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Dignity and Recognition

This is the third part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity(Berrett-Koehler, 2006).The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.



All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
–United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights\\

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

–The Declaration of Independence

Tucked into the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a phrase that, despite its ambiguity, has inspired people the world over for two centuries. Many have struggled with the meaning and implications of “created equal.” Certainly, on the face of things, people are more easily seen as unequal, even at birth. In health, wealth, looks, talent, skill, and other qualities, it’s obvious that we exhibit a wide range of differences. Moreover, as adults, our differences are often a continual source of the delight we take in each other.

By asserting that “all men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and principal author of the document, implicitly tasked the nation not only with protecting life and liberty but also with embodying fairness and justice. As historian Garry Wills argues in his book Lincoln at Gettysburgwhen Lincoln invoked Jefferson’s proposition in the first line of his famous Civil War address, he was implying that not just different individuals but also different races must be accorded equal rank.

Jefferson, and Lincoln by quoting his words, were both asserting that people are equal not in their endowments or attainments but rather in their intrinsic value as human beings, in their dignity.

Dignity: A Universal Human Right

Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our particular characteristics or our status. Every religion teaches us so. We experience this as a birthright, an immutable cosmic fact that cannot be undone by any person, circumstance, institution, or government. That is why rankism provokes such strong resentment–whether it occurs between individuals or groups, it is experienced on the deepest level as an affront to dignity.

Like any animal vulnerable to being preyed upon, we’re super-sensitive to threats to our well-being. Picking on the weak is the strategy of choice for all predators, and human beings have retained those instincts. Among our ancestors, those who missed signs of predatory intent became someone’s lunch.

For this same reason, we’re alert to subtle attempts to determine our relative strength, from “innocent” opening lines such as “And you are…?” or “Who are you with?” to more probing queries regarding our ancestry or education. All it takes is a faint whiff of presumed superiority or condescension and we’re on guard.

Indeed, our dignity is often most easily discerned in the breach. We know at once when we’re treated with disregard, and for good reason. An intimation or overt gesture of disrespect may be a feeler put out by someone to gauge the degree of our resistance to subordination, or to remind us of our place. For example, an insult is often a signal of intent to exclude the targeted individual from the group, to make him or her an outcast, a nobody. Likewise, an assertion of rank–even a subtle one–can signal an intention to dominate.

To be “nobodied” carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources critical to our well-being. Such threats are tantamount to blackmail or extortion, forcing people to subordinate themselves so as to avoid the fateful consequences of ostracism.

The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy. Dignity grounds us, nurtures us, protects us. It’s the social counterpart of interpersonal love. To be treated with dignity confirms our status as a valued member of a group. Dignity and self-respect go hand in hand: dignity accorded us nourishes our self-respect, and a manifest self-respect inclines others to treat us with dignity.

In proclaiming a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founders came tantalizingly close to making dignity a fundamental right. By liberty they meant freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control. Therefore, the right to liberty, by militating against rankism, affords a large measure of protection to our dignity. Likewise, the right to pursue happiness is meaningless in the absence of the dignity inherent in full and equal citizenship. Hence, it’s not that much of a stretch to find in the Founders’ intentions an implicit, but as yet generally unacknowledged, right to dignity. The constitutions of Canada, Germany, and South Africa explicitly grant this right to all citizens.

Who cannot identify with Shylock’s rejoinder to affront in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “I am a Jew; hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Or with the indignant protest of abolitionist Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a woman?” Both these pleas are demands for dignity. In each, the aggrieved speaker is laying claim to the status of full and equal membership in the human family.

Insults to dignity immediately shift our focus and divert our energy. The costs, whether expressed or suppressed, are high in every realm–the workplace, health care, education, and relations between individuals, groups, and nations. Most dangerously, chronic disrespect can set in motion a psychological dynamic whose end point may be violence and destruction. As Shylock continues, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” His warning concludes with the threat of escalation: “The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

A sports cliche has it that the best defense is a good offense. In life, an equally important component of a good defense is not giving offense dignity and recognition in the first place. By protecting the dignity of others as if it were our own, we not only give them their due but simultaneously protect ourselves by preempting the desire for retaliation. Thomas Painerecognized this dynamic when he wrote, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Despite injunctions toward morality–like that implicit in Shakespeare’s lines and Paine’s admonition–and lip service paid to ethical behavior, history repeatedly demonstrates that morals are often ignored in practice, by the secular and religious alike. Had everyone honored the golden rule, segregation and other forms of racial discrimination would have been unthinkable and there would have been no need for the civil rights movement.

Though moral precepts may point the way, politics plays an indispensable role in actually changing human behavior. Political principles, as embodied in law, are essential if we want to close the gap that often exists between ethical ideals and common practice. A dignitarian politics gives teeth to the golden rule by making explicit a standard of compliance–equal dignity regardless of rank. It also calls to account those charged with enforcing this principle.

Given the remarkable achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, it’s not unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone’s equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone’s right to own property or to vote. (The current exception to the right to vote–people below the age of eighteen in most countries–will be addressed in chapter 5.) As others’ right to dignity becomes axiomatic, our own responsibility not to insult their dignity becomes a corollary.

Indignity and Malrecognition

Peter Gloystein, economy minister in the state of Bremen…, poured wine over the head of homeless Udo Oelschlaeger during the launch of German Wine Week. “Here’s something for you to drink,” he said as he doused Mr.Oelschlaeger,who was standing next to the podium at the public, open-air event.

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“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” a tearful Mr.Oelschlaeger retorted.

