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For at least thirty years, liberal progressivism in the United States has steadily lost force while conservatism has steadily gained it. Today’s right-wing ascendancy has been supported by wealthy donors and solidified by clever redistricting, but it rests at bottom on conservatives’ success in seizing the meaning of what political theorist Michael Sandel has called “public philosophy”—the way ordinary citizens understand their democracy’s nature and purposes, including their own role as citizens. The collapse of liberalism as the center-left’s public philosophy has been so complete that today no politician will embrace the word and what it stood for so powerfully from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Lyndon B. Johnson. On the other side of the political spectrum, conservatives vie to occupy the extreme right.
In Democratic Party circles, the need for a fresh center-left interpretation of democracy that can return progressives to power has been called “the message problem.” Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have proposed solutions. Some recycle an older version of left populism, others try to rehabilitate the ideas of the Progressive era, and yet others aim to apply New Deal liberalism to contemporary challenges. But none of these has gained significant support, and anyone who wishes to reestablish a credible center-left public philosophy will have to look for new ideas and values. The one I propose here is that we accord more importance to human dignity.
To be sure, the idea that democracy involves basic human dignity is not new. A democracy that did not presuppose the intrinsic worth of its citizens would be incoherent. Indeed, people who did not believe that they were worthy of rights and self-rule would never agitate to found or join a democracy. But as many political historians and theorists have argued, political debate in the United States has long been structured by the tension between the two dominant values of freedom (or liberty) and equality. As is well known, conservatives tend to favor a version of democracy that prioritizes citizens’ freedom, while liberals, progressives, and radicals push for greater measures of political, economic, and social equality. Competition between these two principles is most frequently and publicly aired in debate over fiscal policy. Conservatives aim to minimize taxation in order to maximize the freedom of all citizens, while liberals are willing to impose a higher tax burden on the wealthy as a way to achieve greater economic and social equality.
Appeals to dignity capture something that the time-honored values of liberty and equality miss.
Unfortunately for the left, equality has lost much of its popular appeal and political traction over the past thirty years—and not just in the United States but in democracies around the world. This is the argument of distinguished French political historian and theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in The Society of Equals (2011). Rosanvallon traces the history of equality as a political ideal, from its invention in the eighteenth century and glory days in the early to mid-twentieth century to its gradual demise beginning in the 1980s. Of the present moment, he writes, “Inequalities have never before been so widely discussed while so little was being done to reduce them.” He proceeds:
‘Equality’ continues to be tossed about as a slogan in speeches and party platforms. Yet even when propped up by resonant adjectives such as ‘radical’ or ‘real,’ it has a somewhat empty ring nowadays. The word has somehow become detached from experience, so that it no longer clearly indicates battles that must be fought or goals that need to be achieved.
Meanwhile, the dignity of citizens has seldom been invoked, much less discussed, debated, and explained. In the inaugural and State of the Union addresses of Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, the term “dignity” is never spoken—though, as we shall see, its ghost does at times haunt their words. “Freedom” and “equality” appear many times. This tendency to take dignity for granted also marks political theory and the history of U.S. public philosophy. In Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent (1996), a foundational work in the field, the word “dignity” is used nineteen times. Likewise, Rosanvallon uses the term seventeen times in The Society of Equals. However, although both invoke dignity at crucial junctures in their arguments, neither explicates its meaning or includes the word in their book’s index, an indication that they fail to adequately value the concept. Political theorists have written at length about the meanings of equality and freedom, but work on the relation between dignity and democracy is scant.
The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in last year's Obergefell v. Hodges may signal a welcome change. It was remarkable for many reasons, but one that has been largely overlooked is its appeal to the value of dignity. The word appears several times in Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority, most strikingly in its last lines, which state that gay and lesbian Americans “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” Obergefell was hardly the first Supreme Court decision to invoke the importance of dignity as a basic democratic value and constitutional principle. But because of the public attention paid to this case, Kennedy’s invocation of dignity was a significant intervention in U.S. public philosophy—one progressives would be smart to pursue further.
That dignity might offer progressives a potent idea was not lost on the dissenting justices, especially Clarence Thomas, who worked hard to discredit it. In his dissenting opinion, he argues first that, compared to the principle of freedom, dignity has no historical roots in U.S. public philosophy:
Perhaps recognizing that these cases do not actually involve liberty as it has been understood, the majority goes to great lengths to assert that its decision will advance the ‘dignity’ of same-sex couples. The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no ‘dignity’ clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity.
Of course there is no “‘dignity’ clause” in the Constitution, but Thomas’s more substantive point is correct, as well. Kennedy and his colleagues probably did reach for the word “dignity” because they were trying to name what was being injured by laws prohibiting gay marriage, something the time-honored values of equality and liberty could not quite capture.
But Thomas’s dissent may also explain why dignity has never figured prominently in U.S. public philosophy: it is conceptually something of a paradox. Dignity does have something to do with democracy, he acknowledges. By including the words, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the signers of the Declaration of Independence had, in Thomas’s words, “referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth.” But Thomas’s understanding of dignity—as something inborn, inextricably tied to our very personhood—leads him to a peculiar conclusion:
Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied government benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity and it cannot take it away.
History tells a very different story. Dignity may be inherent, but it is also vulnerable. As the actor and activist George Takei quickly objected in an MSNBC op-ed, for many Japanese Americans, forced internment “was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm.”
To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process. At the very least, the government must treat all its subjects with equal human dignity.
Thomas’s dissent brings into view the paradox that lies at the heart of dignity. On the one hand, it is woven into our nature. This is what the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights intends when it recognizes, in its opening clause, that “inherent dignity” is integral to “freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Justice Thomas advances a particular Christian version of this idea when he argues that the Declaration of Independence affirms the “inherent worth” of all persons because it takes all humans to be created “in the image of God.”
Yet as inherent as dignity may be, it can be injured or affirmed, recognized or destroyed. Our dignity lies within us, but it also lies in the hands of others. Each of us knows how easily dignity can be bruised by overt insult or even by mere indifference. Many know how it feels to experience such injuries daily and routinely; among these are what Richard Sennett calls “the hidden injuries of class.” Certainly many black and queer Americans know that, when society accepts or even lauds the denial of one’s dignity, that dignity can implode. Somehow, then, we must learn to think of dignity as both inherent and historically and culturally contingent.
Dignity may be inherent, but it can be injured or affirmed, recognized or destroyed.
Perhaps Jefferson was grappling with this paradox in his first inaugural address when he described Americans as “entertaining a due sense of our equal right . . . to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them.” Our actions, and their sense of them. Franklin Roosevelt may have also had dignity in mind when he declared in his second inaugural address, “We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern.” He added, “We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.” Roosevelt’s phrase, “the subject of his country’s interest and concern,” represents that every citizen has an inherent worth that deserves—indeed calls out for—the support of all other citizens. At the same time, the complementary notion of “elementary decencies of life” acknowledges, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, that citizens require a platform of basic material security to sustain a sense of their own dignity.
But can our equal right to honor and confidence be upheld by law and adjudicated in the courts? How much honor and confidence do we have a right to? How extensive are “the elementary decencies” that our dignity both entitles us to and depends upon? Can adequate metrics even be imagined?
These are important questions, but as we pursue them, we should take care not to impose on dignity standards of precision that we have never demanded of freedom and equality. The framers of the Constitution did not agree on what freedom and equality were, but that did not stop them from using those words or from crafting articles that would give them shape and substance. Since that time, the precise meanings of freedom and equality have remained elusive and hotly debated. When Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “freedom from want,” he introduced a new sense of freedom that few, if any, of the founders would have recognized or endorsed. Yet it acquired considerable political traction in the 1930s and ’40s because it responded to the challenges of the Great Depression better than existing conceptions of freedom could, lending conceptual support to a wide range of federal relief programs. More recently, we have seen the invention, rise, and slow decline of the idea of “equality of opportunity.” In the 1960s it seemed to name something important that had been omitted from earlier conceptions of equality. Since about 1980, however, it has fallen from favor.
Likewise, the meaning and scope of dignity cannot be established a priori, and its meaning inevitably will change over time. To begin to accord dignity a greater role in our understanding of democracy, all we need do is acknowledge that the very idea of democracy is incoherent without some vague, capacious, and flexible notion of individual self-worth. Key concepts such as freedom, equality, and now dignity are not the final arbiters of democratic debate. They are the nodal points around which democratic debate swirls.
• • •
Suppose, then, that in the wake of Obergefell, progressive politicians, pundits, and theorists started talking and arguing more about dignity. How would that help to bolster progressive policy positions? To answer this question, we might begin by looking at one of the most egregious examples in U.S. history of a systematic assault on dignity: the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws. As historians have shown, these laws had three interlocking purposes: to reproduce slavery in the form of peonage, thereby keeping the plantation class well supplied with cheap labor; to deprive African Americans of their formal political rights; and, by promoting the value of whiteness itself, to discourage poor whites from forging cross-racial alliances. No matter how poor, no matter how exploited, whites still could lay claim to a sense of worth—of dignity—that came at the expense of the dignity of people of color.
When challenged, proponents argued that these laws mandated only the separation of blacks from whites, and that separate did not mean unequal. The principle behind their claim was simple: citizens of a democracy should be free to choose their own company, to form their own society, and if certain people are injured by the exercise of that right, so be it. Critics of Jim Crow found it difficult to make the case that these laws harmed the freedom and equality of blacks, though they surely did. And they chose not to name the more obvious injury that these laws inflicted on dignity, presumably because they calculated, correctly, that appeals to dignity would be ineffective: dignity was not a legal category of harm in U.S. law and it was not sufficiently recognized to be a core value within U.S. public philosophy. When Jim Crow opponents finally overturned legalized school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), they were successful in no small part because the schools that black children attended were plainly inferior to those attended by white children. But even this was not enough. An especially effective piece of evidence used by the plaintiffs was the study conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark—the so-called Clark Doll Experiment, in which black children repeatedly demonstrated a preference for white dolls over black ones. This was taken as evidence of low self-esteem, or lack of dignity. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court’s majority opinion, “To separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.” In this argument, some sense of a democratic right to dignity was tacitly acknowledged, and with it the principle that a true democracy cannot permit a class of citizens to be disesteemed and made to feel inferior. This line of reasoning, affirmed more overtly in Obergefell, might now serve as a basis on which to contest similar injustices.
Turning to a case that is now before the courts, does a purveyor of wedding cakes have the right to refuse to serve gay and lesbian clients because he has moral objections to their marriage? It would be hard to make the case that the freedom of gay clients is injured by his act; they are perfectly free to take their business elsewhere. It would be almost as hard to make the case that their civic equality is being injured: the baker of wedding cakes does not claim that the clients are inferior to him, only that the ritual in which his cake would figure offends his deepest moral convictions. Justice Kennedy and his colleagues in the Obergefell majority realized that dignity best names the quality under assault in such cases. Even if invoking dignity does not work in this case, more talk about dignity could help in the long run. The more Americans come to value dignity as a democratic ideal, the more questionable the baker’s behavior will appear. As many constitutional scholars have shown, the Supreme Court does not think in a vacuum: it is shaped by, and responsive to, public philosophy.
Likewise, if a woman stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation is thrown to the ground and handcuffed merely for asking what she did wrong, has she lost her freedom? To a degree, yes. And if it can be proven that she was racially profiled, then there is a compelling basis for the claim that her equality was abridged. But surely the most obvious injury is to her dignity, her sense of being respected by others and, entwined with that, her ability to respect herself. Obergefell can help progressives make this case and seek redress on this basis.
The more Americans come to value dignity as a democratic ideal, the more questionable discriminatory behavior will appear.
To my mind, one of the most promising venues for the deployment of dignity as a core value of democracy is in arguments against rising wealth and income inequality. When a full-time working couple has just enough money to get by, but not enough to host a modest birthday party for their child or to pay for their child’s new school clothes, where are they being injured? Their rights to freedom and civil, if not economic, equality are intact, yet they feel a certain pain. Can they legitimately complain about that pain and plausibly seek redress through political struggle?
To date, the answer is no. As the middle class shrinks beneath the weight of systemic challenges, poverty is still mainly attributed to personal failure. Why is this? Part of the explanation, surely, is that an entrenched American myth proclaims that success will come to all who work hard and play by the rules. Another part of the explanation is that Americans are reluctant to admit that they feel injury to their dignity, for to do so is tantamount to confessing a loss of self-respect. Yet because we individually remain silent about our own fragile dignity, we cannot collectively call for policies that affirm and protect the dignity of all. In order to break this silence, we must make dignity a more explicit value in our public philosophy and make plain that, while it is inherent, it is also vulnerable and deserves protection.
As Rosanvallon understands, the fight against inequality fails when framed as a call for greater equality because too few Americans feel unequal. But many do feel gnawing doubts about their self-worth as they fail to achieve the American dream. These doubts can become a basis for political solidarity. We have as much right to feel assured in our dignity as we do to feel assured in our sense of freedom and equality.
Because dignity has not been widely recognized as a shared democratic value, injuries to it often produce a corrosive sense of bitterness, what political theorist Wendy Brown (adapting Nietzsche’s sense of the word) calls “ressentiment.” These resentments are then seized upon by right-wing populist movements and channeled toward scapegoats: Jews, Muslims, blacks, immigrants, atheists, women, gays, transfolk. This, then, is another potent reason for our democracy to engage openly with the notion of dignity: to starve the far right of one of its most powerful sources of energy.
• • •
Like freedom and equality, dignity is a rich and complex idea. I have suggested that we should recognize and accept its paradoxical nature as something that is both essential and contingent, both within us and yet also a social construction. This is just a starting point, though.
