The Disturbing Rubric Of The Dignity Rationale

In a New York Times op-ed. Yale lawprof Bruce Ackerman argues that “dignity is a constitutional principle.”  It’s a provocative stand-alone notion, as it’s hard to argue against the notion of “dignity.”  Which is also why arguments so artfully phrased are so dangerous.

What is dignity? The dictionary definition says it’s “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” two more words to which we cling dear, and damn fine words at that.  Would it be controversial to say that all human beings are worthy of dignity?  Of course not.

And yet, what about pedophiles?  Well, not them. Or revenge porn purveyors?  Not them either. Murderers?  Certainly not them. But then, they’re all human beings.  But they’re human and worthy of dignity, right?  Well, some pigs are more worthy than others.

Ackerman’s op-ed begins with gay marriage, and goes through the rhetoric of racial equality, and then circles back:

This point applies not only to gay marriage but also to sexual harassment. When the courts condemn “harassment” on the job or in schools, they are using a different word to describe the very same dynamics of institutionalized humiliation repudiated by the framers of the Civil Rights Act.

This is a quantum leap, hidden within the rhetoric of “humiliation.”  The framers of the Civil Rights Act made a specific decision to protect specific groups from discrimination based upon immutable characteristics.  Sexual preference was not included then, but clearly falls within the same nature of group. It only took another 50 years for most Americans to recognize that gays were worthy of dignity.  Some still refuse to do so.

Ackerman then takes the next quantum leap:

Consider the situation of undocumented immigrants as they seek to attend school, get a job or drive to the supermarket. They face pervasive humiliation in sphere after sphere of social life. Does this not amount to a systematic denial of the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the Constitution to all persons “within the jurisdiction” of the United States?

Unlike race, gender or sexual preference, undocumented aliens suffer from a legal status, not an immutable characteristic.  But because he’s sneakily switched from the rhetoric of “dignity” to “pervasive humiliation,” he ignores what the framers of the Civil Rights Act had in mind and in the process, lost the rationale behind the law.

This isn’t to say that undocumented aliens are not deserving of dignity, and perhaps the wisest course is to provide them a path to citizenship and access to the benefits our society should confer on all people. Except those we hate and are unworthy of dignity, of course.

Since I don’t actually disagree with Ackerman’s outcomes, why then do I disagree with Ackerman’s use of inflammatory rhetoric as the rationale?  This is the abuse of language that leads us down the path of criminalizing words and thought that conflicts with otherwise good goals.

The step from applauding human dignity to criminalizing those who use words or maintain beliefs that conflict with them is a tiny one.  And it’s a movement that’s picked up far too much steam lately.

We’ve seen it with hate crimes, because a murderer who calls a gay man a “fag” while killing him won’t be sufficiently punished with execution. It’s inherent in the push to create a separate crime for “revenge porn,” the proponents of which are happy to sacrifice what they deem to be “low value” speech to get the people they hate.  And when it comes to the never-defined concept of “bullying,” the move to manufacture amorphous crimes based on hurt feelings is a nightmare.

But aren’t they entitled to dignity?  And if dignity is a right, then there must be a remedy for its deprivation. And so the rationale extends to the suppression of language, of thought, of belief that doesn’t comport with the grand aspiration of human dignity, by the creation of crimes or enhanced punishments for violating a person’s right to dignity.

The problem became manifest in a bizarre incident at UC Santa Barbara, when feminist studies professor Mireille Miller-Young led a crowd in tearing down the signs of anti-abortion protestors.  Miller-Young rationalized that since she was right, silencing the opposition was justified. Both sides claimed to own the dignity card, but Miller-Young acted upon it to silence her opposition by destroying their signs.

To those who would embrace Ackerman’s rationale, Miller-Young merely stood up for human dignity, and would thus be justified in her actions in silencing ideas which she believed to be an affront to human dignity.  Ironically, one blogger wrote that she stood with Miller-Young for this reason, until a commenter explained that the words “stand with” were “ableist” to those unable to stand, and she so the blogger changed her headline.

The criteria for wrongfulness isn’t, and can’t be, which side we most agree with, but whether the conduct, not the concept, is acceptable.  Ripping up another person’s sign is wrongful conduct, regardless of whether one is pro-choice or not. But when wrapped up in words like dignity, we can turn a blind eye to conduct and take comfort that those with whom we agree beat the crap out of those with whom we disagree. The end justifies the means, with dignity wrapped up in a bow.

Ackerman’s goals may be laudable, but his use of rhetorical trickery and logical fallacies, appeals to emotion and authority, non-sequiturs, false analogies, are not the means of achieving those goals.  Advocates for good causes, or at least the causes they prefer, may not care what they have to do, or who they have to hurt, to achieve their ends.

But efforts like this play upon people’s ignorance and good intentions, and once people begin to accept meaningless words, devolving to more empty rhetoric, the door swings wide open to creating enforcement mechanisms to assure that this perfect world isn’t disrupted by conflicting ideas.

It’s not that I disagree with Ackerman’s goals. In fact, I’m generically in agreement with all of them, though the devil is in the details and we may quibble over exactly how much “dignity” someone deserves under specific circumstances. But the rationale is toxic and dangerous. To allow it to go unnoticed to achieve a laudable goal is unacceptable.



2 thoughts on “The Disturbing Rubric Of The Dignity Rationale

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Jumpstart | a public defender

  2. Bruce Coulson

    And here I thought that ‘dignity’ was an internal quality, something one had (or didn’t) that couldn’t be simply given by someone else.

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