Mr. Gloystein, who was subsequently forced to resign his ministerial post, said he’d later met Mr. Oelschlaeger, who explained his difficult life. Mr. Gloystein apologized and they departed on friendly terms.
– Source:

The preventive for indignity and its many far-ranging consequences is recognition. What is required is an understanding and appreciation of each person’s role and the contributions he or she makes to others and the world. These can be anything into which time, effort, and care have been put–a home, a scientific theory, a dance, a business plan, a garden, a cake, an office, or vacuuming the floor of that office at midnight.

Ultimately, it is through contributing to others that individuals, groups, and nations secure their dignity. For example, parental acknowledgment for setting the family table affirms a child’s dignity. At the group level, the influence that African-American blues had on music is a source of black pride. The defeat of the German army on the eastern front during World War II remains a source of national pride to citizens of the former Soviet Union.

To be effective, recognition must be commensurate with contribution. Genuine recognition must be differentiated from false or inflated praise, which is experienced as condescension and can be worse than no recognition at all. The self-esteem movement fell into disrepute because the respect it offered was too often fake and exaggerated. Too much recognition for too little actually undermines dignity; we feel patronized. Likewise, disproportionately little recognition is experienced as disrespectful.

Perhaps worst of all is denying people even the opportunity to contribute. That says to someone,”You are so obviously worthless that we’re not even going to give you a chance to show us what you can do. You might as well not exist. Here, let me pour some wine on your head.”

Recognition is to the identity what food is to the body–indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, recognition provides assurance that our membership in the group is secure. Absent this, our survival is at risk.Without recognition, individuals may sink dignity and recognition into self-doubt and subgroups are marginalized and primed for exploitation.

Dignity and recognition are inseparable.We can’t all be famous, but fortunately, recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek it or from whom it is otherwise withheld, and take steps to prevent malrecognition–that is, too little or no recognition at all–as we now do to prevent malnutrition.

Despite many attempts to eradicate the latter–and assurances from experts that it is actually within our power to do so–hunger and malnutrition persist. Eliminating invisibility and malrecognition is no less daunting a challenge. But with respect to this task, we’ve only just begun. The science of malrecognition is in its infancy.

In contrast to malnutrition, malrecognition afflicts both rich and poor. Both maladies reduce the body’s resistance to disease and lower life expectancy. For most people, just the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world is enough to stifle the inclination to lash out. This means that malrecognition, like its physical counterpart, is a preventable and treatable ailment.

One important place to treat malrecognition is in the criminal justice system. Work by Morgan Moss and Penny Patton, under the auspices of the Center for Therapeutic Justice, strongly suggests that treating prison inmates with dignity reduces the recidivism rate upon their release.

A strategy of recognizing dignity can nip an escalation to violence in the bud. In a personal communication with the author, a teacher described an incident she witnessed in a post office, noting that the humble response, under stress, of the young man involved was indeed inspired:

I was waiting in line. A young guy about twenty was at the counter buying stamps. Suddenly some ratty, crazed-looking man who was ahead of me in line started screaming obscenities at the guy. Young Guy turned around and said,”What? What did I do?” to the livid man, who screamed back, “You KNOW what you’re doing!” like he was sensing evil rays coming out of Young Guy’s forehead or something.

Young Guy kept saying “What?” and then he just stood there. Everyone in the room just froze up. It was extremely tense. Then Young Guy said to the crazed man, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disrespect you.”

That comment was like a pin deflating the man’s anger. He suddenly calmed down and backed off, because he felt he had his dignity back. An incendiary situation had been defused.

Similarly, art therapist Candace Blase tells of standing in a crowd waiting for luggage at a carousel in the Sacramento airport. Nearby, two women were unself-consciously and loudly voicing their prejudices against lesbians. Candace turned to them and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I’m a lesbian, and I don’t think I’m that bad or dangerous.” By speaking evenly, without anger or accusation, Candace made it possible for the women to take in and consider her words instead of defensively lashing back.

The supreme importance we attach to dignity and respect is revealed in, of all places, pirate life. In a personal communication with the author, Noah Brand, a writer who has studied the culture of buccaneers, explains:

Given that the life of a pirate was very tough, frequently involved no pay, and usually terminated at the end of a rope, why did so many seamen turn their backs on the navy in favor of piracy? The respectability and regular pay that came with a naval career was guaranteed, but these benefits came at the price of enduring chronic rankism.

In the navy, discipline was rigid and rank was everything. You could get flogged for looking at the captain cross-eyed, and officers were often incompetent, sadistic, or both.

In contrast, on pirate vessels there were usually a few simple rules–concerning behavior, division of plunder, and so on–that everyone had to agree to in writing. From there on in, the majority generally ruled. Captains tended to be men of enormous personal charisma, because those who weren’t were quickly replaced by more popular members of the crew.

That men would choose the short happy life of a pirate over a career of servile misery in the navy shows just how objectionable the dignity and recognition experience of rankism can be. The chance to live, however briefly, as peers sharing an impossible dream trumps the security of living a long life as menials without hope.

The hoards of ill-prepared young people dropping out of our schools today testify to the fact that we are still forcing many to choose between the short-term gratification of flouting the system and the long-term security that can be had by knuckling under to its routine humiliations.

As things stand now, when it comes to recognition, it’s either feast or famine. A few individuals get the lion’s share while a great many others must settle for crumbs. But unlike the supply of food, the supply of recognition is unlimited. Neither are there limits on the dignity we can accord to others. We needn’t disparage Peter in order to acknowledge Paul. To increase the supply of recognition we need only discern people’s contributions, acknowledge them appropriately, and compensate them equitably.

robert fuller

Recognition is something like love: when we give it to others it comes back to us; when we withhold it from others, they respond in kind. The hallmark of a dignitarian society will be interpersonal, cultural, and institutional relations that provide recognition and dignity to all, regardless of circumstances or rank.

Robert Fuller
Fire Dog Lake