North Africa, West Asia

What price dignity?

Tying dignity to external factors such as work, nationalism, or state policy, impedes efforts towards a universal understanding of dignity for all.

Zaynab El Bernoussi
20 October 2015
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Demotix/Anatol Tyshkevich. All rights reserved.

Dignity is a misunderstood concept. It can be considered intrinsic to the self-worth of humans, or a virtue or merit that we attempt to gain. Claiming that dignity is to be earned—as Pope Francis has done repeatedly since his papacy began in March 2013, and especially during in his recent visit to the United States—goes against the claim that dignity is intrinsic. This recurring theme of dignity through work implies that people may not have dignity until they get a job. So are they worthless without one?

Elevating dignity to the status of what makes us human beings, and yet maintaining that it is dependent on external factors, triggers contradictory mechanisms. When it is dependent on work, for instance, a job is provided as a guarantee to satisfy so-called dignity, while the working conditions on the job and treatment of the workers may belie this.

Another example is the combination of dignity with nationalism, which was particularly used in the Arab Spring uprisings as I argue in my work; but chanting the dignity of a nation can come at the price of individual liberties. If these liberties are not aligned with the nation’s demands, they are not deemed worthy. This prioritisation of national dignity over individual dignity contributes to the identity crises in the Arab Spring societies and reveals a confused understanding of dignity.

In the case of Egypt, for instance, the centrality of modernist and Arabist discourse put forward the need for progress by means of challenging the traditional and religious settings of society. In this scenario, religious discourse became associated with ‘backwardness’ and the Muslim Brotherhood, as a religious group, were therefore challenging the dignity implied by the modernist discourse in Egypt; the Brotherhood paid the price of their ‘backwardness’ and became marginalised and even enemies of the state. In this case, we see an example of how the dignity of a nation (and a nation-state) has come at the price of individual liberties, such as the political and religious.

People’s dignity is not dependent on state policies.

In the context of an authoritative national dignity that delineates specific measures to protect the interests of the state, such as abiding by the political agenda of national progress despite its violations of private life and of individual liberties, the Arab Spring uprisings were an expression of discontent with this suffocating state-imposed dignity, which was more for the benefit of the overall economy rather than their daily lives. The protesters demanded mundane survival needs such as bread and ability to marry (since living costs and unemployment have made it harder), as well as self-actualisation needs such as dignity and social justice. These different demands were often put into one slogan, such as variations of the famous, “bread, freedom, justice, and dignity,” which were chanted in both Tunis and Cairo, among others places during the Arab Spring.  

Another example of the dynamics of dignity politics is that of the Euro-crisis and the Greek debt issue. The re-elected Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has claimed the need to acknowledge the dignity of the Greek people in the face of economic asphyxia, receiving popular support. Tsipras’s campaign for Greek people to vote against the European austerity package was also supported by his appeals to dignity, which became Syriza’s leitmotif. It may seem hard to reject such calls for dignity; however, it is also important to question the need to present the dignity of the people as interwoven with money and materiality. This association between dignity and money could jeopardise an understanding of dignity that is independent from economic status.

The pragmatic uses of language to express demands for dignity also reveal a language-power nexus. For instance, the dignity claims used by groups defending same-sex marriage rights in the United States supported the federalisation of same-sex marriage rights across the country, using a language-power nexus by which it was often claimed that opposing same-sex marriage rights was unconstitutional and against the dignity of US citizens, when, in fact, there is no single reference to dignity in the US constitution.

Justice Clarence Thomas opposed these claims, triggering greater attention to the subject of same-sex marriage as an expression of dignity. He compared the struggles of same-sex marriage rights’ partisans to that of Civil Rights movement activists and argued that in both struggles dignity was not at stake, because people’s dignity is not dependent on state policies.

Different groups may have different and conflicting interests, which trigger a politicisation of dignity in order to justify their rights or serve their own interests. Indeed, the recent claim for same-sex marriage rights has, in some way, gained power and legitimacy by being associated with the claim for dignity. So, refusing the right to same-sex marriage becomes a violation of humanity and activates the desire to dignity.

Attaching the understanding of dignity to different sorts of gains (civil rights, jobs, or debt renegotiation) can help with campaigning; yet the problem with materialising dignity is that it constrains it to the game of politics and to the dexterity and tactics of interest groups. The materialisation of dignity also impedes the need for a widespread understanding of an unquestionable dignity of people, whatever their status or their gains (or losses).

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