Everyone’s passing around Jamelle Bouie’s op-ed in defense of trans people and while you should read it for its own sake, I wanted here to pull out a couple of things about dignity.
I have referred to dignity twice now. That is intentional. Outside of certain select phrases (“the dignity of labor”), we don’t talk much about dignity in American politics, despite the fact that the demands of many different groups for dignity and respect in public life has been a driving force in American history since the beginning. To that point, one of the great theorists of dignity and democracy in the United States was none other than Frederick Douglass, whose experience in bondage gave him a lifelong preoccupation with the ways that dignity is either cultivated or denied.
“Douglass observed,” the historian Nicholas Knowles Bromell writes in “The Powers of Dignity: The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass,” “that although dignity seems to be woven into human nature, it is also something one possesses to the degree that one is conscious of having it; and one’s own consciousness of having it depends in part on making others conscious of it. Others’ recognition of it then flows back and confirms one’s belief in having it, but conversely their refusal to recognize it has the opposite effect of weakening one’s confidence in one’s own dignity.”
Recently, I had a brief thing or two to say about how, per the above, “the dignity of labor” takes a sledgehammer to attempts to build solidarity and capacity. Just now, I remembered an earlier piece about burnout which quoted what should be the self-evident truth that we “should be accorded dignity just by virtue of being a human”.
Bouie quotes political theorist Sharon R. Krause as saying that Douglass “clearly believed that slavery and prejudice can degrade an individual against his will”, and, really, that tends to be my point about the dangers of how we talk about dignity and who “deserves” it, and what they need to do to earn and keep it.
We shouldn’t have to prove ourselves worthy of dignity through work or through any other means of admission. We possess dignity by virtue of being alive, and it should be the hardest, most undignified work of all to strip someone of it.