On dignity

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a look at the idea of dignity. It is often assumed, indeed, the idea is often promoted that, dignity is an entitlement. That is wrong. One is in entitled to the conditions necessary for one to be able to act in a dignified manner, but whether or not one uses the opportunity, well, that is entirely an issue of personal responsibility.

On dignity

By: Gareth van Onselen

4 June 2012

The ideas ‘dignity’, ‘status’ and ‘respect’ enjoy a complex and contradictory relationship. At the heart of that confusion lies dignity, which is often misunderstood to be a personal, emotional state, rather than an objective assessment of someone else’s status or standing.

In other words, people assume dignity is felt when in fact it is thought; and self-referential, when in fact it applies to others. It is true, someone can feel dignified but that needn’t necessarily mean their dignity is secured or, indeed, that they appear to others to have dignity. It is for this reason someone in the face of deep distress might nevertheless appear dignified and someone ostensibly dignified might behave in a reprehensible fashion.

In the other direction, it is possible, through intimidation or coercion, to impose upon someone circumstance which forces them to act in manner that robs from them their dignity.

For both these reasons, it is therefore necessary to protect in law those basic rights and conditions that ensure everyone has available to them the opportunity to be dignified. So dignity itself is not self-standing, rather the consequence of other basic freedoms. And it is an opportunity because, despite enjoying those various protections, one might still behave in such a way as to appear undignified in the eyes of others regardless.

Thus, once those various basic protections are guaranteed, ensuring one appears to others as dignified is entirely a personal responsibility.

And yet many people refuse to accept that. Aware their behaviour has compromised their dignity these sorts of victims evoke the idea of respect to demand others show deference to them, despite their attitude warranting no such thing. They suggest respect should be given regardless. But respect, much like dignity itself, needs to be earned. It cannot be demanded.

In an environment where, for long periods of time, those basic rights never existed but are now entrenched, it is therefore perfectly possible for the idea of dignity to be abused; for people to abdicate their own responsibility in ensuring their standing is one worthy of respect and play victim. Ironically, the very effect of that is to further denude their status and standing in the eyes of others.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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