Defending Dignity

 /  June 30, 2015, 12:21 a.m.


On June 27, the New York Times proclaimed “EQUAL DIGNITY” in the headline of its print edition. The newspaper’s headline accompanied nation wide celebrations lauding the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage across the nation. “We are, quite simply, on the threshold of an exciting new era in human dignity,” declares University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey Stone. As people rallied in front of the Supreme Court building and danced in the street, the message took shape—the gay citizens of the United States had finally achieved equal dignity.

As this celebratory mood gripped the nation, a growing emphasis on marriage and human dignity emerged. The media gladly declared that the dignity of gay men and women had been realized. The foundation of these stories, however, relied on a criminalization of one key dissent paragraph—Justice Clarence Thomas’ definition of dignity.

Labeled as “brutal” and “horrifyingly obtuse,” the paragraph from Justice Thomas’ dissent reads:

The corollary of that principle [that all men are created equal] is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. 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 governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

The media immediately condemned his words. Justice Thomas’ logic was labeled as backwards and alarming and his philosophy decried as antithetical to the gay rights movement. This reaction  embodies a broader national sentiment: at a time of intense disillusionment with government, the people of the United States wanted to believe the country had taken a tangible step in the right direction—that the government had handed dignity to a group of its citizens.

Perhaps they are not wrong. There is certainly intellectual and practical merit to a concept of dignity that emerges from proper and respectful laws. However, it is dangerous for us to assume absolutely that dignity is only fulfilled through law; that the government needs to hand an individual his or her dignity. I may disagree with Justice Thomas’ dissent, but his definition of inherent dignity should not be so easily dismissed. Indeed, we may find his definition is foundational to a more universal approach to human rights and democracy.

At this point I would like to explicitly state the parameters of this editorial. I am not, nor do I pretend to be, a legal scholar. I seek to defend only Justice Thomas’ proposed idea of dignity—not his entire dissent—in the hopes of encouraging a deeper and more nuanced discussion on the subject. I hope my words will not be misconstrued as a condemnation of what I view as the correct and exciting outcome of this weekend’s case.

But, as equality advocates move forward from this weekend’s historic victory, it is imperative that we, as a society, understand the implications of denying Justice Thomas’ view of inherent dignity. If we deny such a definition, we deny a broader and more historical truth: that human beings possessed dignity long before democratic government emerged, and today, in countries where democracy and democratic rights are still a dream, people continue to possess dignity. To claim that the Supreme Court’s decision imparts dignity inevitably leads us to admit that there exists an institution capable of doing just that: bestowing dignity upon some, and not on others. There is not, nor will there ever be, such an institution.

Indeed, to labor under the assumption that one’s legal or physical situation creates human dignity is a mistake of massive proportions. Dignity is intangible. It is not created nor taken away; it cannot be embodied in words nor created from physical substance. At the end of the day, it is understood that the word, like an emotion, evokes the awesomeness and mystery of being. It strikes at the very core of what it means to be human; merely by existing, one has dignity.

Critics of Justice Thomas’ definition fail to grasp the aforementioned nuances. Indeed, the media’s rhetoric surrounding this weekend’s decision blurred the lines between rights and human dignity. Popular news outlets made the grave error of assuming that those without rights were less—or not at all—dignified. While we celebrated the new dignity of our gay citizens, we gave tacit legitimacy to the idea that those still without rights in our nation and around the world were undignified. Undocumented immigrants, refugees, transgendered individuals, and so many others that lack critical rights were tacitly delegated as undignified.

I refuse to accept this. In the most deplorable situations imaginable, these groups continue to possess their basic humanity; they still possess their dignity. Is this dignity respected? No. But nonetheless, it exists; and it is this theoretical framework that is capable of affirming a stronger dedication to human rights.

Far from leading us to inaction, inherent dignity can and does drive political action. An acknowledgment of equal and inherent dignity leads to a realization of commonality across race, gender, and nation. It drives us to fight for people we may never meet and to join causes that might have no impact on our daily lives. Dignity, I propose, is perhaps a political equivalent of love—an intangible driver of action available to every human being in every situation. If this is the case, then, as Justice Thomas describes, slavery may just prove to be the perfect example. Against the degrading and inhumane treatment America’s black population was subject to, inherent dignity informed the emotive reasoning that they deserved something more than their current condition. It may well have been dignity that inspired the sentiments behind the famous protest anthem “We shall overcome.” If this is the case, then it is indisputable that dignity exists outside of government. Dignity’s autonomous existence ensures that, no matter the regime, there remains a powerful idea that unites people under an umbrella of universal human qualities and drives them to protest against deplorable conditions for themselves or for others.

The College Democrats of America released a statement asserting that the Supreme Court’s decision: “…codifies a truth long-known by LGBT citizens: That we deserve only the fullest and equal guarantee of dignity the constitution promises.” But this statement, along with so many others, misunderstands the fundamental nature of human dignity. People posses an inherent and active sense of human dignity and it is something a government most certainly cannot bestow. Such thinking alienates those who still lack basic rights or those who live under undemocratic governments; such thinking ignores the overwhelming implications of the word. It is only through embracing the nuanced nature of universal and inherent human dignity that we realize an urgent and compelling human commonality. It is this commonality that unites the free and the oppressed and inspires us to continue advocating for others long before and long after a court of nine judges declares them worthy. Dignity cannot be given, and dignity most certainly cannot be taken away.


The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Thomas Wood