Okay, you tell me – what does the phrase ‘human dignity’ mean? I don’t mean look it up, I can do that and that’s not what I’m asking anyway; I mean what does it mean as far as you know? What, if anything, does it suggest to you if you hear it or read it? A commenter pretended to find it scary as well as funny that potentilla and I both consider it meaningless, so I’m curious.
Why do I consider it meaningless? I suppose largely because it doesn’t seem to refer to anything real. What human dignity? I don’t consider humans to have much dignity. We’re too mortal, too fleshy, too fragile, too clumsy, too weak, too dim to have dignity. It’s not a word it would occur to me to use about human beings; it’s not even an abstract noun it would occur to me to attribute to humans. What would be? I would say human inventiveness, human creativity, human curiosity. Human adaptability, intelligence, flexibility, sense of beauty; also the fragility-related ones I indicated above. Cruelty, violence. But dignity? No. I just don’t see us that way. I see us as very complicated animals busily doing a million things; as fascinating, but not dignified.
But why is this either risible or scary? Especially scary? (The risible could be just because it’s so clueless of me – every fule kno what ‘human dignity’ means.) It’s not the case that because I don’t think human dignity means anything that therefore I’m in favour of humans being degraded or shamed or humiliated; I’m not. I think much of the content of B&W makes that pretty unmistakable. So why is it scary? Is the idea that one has to find ‘human dignity’ a meaningful phrase in order to treat humans decently? If so, why would that be? What I think instead is that humans hate being shamed and humiliated, that in fact it is acutely painful for us, and that that is why it should not be done. Why isn’t that adequate?
What’s wrong with the phrase? It’s grandiose, that’s what. It’s a bit of inflated sentimental rhetoric, and I have a real gut-level dislike of sentimental rhetoric. I like precision, and accuracy, and non-inflation. I don’t like parade-ground language or political campaign language or ‘faith community’ language. I’ve thought about it and I don’t think I ever even use the word ‘dignity.’ I dislike it. If someone told me ‘You’ll like Bill, he has a lot of dignity,’ I would know instantly that I would loathe Bill. What’s dignity? It’s an inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance, surely; it’s next door to pomposity. ‘She spoke with a certain quiet dignity.’ No thank you! Who does she think she is, talking like that? In fact I also hate fiction that has people say things ‘quietly’ – I always detest characters who say things ‘quietly.’ It’s meant to indicate that they’re very impressive and superior and Right About Everything, and they make me stop reading whatever it is forthwith. No really – if you’re pissed off, then squawk vulgarly like the rest of us, don’t go saying things quietly. Don’t try to intimidate us with your poxy quiet dignity.
Okay wait – I’ve thought of one exception, and I must say I’m a tad flummoxed, but there it is. The Queen can have her dignity. I much prefer that to the alternative she’s offered. I’m no royalist, but as long as she’s there, she can have her dignity. She did do her best to hang onto it when she had to give that awful speech to appease the baying tabloids after Diana’s undignified car crash, and that was all right. But anyone else? Her husband? Pff. That’s not dignity, that’s a combination of militarism and bastardism. The pope? The archbishops? The president? You’re laughing now, right? You could say Mandela maybe, but I wouldn’t call it that – he’s not pompous enough. Not nearly. That’s why the Queen gets the exemption, I guess: her job forces her to have to parade up and down and be looked at a lot, and given that, she does have to look like something, and at her age by gum she has the right to decide it will be dignified. I noticed it when she was on tv last week – she looked quite grim, quite stiff, quite plodding – and that’s all right. She doesn’t have to look as human as Mandela does.
All right but really now – what is ‘human dignity’? A way of saying that humans should not be degraded? But it’s not. We don’t say humans are immortal as a way of saying they shouldn’t be murdered. Humans just shouldn’t be degraded, that’s all, because they don’t like it, any more than they like being hit or run over or made to eat rotting lobster. They don’t have to be dignified first.