Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The erosion of human dignity in a transactional, narcisstic culture

But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. ….Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced  back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytic couch. (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)

Usefulness, achievement nihilism and commodification….turning all encounters into a buyer-seller exchange and teaching that purpose can be achieved through the acquisition of money and all that money buys….these are the traits of a culture mired in its own self-sabotage. None of this implies, infers, nor even connotes human dignity*. And there is no guarantee of one’s dignity as a concomitant of “achievement” especially if it is a dignity defined by “roles” and role playing.

(While nihilism may have been prominent on many university campuses when Frankl was writing, there is considerable evidence that, as they morphed into ‘training schools’ preparing their students for some job with varying levels of  skill demands, that nihilism has also morphed into an even more empty quality, “the pursuit of personal wealth and power.)

I first learned about dignity, although at the time I would not even have know the word, from watching my father, a hardware store manager (not owner!) who simply lived his life and his role as one, honouring all others, engaging all others on their terms, and demonstration a degree of patience, tolerance and respect beyond what most would consider normal, and thereby earning the warranted honour and respect of everyone who met and knew him.

In Canada, as in other countries, an introduction to a person is almost always accompanied by the cliché question, “What do you do?” as if the knowledge of this information is the essential key to getting to know that person. And, after that, the stereotyping, and the pigeon-holing, and the conscious and even the unconscious comparisons start between that person and every other person we know we wears that vocational hat. A person in the military or in law enforcement will too often be dubbed as authoritarian, while a clergy will be painted as dull, boring, dumb and passive, and possibly too compassionate, while a teacher will be depicted as nit-picking, micro-managing, controlling and dominant. A doctor suffers from the incurable stereotype of ambitious and rich, while not necessarily being all that interested in helping heal others.  A lawyer, sadly, is so disfigured into the ambitious, ambulance-chasing, social-climber who represents the dramatic actor of the society, given the need to perform before the judge and jury.

While none of these stereotypes are totally false, neither are they complete. They are, rather, our reduction and simplification of the “role” of the model with which we are most familiar, a familiarity gleaned from the sometimes deliberate and often off-hand remarks of our parents, neighbours, teachers, coaches and friends. To a certain extent, their world is almost imperceptibly passed along to us, much as a cold virus would be, without our being conscious of the ingestion. Occasionally, there will be an example of a “role” in the community that nearly all the people will consider to be the antithesis of the stereotype. There is no community that is  immune to the caricatures, stick people, black sheep and even tempermental individuals who wear the costumes and play the part of these “achievers.”

There is, however, a kind of security in operating inside the professional “boundaries” of the roles, expectations that are shared with most communities, with the bodies licensing the practitioners, and the traditions already established by the previous personnel who each contributed to the culture of the role. Of course, over time, there will be the inevitable shifts sometime mere nuances, that move the expectations, the conventions and the rules in each role. Security, however, is no substitute for dignity; in fact, the kind of security that effective “role playing” provides may well impede, repress or even obliterate the pursuit of one’s dignity.

However, there is a significant danger in the potential for ordinary citizens to drape their pictures of a ‘good’ practitioner in any of the respective roles, projecting his or her unique model of either excellence or its opposite. And that is certainly not the only danger.

Another danger is the real potential for individuals themselves, once having donned the “role,” to hide behind its stereotype, and to shrink from coming “out” with opinions for which the community might retaliate. If there is not a specific financial loss for taking a public stance on a specific public policy issue, there could well be significant and negative consequences for the “reputation” of the outspoken practitioner. In addition, the circle of influence in which s/he lives and operates will rarely get to know the person hidden under the mask of the role.

Sometimes the role might even be a “husband” or “wife” or “neighbour” who guards his privacy even from his or her closest family and friends. And there is an inevitable and rarely dissipated estrangement from people, mothers, fathers, sons daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces when the role is all the rest of the world is permitted to see, and when the individual substitutes the role for “showing up”…as the full, authentic, unguarded and vulnerable person he or she really is.

After spending a day of ‘orientation’ to the business school in a renowned Canadian university, I commented to one of the university’s retired professors, “There is a lot of social engineering going on on that campus.” He confirmed the observation, underlining his words with, “especially in the business school.”

In fact, so dangerous is this strippng of the dignity of the individual that many people are either unable or unwilling to distinguish their mask from their ego. And to a large extent, the world will let them be, in the suffocation of their own cocoon, whether that cocoon is conscious and deliberate or unconscious and unknown.

We all know people like this, from the simply experience of being with them and looking into their eyes, and seeing not the far-off gaze of one who is preoccupied with an important question, but the vacant and empty look of eyes that have almost literally glazed over, as a kind of contrived armour, keeping the world at bay.

Dignity, on the other hand, involves a state of genuine comfort in one’s own skin, a sense of who we are as a human being, sentient, curious, engaged, expressing the real emotions of the moment, regardless of their impact on the situation and cognizant of the full presence of each other person in the room, not merely their role, or their mask, or even the reductions bandied about among colleagues. The role is a kind of entrapment, often precluding change, when we all know that we are changing each and every day, whether anyone notices or not, and whether or not even we make note of the changes.

Fathers often become mere “cheques” in the family, just another way of being ghosted by the rest of the family, especially if the father does not protest. Mothers, too, are often reduced to the kind of care-givers they were obliged to be when their children were in diapers, long after those same children have graduated from grad school.
There are those among you, dear readers, who will vigorously defend the generation of stereotypes, “role models” for the younger generation, as a protector and guarantor of social stability, law and order and a general attitude of respect for the traditions of a shared past. And while there is merit in that observation, when the individuals who break out of the stereotypes, who re-draw the expectations of those stereotypes, who cannot be ‘contained’ within the boundaries of those boxes of the expectations of others, who are the most interesting and the most challenging and the most “alive”. And if and when those “outcasts” are trashed, demeaned and alienated from the “professions” and the main street, the culture grows a little more sterile.

And when the culture grows a little more sterile, then governments are more able and more likely to “snow” their citizens, without worry of public uprising or protest. The culture is predicated on the achievement of the bottom line, after a complicit race to the “bottom” in which everything, everyone and every encounter has a price tag. In such a culture, human beings, with dignity, rarely participate in encounters and exchanges with authenticity and respect and dignity, that dignity that is dependent on each individual having his or her own, and having that dignity honoured and respected as a cultural norm.

And there are so many ways in which this transactional foundation of the culture play out. Most obvious is the total predatory attitude to women incarnated by the Republican candidate for president. And while that may be one of the more heinous dangers, there are others:

·      the hundreds of bullets fired into the bodies and the heads of innocent young men, and

·      the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and

·      the boiled water advisories on literally hundreds of First Nations reserves, and

·      the unemployment and underemployment of hundreds of thousands of mostly men, and
·      the growing lines at food banks and shelters for the homeless and

·      the failure of the “great powers” to take legitimate responsibility for their complicity and their brutality in places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine and

·      the sell-out of the main street media in treating Trump as a “ratings magnet” (as well as an ISIL recruitment magnet) for their own self-aggrandizement and

·      the abdication of political responsibility for addressing the growing danger of global warming and climate change….

And this list could go on and on, all of it easily and legitimately traced back to a failed notion of the human being, as a mere cog in the machine of business, government, the military and the media.

Clearly the revival of human dignity as a quality inherent to all people, as considered and practiced by all people, would not solve all of our culture's many pressing issues. However, as a starting point for healthy human develoment, parenting and education, it would significantly shift the public discourse, and thereby support real "humane" solutions.

Frankl would be dismayed at the extent to which his foreshadowing has become the new norm.


*Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:  the quality or state of being worthy of honor and respect 

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