What is dignity?

The moderns

Industrialization means mass society, bureaucracy, high technology, political ideology; each of these things reduces the likelihood that a modern person will turn to another person as a particular living being and increases the likelihood that moderns will see each other as abstractions.  Analyzing this tendency, sociologist Max Weber said that the rise of bureaucracy locked moderns in an “iron cage of rationality”; characterizing modernity in general, Weber spoke of a “world grown cold.”  For centuries now, there have been those who have rebelled against modernity in the name of a lost human connection, and have harked back to premodern times.  This anti-modern tradition has found an American voice in Chronicles  magazine

In his column in the December 2009 issue editor Thomas Fleming informs us that “Reactionaries, alas, almost always ruin whatever good remains in a tradition.”  The rest of the issue is full of evidence for this view, I’m sorry to say.  Members of various Christian denominations take turns bewailing the rising support for gay rights among their coreligionists; persons of various nationalities denounce immigration in general and immigration to their countries by Muslims in particular; Paul Craig Roberts complains that because some parking spaces are reserved for the handicapped, the rest of us “are second-class citizens”; etc etc etc. 

There are some diamonds in the rough, however.  In the course of a denunciation of the liberal-minded leadership of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, we read that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori chose as the slogan for 2009’s triennial Episcopalian convention “Ubuntu,” “which is supposed to be an African word for sharing and caring.”  Jefferts Schori’s opening address noted that “Ubuntu doesn’t have any ‘i’s in it,” and went on to claim that individuality is found only in our dealings with each other:

The “I” only emerges as we connect- and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relation with others.  There is no “I” without “you,” and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the One who created us.  

That sounds like fairly orthodox Christianity to me, and the suggestion that non-industrialized or lightly industrialized parts of Africa may have preserved a clearer understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community is certainly in line with the anti-modernist tradition from which Chronicles magazine springs.  But that isn’t the reaction this writer gives.  He seems to interpret it, not as an appeal to premodernity and a world without the coldness that comes with industrialization, but to the coldness of political ideology in its collectivist forms.  

The writer points out that Episcopalianism, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, has long been in decline, while Anglicanism has been growing in Africa.  However, the African converts to Anglicanism could not be further from Bishop Jefferts Schori’s liberal Anglo-Catholicism; they tend to be fierce defenders of traditional gender roles, so that a female Presiding Bishop who is a staunch advocate of gay rights would not be very popular among them.  Perhaps, the writer speculates, “Africans may need to send missionaries to convert American Episcopalians, Methodists, and other mainline Protestants to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When the African missionaries arrive, Katharine Jefferts Schori will no doubt remind them that there is no ‘i’ in ‘Ubuntu.'”   

Fleming’s own column, mentioned above, has one good passage.  Having visited a monastery, he wonders what his late father, a committed atheist, would have said about it.  He supposes he would have declared that the monks’ greatest accomplishment was “the mindless repetition of things that have been done over and over for two thousand years.”  Fleming’s reply to this imaginary attack is:

Excepting the “mindless” bit, I should say, “Yes, it is a great (if not the greatest) accomplishment to have gone through the same motions so many times for so many centuries.  We do not always know what or why we are doing.  Indeed, most of what we think we know we take on trust from a higher authority, like the television weatherman or an ill-educated high school teacher who once told us something about Galileo.  Jefferson, in a letter to a young nephew, described politeness as artificial good humor (a word that meant something like temperament or character): ‘it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue.'”  That observation, elevated to the spiritual level, suggests that if we go through the same motions and repeat the same words our distant ancestors did, we may someday possess something of their Christian virtues.          

Most notable of the good bits is Chilton Williamson’s column.  Williamson is interested in the word “dignity.”  Williamson turns to a Latin dictionary for definitions of the root word dignitas.  Each definition he finds there “applies to some distinguishing quality, to something earned, or to something peculiarly inherited.  There is nothing universal about it.  All human beings are alike in having been made in the image of God, but that is not the same thing as saying that they share equally in the divine dignity, any more than they share in the divine goodness.” 

I wonder how seriously Williamson means these sentences to be taken.  If there is truly “nothing universal about” dignity, then one would think that it could not be shared at all.  The gulf between God’s dignity and any human being’s dignity would be absolute, and so would the gulf between one human being’s dignity and another’s.  As God alone would have divine dignity, so Williamson alone would have Williamsonian dignity and Acilius alone would have Acilian dignity.  Surely it wouldn’t stop there; isn’t a name a universal concept inasmuch as it suggests that the person who exists in one place at one time is the same as the person who exists in another place or at another time?  So that not only would one person’s dignity be a profoundly different thing from anyone else’s, but in every moment that compose the parts of a person’s life a new dignity would come into being and pass away, existing independently of the dignity of any other moment.  So even if my life (for example) were nothing but an exhibition of buffoonery and degradation for all but one instant, if I were to compose myself in that one instant I would, for its duration, be cloaked in dignity.  That does not seem to accord very well with the idea  of “something earned, or… something peculiarly inherited.” 

For all that, I hail Williamson’s concern for the particular as against the general.  That concern is the great strength of Chronicles magazine, and of the tradition that lingers on in its pages.  The desire to see a person as a particular being, not in any sense as an abstraction, is surely a healthy one, and where the Chronicles crowd has failed to achieve that desire I wish them better success next time.

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1 Comment

  1. cymast

     /  December 27, 2009

    It’s common knowledge that insecure people are more likely to lash out at others via the internet. In a face-to-face conversation, angry, frightened people feign politeness. Hiding behind a keyboard makes the weak feel strong. I suppose that is another advantage of “high technology.”

    Not sure what Roberts’ anti-handicapped parking rationale is. Able-bodied people who leave the handicapped parking spaces for the handicapped, or wait to hold doors for disabled people are “first-class”- that is, “acting with class.” People who help people are always “first class.”

    I see no real relationship between the god myth and dignity.

    To answer the question: dignity is emotional maturity, IMO.

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