The DIGNITY Series: Protecting Ourselves from Dignity’s Demands
This is the sixth 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
6. Protecting Ourselves from Dignity’s Demands
The Lynch deception should have been what Salon writer and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald calls a pitchfork moment, if not sending us into the streets in protest, at least generating the level of public outrage that accompanies an over-the-hill athlete’s steroid use or the discovery that a pop music group lip-synched its lone hit tune. What has happened to dignity is analogous to what former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down.” Just as we have allowed the erosion of our commonly accepted civic standards for what constitutes criminal behavior, we have permitted the erosion of standards for what constitutes dignified behavior.
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney tells Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, “Go f*** yourself,” in response to a question. It’s not undignified behavior, only the rough and tumble of politics. President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove, orchestrates the outing of an undercover CIA agent, destroying her career and the spy network she spent 10 years building. It’s for our own good in the never-ending battle against Islamofacism. Mr. Rove now enjoys hefty income from Fox News and Newsweek. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tells us that we went to war in Iraq in the spring of 2003 “with the army we had, not the army we might want or wish to have had at a later time.” We later learn that had we delayed long enough to properly equip, armor, and train that army and deploy it in numbers large enough for the mission hundreds, if not thousands of our brave men and women might not have died. Why the rush to invade? The President’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card explains that “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Mr. Rumsfeld now enjoys his appointment as a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Mr. Card the glow of an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.
Displaying pictures of himself looking under the furniture in the Oval Office for the pesky weapons of mass destruction, the causus belli for that “new product,” George W. Bush joked to scores of appreciative reporters at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association black tie dinner, “Nope, no weapons over there; maybe under here.” At that time, more than 500 U.S. men and women and countless Iraqi civilians had been killed. The journalists, most of whom had abetted the push to get that product to market, laughed. Those disgusting images of American soldiers humiliating prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison that enraged the world? Radio talker Rush Limbaugh says no big deal, no worse than a fraternity prank, “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation,” later elaborating, “If you, really, if you look at these pictures. . .it looks just like anything you’d see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage.” Maybe, he wondered, he could “get an NEA grant for something like this.” Mr. Limbaugh, “the most listened to voice in American radio,” is paid $38 million a year to continuing educating his 14 million daily listeners.
In 2005 Congress voted to make enhanced interrogation official U. S. policy, oblivious to the fact that “enhanced interrogation” is the verbatim translation of the Nazi’s euphemism for torture (Verschärfte Vernehmung). Around that same time a handful of economists began sounding largely ignored warnings of a looming economic crisis. Surveying these events, former Vice-President Al Gore asked in a speech, “Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and lethargic in our role as citizens?”
Why, indeed? Yes, we loudly spoke our indignation on November 4 (if 53% to 46% can be considered loud), but why did we accept these and countless other indignations—assaults upon dignity—with so little complaint for so long? How could we look at events that so obviously betrayed what should have been our collective sense of national dignity with so little protest? As Thomas More reminds us in A Man for All Seasons, “Qui tacet consentiret,” silence gives consent. To not protest is to acquiesce; to refuse to notice is undignified.
As long ago as 1928, George Bernard Shaw offered this explanation: “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.” Since then, psychologists have produced more formal explanations of how people maintain cognitive consistency, that is, how we ensure that our actions toward an issue are consistent with our attitudes toward it.
Most prevalent in our public discourse (although rarely if ever offered in terms of our willingness to suffer repeated indignations) is cognitive dissonance theory. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani relied on dissonance theory to explain the popularity of faux newsman Jon Stewart. “The Daily Show resonates not only because its keen sense of the absurd is perfectly attuned to an era in which cognitive dissonance has become a national epidemic. Indeed, Mr. Stewart’s frequent exclamation ‘Are you insane?!’ seems a fitting refrain for a post-M*A*S*H, post-Catch-22 reality, where the surreal and outrageous have become commonplace—an era kicked off by the wacko 2000 election standoff in Florida, rocked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and haunted by the fallout of a costly war waged on the premise of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.” How do Americans maintain belief in the dignity of their nation when confronted by events suggesting they rethink that assessment? They reduce their psychological discomfort (dissonance) by “reconfiguring” the facts of those events. To preserve the self (the I in an I-It relationship) people see what they believe rather than believe what they see.
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.
Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran