What does dignity mean?
Dignity more than respect
In August 2021 a film was released titled Respect. The movie chronicles the ascent of American recording superstar Aretha Franklin’s journey from a young child singing in her father’s church to international fame. The film’s title comes from a song written by Otis Redding, and later popularized by the late great ‘Queen of Soul’. The song’s lyrics ask two questions that are relevant to our topic. What do you want? What do you need? Which are then followed by these answers; “Just a little bit of respect my friend, just a little bit of respect my friend!” The song’s storyline revolves around a plea by an abused woman crying out to her partner to give her “a little respect” if he is unable to treat her with the dignity she deserved. You might be thinking, wait a minute, dignity and respect are synonymous. They may very well be in a literal sense, but not so much colloquially. What follows will shed some light on my reason for reaching that conclusion.
Respect is a response to, and an acknowledgement of, something external such as a talent, someone’s social standing, as well as their professional accomplishments. For example, I was a member of several prominent rock bands in the 1970s. That resulted in me traveling to work on private jets, being chauffeured around town in limousines, and I even had my handprints embedded in cement at various walks of fame in cities around the United States. Respect? Baby I had it! However, with that respect came an identity crisis because who I believed myself to be had more to do with a Fender bass guitar than a human being created by God. My value and worth as a person decreased when my style of bass playing was believed to be antiquated and lost its value. Since my worth was attached to my musical skill, and being that it was no longer desired by the gatekeepers of rock and roll, I wound up working as a janitor while preparing for ministry. Yes, I lost my standing in the world of rock and roll, but I maintained my dignity on my hands and knees cleaning soiled carpet in a church from 10pm to 6am five days a week.
Dignity more than identity
The Greek philosopher Aristotle is said to have believed that as the species called human, we all experience life the same way in a biological sense. Professor Steven Gimbel put it this way in a lecture on ‘Aristotle’s Reality’: “Biology is the study of such capabilities, such forms, and such key properties that are unique to every species and the study of those properties that are common to all the species.” We may have the potential to experience life the same way as the species called human—but as individual persons, how others choose to identify us can lead to very different lifestyles and opportunities. Very few people who pick up a musical instrument will ever live out their dreams to the level that I have been able to. However, because of that success, I learned that treating a person with dignity is not the same as giving, granting, or extending respect based on qualities you admire. My friend and colleague Paul Louis Metzger explained why dignity is about more than the recognition of a person’s abilities in a recent blog post:
“Human dignity is bound up with our being created in God’s image as humans. I do not view dignity as a capacity, but as a distinguishing mark of our imaging God in constitutive relation (See Karl Barth’s discussion of the image as a constitutive covenantal relation in Church Dogmatics, III/1, The Doctrine of Creation, T&T Clark, 1958, page 200). We cannot lose the image, since it is not something we possess. We are who we are as divine image-bearers because our relation to God comes from God. No matter how wet dignity is, it sticks with the divine creator’s stamp of approval.”
Dignity more than utility
The word utility is defined in my dictionary as “a state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial.” In our society, people who are differently-abled are rarely described as useful, profitable, beneficial, or even productive for that matter. We are more inclined to “ignore or pity those ugly deformed, monstrous, senile retarded, and otherwise unseemly bodies”, as Thomas E Reynolds says in his book Vulnerable Communion. But isn’t every human being ‘the art of God’? I wrote a book with that title in 2015 based on one simple premise, that we are all the product of the master artist God, and as such a unique creation. However, the famous Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde is quoted in that book as saying art is pretty much useless in a utilitarian sense. I noted that “to Oscar Wilde, art is just art; it may have beauty, but art cannot do anything on its own.” The irony is that in many ways Mr. Wilde’s take on art mirrors the way many view people with disabilities. Many believe that the disabled cannot ‘do’ anything on their own and so in many respects, they are useless. Much of my ministry involves serving and friending people living with various disabilities – intellectual, physical, emotional, etc. That is why I can confidently state that “Mr. Wilde may doubt that art has any usefulness aside from the enjoyment of the consumer, but [in terms of human art] . . . ‘There is beauty and value in each human being whether or not it compares in form and function to others.”
There is a downside to having your perspective about a person’s capabilities formed via a wrong perception. Allow me to close with a tragic example. I had a young friend who was a child prodigy when it came to music. At a very young age, she was able to hear a song and then immediately play it back without musical notation, and without formal training for that matter. Then at around the age of thirteen, she was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Over time her disease became more and more debilitating. At that point, her custodial guardian went into deep denial about the severity of my friend’s illness. She wanted her daughter to be normal. She didn’t want a special needs daughter, she wanted that special daughter she previously had. Before the onslaught of the disease Dana (not her real name) was chock-full of capability and promise. Then the disease robbed her of a once bright future by severely limiting her musical potential. This gradual drop-off in ability would become the source of much frustration and disappointment for her mother.
Things did not go well for my friend over the last 20 or so years of her life. Her mom was never able to accept her condition and even seemed to resent it as time passed. As happens with many differently-abled people my friend passed away early, in her mid-thirties. It was the “in-dignity” she suffered after death that is of importance here. Her body was placed in garbage bags and then buried in a field several miles from town. Dana was uncaringly thrown into an unmarked grave to be trampled on by unsuspecting passers-by as though she never lived. My involvement in this tragic set of circumstances led me to develop the following formula related to a utilitarian view of dignity. Utility rejects imperfection whereas dignity embraces it, and the amount of dignity a person deserves is proportionate to the amount of love you are willing to give.
Dignity, Agency, Power: Stories, prayers and reflections from 40 years of Church Action on Poverty. Niall Cooper et. al. Wild Goose Publications (August 21, 2022) p.63.