The DIGNITY Series: Dignity, The Word

by Editors

This is the second of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)


By Stanley Baran

Part 2. Dignity, the Word

Today, when we do use the word, more than likely it is in one of three incarnations. Each says something about why the word, if not dignity itself, has fallen into decline. The first use has to do with death, as in “dying with dignity.” Oregon passed a Death with Dignity law in 1994. The State of Washington did the same in 2008. Used this way, dignity means that each of us possesses an intrinsic value or worth that even incapacitating illness and death cannot erase. This is the way international law, as expressed in Article 75 of the Geneva Conventions, means it when it says, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” It is the way the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks means it when he argues in The Dignity of Difference that dignity is a set, non-negotiable property of humanness. It is this meaning to which the Germans have granted their highest constitutional significance. Article 1 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz), titled Human Dignity, states that “(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world. (3) The following basic rights shall bind the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary as directly applicable law.” The “basic rights” that flow from a person’s inherent dignity include equality before the law and freedom of faith, conscience, and creed; freedom of expression, assembly, association, and movement; the privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications; occupational freedom; and the inviolability of the home. This codification into their constitution of dignity and specific “inviolable and inalienable human rights” was no accident, as these were the very rights denied the Grundgesets‘s post-War authors by their Nazi oppressors. But as the evil spawn of the so-called War on Terror—our nation’s countenance of torture as official policy and the ease with which we gave up many basic civil rights in the name of security—suggest, Americans seem not to share the German’s belief in the inherent, intrinsic value of all individuals. But this may explain why we discarded the word, not why we were willing to discard the values it represents.

A second, less common use of the word has to do with the worth of labor. Barack Obama employed it this way in his campaign. His television spot entitled Dignity closed with the line, “And never forget the dignity that comes from work.” In this usage, dignity is not necessarily inherent. It can be enhanced (Because I contribute I have worth) or diminished (Because I do not contribute I have little worth). This understanding of the word has a long history, especially in religious thinking. Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote, “Catholic teaching on work—based on the principle that people are more important than things—reflects a compelling Christian revelation. In Genesis, we come to understand that human beings, created in God’s image, share in the tasks of the Creator through their work…In our own (Catholic) tradition, work is not a burden or punishment, but an expression of our dignity and creativity.” Long before the Book of Genesis was conceived, the Persian prophet Zarathushtra, Zoroastrianism’s founder, wrote that Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord,” taught, “It is never below the dignity of any one to work by his own hands. There is no shame to put one’s hand at the plough, there is no shame to set one’s shoulder to the wheel, there is no shame to dig a trench, there is no shame to work as a cook or a servant or a maid or to do any menial work.”

This use of the word is now passé because respect for work itself is outdated. We are prouder of what we have than what we do. Our measure of success is not the effort (the work), but the outcome. Cardinal Mahony’s belief that people are more important than things seems quaint in an America where 22,000 people die every year—more than the number that are murdered—for lack of health insurance; where parents routinely name their children Lexus, Nautica, L’Oréal, and Courvoisier; where there are twice as many shopping malls as high schools; where the average garage on today’s newly constructed house contains more square footage than an entire new home built in 1950.

The foundation of our economy was once manufacturing; it’s now consumption. When he introduced the country to his Great Society in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said that Americans must ensure that “the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” This sentiment is now an anachronism. Look no further than representation of working class people, men especially, in our television shows and movies. Inarticulateness, clumsiness, irrationality, and lack of self-control are standard; think truck driver and construction worker stereotypes. In the news, work stoppages are invariably over workers’ demands in response to management’s offers. The strike’s impact on the company and consumers, not on the workers’ lives, shapes the reporting. The proposed $14 billion automaker bailout of December 2008 faced strong opposition and calls for “significant concessions from autoworkers” at Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. The workers agreed to concessions, but not enough for many in the Senate. Despite having delivered a trillion dollar bailout to Wall Street banks and insurance companies not only with the conviction that it was the right thing to do but with few demands and little oversight, the loan to the automakers was denied. Compare Congressional treatment of auto laborers with that of professionals in the financial industry, insisted labor leader Bruce Raynor. The “double standard is staggering,” he wrote. “In the financial sector, employee compensation makes up a huge percentage of costs. . .(I)t accounted for more than 60% of 2007 revenues for the seven largest financial firms in New York. At Goldman Sachs, for example, employee compensation made up 71% of total operating expenses in 2007. In the auto industry, by contrast, autoworker compensation makes up less than 10% of the cost of manufacturing a car. Hundreds of billions were given to the financial-services industry with barely a question about compensation; the auto bailout, however, was sunk on this issue alone.” Shabby treatment of workers by pampered Senators might seem unremarkable, but 70% of the American public also opposed helping the automakers and their employees, leaving very few to lobby for the everyday heroes, as George Bailey did in the 1946 movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life. “They do most of the working and playing and living and dying in this community,” argued Jimmy Stewart’s character, “Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”Again, this may explain why we discarded the word, but not why we have discarded the values it represents.

Part 3: I-Thou vs. I-It (click here)


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

Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran

Images: (upper) Cover of The Dignity of Difference (Contiunuum 2003); (middle) Barack Obama (White House photo); (lower) Lyndon Johnson signing the Medicare Bill in 1965 (National Archives).