The DIGNITY Series: I-Thou vs. I-It

by Editors

This is the third 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

3. I-Thou vs. I-It

A third use of the word dignity, perhaps its most common contemporary application, is its invocation in verbal combat. We say, “I won’t dignify that comment with a response.” Dignity here connotes a judgment—our judgment. It no longer represents something that is intrinsic or even a quality that people can earn through their contribution to something outside themselves; it is something we have the power to recognize or discount.

Twentieth century German Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber characterized this as the distinction between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. In I-Thou relationships each person is fully present in the other. This was the central sentiment of the Obama family’s 2007 holiday greeting, “We all have a stake in each other, in something larger than ourselves.” In I am the Walrus, the Beatles voiced I-Thou as “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” In I-It relationships, others are objects, means to various ends. When we “dignify that comment with a response,” we enter an I-Thou relationship, admitting that although we might disagree with another, we recognize the worth of that person (after all, we share a common humanity). We strive to explain or otherwise move that other to our position. Again quoting the Beatles, we “come together right now.” But in America we’re more Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Fab Four, so we “keep looking out for number one.” When we “refuse to dignify that comment with a response,” we reject it (and its speaker) because it deflects us from our individual end. Dignifying the other’s response requires that we reflect on our own assumptions and therefore ourselves. It’s simpler to have an I-It relationship. Deny the worth of the other. We owe no explanation. Move on.

Living an I-Thou rather than the I-It life makes demands on us that are difficult to easily meet. We claim dignity as our own, yet we reserve the freedom to decide who among others is worthy of dignity. But dignity demands that if our worth is to be acknowledged, we must acknowledge it for all—people unlike ourselves, the poor and working class, and yes, even those people whose ideas might get in the way of what we want. But why?

Thurber’s 1939 ruminations on dignity offer a hint. He wrote, “Instinct has been defined as ‘a tendency to actions which lead to the attainment of some goal natural to the species.’ In giving up instinct and going in for reasoning, Man has aspired higher than the attainment of some natural goals; he has developed ideas and notions; he has monkeyed with concepts.” Humans created dignity to become human. In “giving up instinct and going in for reason,” we opted to value I-Thou over I-It. But I-Thou has become old school, and it’s been on the path to irrelevance ever since advertisers and marketers learned they could sell us more stuff by convincing us that what we had was more important than who we were.

This shift began with the introduction of mass consumer marketing around the turn of the 20th century, but hit high gear in the immediate post-World War II years. The factories, technology, and science that helped win the war had to keep making something, and the new marvel, TV, was the perfect advertising medium to reach the emerging middle class with word of all those newly-made things. In 1947, two years after V-J Day, Edward Bernays, who believed that Americans were “fundamentally irrational people. . .who could not be trusted,” formally presented his idea, the engineering of consent. In other words, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” He added, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Bernays’s business partner, Paul Mazur, however, wanted to rule not how people were governed by others, but how they were perceived by themselves. He argued, “We must shift America from a needs to desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality.” A little over a decade later, with television in 90% of all U. S. homes, Volume 1, Number 1 of Advertising Age reported, “The biggest business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television. . .It is the manufacture, refinement, and distribution of anxiety. Packaged as advertising and measured in dollars, the total volume of ‘anxiety’ circulating in America as 1960 dawned was worth more than $11 billion.” In the U. S. alone, the anxiety business now annually expends more than $500 billion helping us be all we can be, because we simply can’t be the new generation in our father’s Oldsmobile despite the fact that we deserve a break today. It’s difficult to worry about Thou when I need It, and I need It now. And we need It now so badly that we show no outrage and even less reflection on who and what we have become when a store employee is crushed to death and a pregnant woman trampled into miscarriage by an onslaught of 200 Long Island Wal-Mart shoppers hungry for stuff to buy in honor of the holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Those same people laughed, jeered, and complained when the victims’ medical assistance impeded their Holiday shopping. Like many Americans, they knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Read Part 4: Dismissed Warnings


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