love Al Qaeda militants.

Why am I bothering to mention any of this here? You guessed right. The person you fear, loath, and hate the most has just as much dignity as you do.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to the series of posts you have lined up after reading this one.


What do you think? I'm curious.