Where is the room for individual dignity?

Most of us never intend to turn someone else into the "other," but the exigencies of life have a way of wringing out individual dignity from our work. We can find ourselves running so fast to reach the finish line that we lose sight of why even started to run. We use certain words and phrases as short-hand, only to lose their meaning. We go all out to win vital arguments, only to create needless divisions that fail to reflect people's everyday experiences. How in your own efforts to create change are you making room for individual dignity? In my own memory, it was around the time of Ronald Reagan that our nation took a sharp detour deep into the land of celebrating the power of the individual and shoving individual dignity to the side. Of course, the "individual" has always played a central role in American history and myth, but since Reagan we have increasingly viewed the individual as the almighty consumer, the all-knowing political force, the free-agent without commitments, the sovereign entity.

In our celebration of the individual, the reference point is me, myself and I -- even if it means turning away from others, or talking about people in ways that keep them at arms' length.

  • Thus we talk about "choice" in education, or other reforms, but often do not speak in terms of children and their vulnerabilities and feelings and real needs. The child gets lost in all the political speak and banter, the numbers and charts, the official statements and programs. And yet, we all know what it means to be a kid.
  • We talk about long-term health care and trot out hurting people as props in our unfolding public drama, but somehow we do not talk about what a care-giver truly goes through and the mundane supports that they need to make it day-to-day. And yet, it's not too hard to envision yourself in this kind of situation.
  • Or, we talk about patriotism, as I did on Wisconsin Public Radio yesterday, as if its meaning resides within the confines of an ideological framework, a so-called battle between the right and left. And yet, we fail to see that each of us in everyday life is in search of ways to express our love of country, engage with one another, and get on with the unfinished work before us.

A fellow guest on the public radio program yesterday was Air Force Reserve Major David Frakt who in June made the closing argument in a high-profile Guantanamo Bay case. In reading over his closing argument I was especially moved by these words:

No one is "undeserving" of humane treatment. It is an unmistakable lesson of history that when one group of people starts to see another group of people as "other" or as "different," or an "undeserving" as "inferior," ill-treatment inevitably follows.

"Ill-treatment" can be defined in many ways. The Major was referring to torture. But while torture is an extreme example, everyday there are abridgments of individual dignity. Just this morning I heard a radio ad for listeners to donate funds to help "needy people." Just what would it mean to be part of the "needy people?" Must you show an identification card at the movies, wear only certain brands of clothing, attach a scarlet letter to your arm. How is it that we see other people's lives?

I can't imagine that most people intentionally squeeze out room for individual dignity. But I would say that we have lost a certain consciousness for it. If we talk about individual dignity, we do so only for a moment, before returning to business as usual. Or maybe we see something on television that touches on human indignity and makes us cry, only we quickly dry our eyes and "pull ourselves together." The problem we face is hidden in plain view. Will we see it? What will we do?

My point isn't that we should stop fighting for important causes. We must keep going. But under what conditions, I ask? We can achieve our goals but fail to make a difference in people's lives. We can have a great public or social mission but not work truly in the spirit of people. We can be standing right next to someone, and still not see or hear them.