The Dignity Movement Finds Its Feet

Dignity on the March

Across North Africa and the Middle East to South and East Asia, the hunger for dignity is driving unrest and heralding social transformation. Everywhere, people are refusing to be taken for nobodies; they’re demanding to be treated like somebodies.

A new dream is taking hold: people are sensing the possibility of building societies in which dignity is universal and secure. Life is hard, yes, and we remain vulnerable to natural catastrophes, but couldn’t we disallow the indignities to which we subject one another?

Our Predatory Past

Skeptics are quick to point out that our species has a long predatory history. Archeologists report that, as a result of population growth outstripping local resources, prehistory was the scene of constant battles. Other tribes had just what we needed — food, water, land, child-bearers — and preying on the weak improved our tribe’s chances of survival.

Our histories are full of war, slavery, colonization, and tyranny. Many countries are still in the clutches of self-serving dictators. Human trafficking, child slavery, abuse of women, and the exploitation of subsistence labor persists. In developed countries, predatory lenders and bankers, politicians beholden to special interests, and abusive religious leaders put personal gain over the public interest.

The predatory strategy our species has pursued for millennia has brought us dominion over the earth. But that strategy appears not to be working as well as it used to — for two reasons.

An End to Predation?

What has changed is that, first, the weak are not as impotent as they once were. Using weapons of mass destruction and strategies of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is a time bomb; non-violent protest is more revolutionary than armed insurrection.

And, second, the power that dignitarian groups can mobilize exceeds that of groups driven by fear and force. When everyone has a respected place, everyone is aligned with his or her own interests as well as with group purpose. That’s why “dignity for all” is a more effective organizing principle than intimidation. It makes for closer cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just “nice”; they’re a formula for success.

This portends an epochal shift in the balance of power in favor of the formerly disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed. Opportunistic predation has reached its “sell-by” date. Going forward, the strategy of “dignity for all” trumps that of “preying on the weak.”

Why Dignity Is Fundamental

We know dignity through its absence — indignity. With our first taste of indignity, we begin a lifelong vigil to shield ourselves from putdowns, ridicule, and exploitation. Yet indignities are still widely condoned. Humiliation is the staple of television entertainment. For many viewers, watching the degradation of others helps them cope with the daily dose of indignity they are putting up with themselves.

Most people have no trouble recalling the taste of humiliation. Many spend decades nursing the wounds of teasing, bullying, and rejection.
For those on the margins of society, denigration never stops. These “nobodies” are seen as legitimate targets; on them, it’s always “open season.”

Dignity matters because it shields us from being seen as potential prey. It declares (so we don’t have to), “I belong, you belong. We acknowledge each other’s rightful place.”

Dignity is inclusive. There are no nobodies in a dignitarian society. Rather, dignity is democratized. It’s everyone’s birthright. It’s also everyone’s responsibility–to stop putting others down, however indirectly or subtly, and to affirm their dignity, regardless of their role or rank.

A barefoot boy selling popcorn on the congested streets of New Delhi gave me an image of dignity I’ll not forget. At a stoplight, he poked his arm through the open window of our taxi waving a little bag of popcorn. Our host passed him a ten-rupee note, but before the boy could hand her the popcorn, our taxi sped off.

Two blocks later, the boy ran up alongside the car and thrust the bag of popcorn through the window. With that gesture, he refused a hand-out and claimed his dignity.

Denying people their dignity sends the message that their membership in the “tribe” is in jeopardy. Indignity is a precursor to second-class citizenship if not banishment. Since for most of our history, banishment meant death, it’s no wonder that we are super-sensitive to insinuations of low regard.
The Dignity Movement

With few exceptions, our systems of governance have soft-pedaled dignity. Why? Because human societies the world over still bear the stamp of our species’ predatory origins. People no longer dispute that slave-based societies were exploitative. Better disguised, however, is that today’s minimum-wage workers have little choice but to subsidize the rest of us. When missing a paycheck means the indignity of homelessness, we toe the line.

Enter the Dignity Movement. To succeed, a movement must know two things: what it’s for and what it’s against. It’s obvious that the Dignity Movement is for dignity, dignity for all, no exceptions. But what exactly is it against?

Published by the LA Progressive on March 11, 2011
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About Robert W. Fuller

Robert W. Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, is an internationally recognized authority on the subject of rankism and dignity. His books and ideas have been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, National Public Radio, C-SPAN, The Boston Globe, the BBC and Voice of America. Fuller has also given more than 300 talks at a variety of organizations, from Princeton University to Microsoft to Kaiser Hospital. Fuller is the author of Somebodies & Nobodiesa book that identified the malady of rankism and All Rise, which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it and along with Pamela A. Gerloff is the co-author of the new book Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism. His most recent books are Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? and The Rowan Tree: A Novel. Contact Robert Fuller at Dignity4All (AT) breakingranks (DOT) net.