Human Dignity

The genesis for this post lies in a simple question. The question is not simple by any means but it was put to me simply by a high school junior I mentor: What makes us human? Some say it’s vanity. The mere fact that we humans indulge ourselves with this question is proof enough. Others have said it is jealousy. This one trait could probably explain a whole gamut of human actions. We could throw other traits into the mix say compassion, love, cruelty and greed. Of course we possess all these traits to varying degrees but none of these really get to the heart of the matter at hand. I have been pondering this for last few weeks and have struggled to come up with a neatly packaged answer. So I decided to look at it from an opposite angle. Instead of asking what makes us human I asked myself what us inhuman? And the answer became clear as light of day (light of a warm summer day that is, not the gloom of a rainy winter Oregon afternoon): robbing a person of their dignity robs them of their humanity. In other words, dignity of the individual is at the essence of being human. Whatever do you mean by dignity O wise one I hear you say. Well hang tight, I am just getting started.

If we grant that we have a body and a soul, it follows that true dignity must encompass material as well as spiritual well-being. The material aspect requires access to basic necessities of life and control over one’s own body. Spiritual dignity is a combination of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. This is not as high brow as one might think. Food and shelter are the two most basic of human necessities. For all the progress that we have made as a race, a big fraction of our fellow human beings are hungry and without shelter. Hunger can drive a man insane and make animals out of decent human beings. People forced to beg on the streets have been deprived of their dignity. We should be thankful that state sanctioned slavery was abolished. Can you imagine any dignity in that? And yet there are people who tend to romanticize that part of history. That was a prime example of dehumanizing people by taking away any control over their own bodies. Modern day versions of slavery are well and alive though. Human trafficking goes on around the world without any abatement, primarily driven by illegal sex trade. This is a case where some humans are making a choice to act in an inhuman fashion thereby robbing others of their dignity and at the same shedding any vestiges of their own humanity. People deprived of material dignity can still retain dignity of soul however. Like Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. I think he was referring to the power of imagination. If we can cling to hopes of a better tomorrow it can make the material sufferings more bearable. Andy Dufresne was referring to the same concept in Shawshank Redemption when he was put in solitary confinement (btw solitary confinement is a barbaric punishment). In my view, the most inhuman thing we can do to a person is take away their right to think (imagine) and the freedom to express their thoughts. I cannot imagine any cruelty worse than this. No wonder that the freedom of speech is so sacrosanct in the United States’ constitution. The fear of loss of individual thought and expression has led to great works of arts centered around visions of dystopian society — Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World — are two works that immediately spring to mind. We are so traumatized by visions of a society where there is no concept of an individual and all our thoughts and actions are controlled and monitored. In 1984, there’s even a concept of “new speak” where certain words are eradicated from the language to remove concepts represented by these words. Can you imagine a bleaker existence than what is portrayed in these two works? It is also interesting to note that dignity of the spirit is very likely responsible for the fact that we are descended from Homo Sapiens (loosely translates as “wise man”) and not Neanderthals. The two existed side by side in ages of old but Homo Sapiens thrived and Neanderthals died away. By all accounts, Neanderthals were expert hunters and made sophisticated tools and were entirely capable of surviving in tough environments. Homo Sapiens on the other hand instinctively understood the importance of expression of thought i.e dignity of the soul.

Is there any lesson in here for all of us? Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming. Can we establish a guiding principle for our everyday interactions with one another centered on the concept of dignity? Anytime we say or do hurtful things to those around us we are taking away part of their humanity. Anytime we display controlling behavior i.e try to place constraints on others’ thought process and actions we are in fact telling them to give up their humanity. Keep in mind that you are also losing your own dignity when you engage in such behavior. It is a clear lose lose situation if there ever was one. So dignify others and enhance your own dignity in the process. Now there’s a win win for everyone.

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3 comments on “Human Dignity

  1. Kapil: Extraordinarily well written and well thought out. On the subject of human trafficking, I suggest you read Nicolas Kristoff’s column in today’s Oregonian. He is dealing with trafficking of young girls for the sex trade in SE asia, and selling the young girls’ “virginity.” Very interesting reading — keep it up.

    John Sollman
    p.s. I didn’t get any e-mail from you — Carla told me you had published another piece.

    • I happened to read Kristoff’s column in NY Times the other day and I think reading that helped me complete my chain of thought for this post. Let me look into why you didn’t get an email.

  2. I really like your analysis of this topic; I’ve discussed this before with others and never thought to look at what makes us inhuman rather than human…and I absolutely agree with your conclusion on dignity. It brought to mind the recent story of Jaycee Dugard who was abducted at the age of 10 and held captive for 18 years. In order to survive her ordeal, which included taking away her dignity in various ways, she began to empathize with her captor, allowing her to form a bond with him and retain some dignity. Thanks again for another great post!

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