THE DIGNITY SERIES: The Disappearance of Dignity
This is the first of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse.
By Stanley Baran
Part 1. The Disappearance of Dignity
Dignity exists as a word; we read or hear it and have an idea of what it means. But the word has disappeared from our routine conversation because dignity, the concept, if not having completely disappeared, has over the last decade become outmoded, even quaint. When was the last time we heard anyone speak admiringly of another person, citing his or her dignity as a valued characteristic? Is there a living American revered or respected for his or her sense of dignity? Dignity, the word and the quality, have been in short supply during the recently closed George W. Bush era, but the descent into obsolescence of our national dignity started well before numbers in excess of 80% of us began to see that our nation was sadly off-track.
Twenty years ago, in his song Dignity, Bob Dylan fretted that dignity had “left town.” Because there was “so much at stake,” he went looking for it, asking everyone he met—an eclectic list of respondents ranging from fat men to wedding brides to graffiti artists—if they had seen it. None had. Fifty years before Dylan’s futile quest, American humorist James Thurber, thinking dignity important enough to comment on its apparent disappearance, wrote, “Human dignity has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority.”
But dignity, at least the word, may be making a comeback, having reappeared during the 2008 Presidential campaign, notably in the bookend orations marking Barack Obama’s run. In accepting his nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the future President said, “We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job—an economy that honors the dignity of work.” The Democratic nominee called his speech “The American Promise,” and at its conclusion asked, “What is that promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.”
Later, at his Inauguration, President Obama said, “And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
For Dylan, dignity is something worth seeking. For Thurber, dignity is something that the good in us should find worthy of aspiration, “a hope of the better men,” an achievement. For Obama, the promise of America is that it frees us to achieve that hope. In a June speech in Independence, Missouri that he called “The America We Love,” Mr. Obama used the words of another President’s First Inaugural Address to appeal for a return of dignity. “Abraham Lincoln did not simply win a war or hold the Union together,” he said. “In his unwillingness to demonize those against whom he fought; in his refusal to succumb to either the hatred or self-righteousness that war can unleash; in his ultimate insistence that in the aftermath of war the nation would no longer remain half slave and half free; and his trust in the better angels of our nature—he displayed the wisdom and courage that sets a standard for patriotism.”
Then, two weeks before voting day, Obama told PBS’s Charlie Rose, “The faith that I have that I think is most important, is a basic optimism about people. That there’s a core decency, what Lincoln called ‘better angels of our nature,’ that we can appeal to and that we can’t perfect ourselves, and we can’t perfect the world, but we can continually strive to improve the world and treat each other with kindness and empathy.” And a few days before Americans would cast their ballots, in what he called his “closing argument,” he reiterated, “But as I’ve said from the day we began this journey, all those months ago, the change we need isn’t just about new programs and policies. It’s about a new attitude. It’s about new politics, a politics that calls on our better angels, instead of encouraging our worst instincts, one that reminds us of the obligations we have to ourselves and one another.” For Thurber and Obama, dignity is normative—the hope of better men, trust in our better angles—difficult to achieve but a worthy goal.
Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009 Stanley Baran