In seeking all that dignity might be and mean, progressive theorists of democracy have much to learn from those whom James Baldwin called “the disesteemed”: people whose dignity has been routinely denied and whose thinking often has been excluded from the realm of institutionalized philosophy. The disesteemed tell us that we should not limit our understanding of dignity to what political theorist George Kateb, following John Stuart Mill, calls free development of individuality. Nor does Kant’s identification of dignity with moral autonomy tell the whole story. The disesteemed supplement, and sometimes contradict, these accounts with many insights, but here I will call attention to just two: that dignity has much to do with the ways we experience our own and others’ bodies and that sooner or later nearly all of us will be disesteemed.
This past summer marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the campaign that led to the act’s passage, activists in the Disabilities Rights and Independent Living Movement (DRILM) repeatedly called attention to the importance of dignity. They testified that the disabled are often denied dignity—that their dignity goes unacknowledged by other citizens—because their bodies do not conform to social conventions of embodied dignity (an upright bearing and graceful movement, for example). We may never know all of the reasons that the able-bodied avert their eyes from the sight of disability, but DRILM activists Peg Nosek, Yayoi Narita, Yoshiko Dart, and Justin Dart surely named one when they acidly observed in their disability rights manifesto, “No matter how much of a nothing an able-bodied person is, he or she can always find a disabled person to feel superior to.” The authors note that the disabled are often denied the opportunity to take the risk of moving independently through space, both public and private—a denial of what they call “risk dignity.” In demanding such dignity, they share Kant’s belief in the value of autonomy, although the autonomy they seek is corporeal rather than moral. Likewise, the dignity they demand consists not in setting laws for themselves but in deciding when to risk actions that may seem unreasonable because unsafe. These are some reasons why the authors call the DRILM a “discordant unity of passion for human dignity.”
Dignity is vulnerable not just to deliberate humiliation, but also to countless small slights, as the growing literature on microaggressions suggests. While dignity is inherent in our personhood, it depends upon others to recognize and affirm it through direct eye contact, a friendly salutation, careful attention to what we are saying, praise for our achievements, and compassion for our suffering. To some, that may sound like dangerous “policing” of behavior, but in truth it is merely what political theorist Danielle Allen describes in Talking to Strangers (2004) as developing new “habits of citizenship.” Our public philosophy includes many such injunctions about how we should practice democratic citizenship on a daily basis.
In his Obergefell dissent, Justice Thomas carefully skirted these matters by choosing the verb “bestow” in preference to the more sensible “recognize.” He was correct to claim that the government cannot bestow dignity, but he was wrong to imply that the government has no obligation whatsoever with respect to it. Americans have long agreed that people have certain rights to freedom and equality. The government does not bestow these rights on us; we have already bestowed them on ourselves. We demand only that the government, and our fellow citizens, recognize these rights. This is true also of our dignity. As the majority in Obergefell affirmed, we have a right to be protected from laws that diminish it. We have the right to seek protection from citizens who seek systematically to deny it.
But this is to put the case for dignity in a purely negative way, in the sense that Isaiah Berlin spoke of “negative freedom” as freedom from undue coercion or constraints. A more positive account of dignity would stress that our mutual pledge to honor each other’s dignity is one of the bonds holding us together as a society and a polity. Respecting the dignity of others is both a passive agreement to refrain from inflicting certain kinds of injury and an active commitment to recognize and nurture one another’s self-worth.
Throughout U.S. history, we have seen the key concepts of our democratic vocabulary debated and redefined in order to meet new and pressing questions. Perhaps freedom and equality can once again be recast to deal effectively with all the challenges we face today. But the five justices who formed the majority in Obergefell concluded that another word might be needed and turned to dignity.
The value this word stands for has always been implied by the philosophy of U.S. democracy. Now may be the time for progressive activists and intellectuals to make it more explicit. This is not to suggest that attention to dignity is the universal panacea. It will not suddenly fix a broken democracy, nor will it instantly revive a feeble center-left. Indeed, like freedom and equality, dignity is a value that conservatives also have a right to claim and interpret in their own way.
But if more widely accepted as the partner of freedom and equality—indeed, as the value that gives them much of their meaning—dignity would add a crucial third dimension to our understanding of democracy. Giving dignity a more robust role in our public philosophy might provide a legal and philosophical basis from which to redress a range of injuries that currently cannot be addressed at all, or as easily, through appeals to freedom and equality alone. At the very least, more attention to the importance of dignity would honor what the voices of the disesteemed have to say about it. Dignity is worth talking about.
Nick Bromell was a founding editor of Boston Review. He is now a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Tomorrow Never Knows and By the Sweat of the Brow. His most recent book is The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of U.S. Democracy.
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