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Dignity Can't Wait for Better Times

Briefly popping in because I can't think about the (technical information management) problem I've been thinking about for a whole day without going mad. But not much time, either. So, I'll take a tip from every writer who has talked sense to me and sacrifice delicacy for brevity. And likely fail.

There's this thing I have to say, and I don't know how to say it. But it has something to do with dominant culture. I don't want to say that it's cultural imperialism, per se, because what those two words mean together means something different to everyone. But it's about how priorities work, and how the dominant culture treats injustices as problems to be fixed. Because complex unfixable problems can often be fixed by breaking them down into less complex, fixable problems. Yes, the dominant culture is not the U.S.A. or the Corporate Hegemony. Ultimately, it's the culture of technology.

But I have to bridge to my other life, which has this lesson in it (video, below). Note that Cairo is a man in the latter part of his life. Nobody can say he's culturally insensitive or lacking in any form of compassion. He's very well educated and deeply comitted to his cause. And yet, he stumbles over a very basic understanding about compassion, and this is his story about how he learned what it was that he had to learn:

Now, it might be vogue for a certain academic tradition to explain this in terms of white privilege and western cultural blindness. And there might be some truth in it. But it is a dry and confrontational truth. One that deconstructs and does not build. Nor does it cover the whole problem.

Instead, I'd like to draw attention to his age, his sensitivity, his compassion, and show that even when endowed with those faculties and plenty of time to think about the issue and plenty of experiences that should have helped him understand, he still doesn't get, until rather recently, a very basic truth about humanity that somehow got lost in the realm of "humanitarian crisis management". To wit: dignity is as important as any other aspect of a complex problem of dealing with human beings.

But see how subtly dignity was taken out of the picture for Cairo? Perhaps egged on by the logical common-sense notion that before you can have fine things like dignity you must first have stability, food, water, and shelter. But people don't live that way. They need dignity with their food and shelter. It can't wait until times are better.

And that's my point. Dignity can be robbed from people both by people who intend to rob dignity, to dehumanize the other for their own personal or political purposes. This is done by torturers, by racial supremicists, by invading soldiers, sure. But also by people who simply want to help or to make the situation better. Sometimes, even, dignity is robbed from people by the people trying to give them dignity (or their version thereof), as when aboriginals are forced to learn the culture of the invader "for their own good." One man's dignity is another man's abject defeat.

So how is it that dignity is so easily taken away? I'm not sure, but I have a working theory: You rob a person of their dignity as soon as you stop treating them as a person. Yes, I know, it's a tricky idea. But as soon as you treat a person like a member of the group they belong to (a million -isms are based on that one, from racism to sizeism) or an ideology (from apartheid to zionism), or an object (to ridicule, to praise, to fuck, to kill), you are removing some degree of dignity from them. Depersonalizing.

In other words, it's almost entirely impossible to avoid impinging on somebody's dignity in any thought or word or deed, because language and logic, the building blocks of problem-solving, are not up to the deed.

So I think it's important to recognize that in yourself and others, and to learn tolerance for both yourself and others, and to return always and again to acknowledging the essential equality we all have in living out the length of our lives. When you're done with your tools, put them away.

I think it's an essential right to push for a moral or political cause, like racial/gender/creed equality, or sustainability, or prosperity, or a racially pure state, mandatory disco bussing, or exodus to Mars. But no goal, no ideology, no truth is so lofty that it excuses you from treating a human being as something other than a human being in order to accomplish it. We are not "problems" to be "fixed". There is no priority on dignity.

To sum up: A problem is a thing in your head. Nobody is a thing in your head, not even yourself.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2012 02:35 pm (UTC)

People are not tools or objects or means to ends. They are, as I think Kant observed, ends in themselves.

What you said in Rose's post about metta is very important too. Kindness. Friendliness. Gentleness. Receptivity. (People so often are switched to "transmit." If they would reset to "receive" and listen, things would be better.)

I really love this essay.
Aug. 14th, 2012 03:19 pm (UTC)
I'd agree with the first Kant statement. The latter, though, I'm not so sure about. That is, I'm comfortable in saying what people aren't, but not with what they are. That part, I think, is unknowable, if only because the "map is not the nation" and all symbolic systems are inherently self-defeating. But there I go hairsplitting again.

But I'm glad you liked it. I know a number of people who sign off their emails with "Metta" instead of "sincerely" or "best". I think I'm more lucky to know them than vice versa.
Aug. 14th, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
I'm just finishing listening to the TED talk now. Very, very nice. What a wonderful man Cairo is.

And I understand about not wanting to limit the definition of a person to one thing or another. I hesitated, too, before writing it, and then put it in anyway.
Aug. 15th, 2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
Yes, I am a bit in love with Mr. Cairo. With his honesty and his understanding both how small his place in the world is, and the understanding that small places are the only places that really exist.

So it bothers me how saintly people expect other people to be when they're being judgemental. Like a certain Rush Limbaugh-like character of the far left we both know.
Aug. 15th, 2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
Alas, I know more than one person who fits that bill!
Aug. 15th, 2012 04:31 pm (UTC)
wakanomori read this on my prompting, and we talked a bit more. The one thing he said he'd add, if he were more of the commenting type, was that although he grants everything you say with regard to how you treat people, people also have an intrinsic dignity, something that's not conferred or taken away by others.

I'm so impressed by the humaneness of Mr. Cairo--he seems to live and feel so deeply. And yet, as you say, even someone like him can be blind (or blinded) to certain truths, if circumstances and habit align in the right way.
Aug. 15th, 2012 06:04 pm (UTC)
Yes. I notice in re-reading that I'm asserting an intrinsic right to push for an ideological agenda. And if I do so, I must also, logically, assert that there are intrinsic rights, which implies an intrinsic dignity.

So, I guess he's caught me out in saying that I don't want to say what a person is, because I'm saying that whatever a person is, they have a real and valid right to dignity.

I think I can live with that.

Metta, eh?
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )