Dignity and tradition in our contested world

Dignity is an appeal to self-worth and/or group-worth.

But before making a step to appeal to worth, the notion of ‘self’ or ‘group’ must be defined. This is supplied by the notion of identity.

Worth is instilled by asserting value judgment to a particular identity.

Assertion of value has an appeal if it is ‘grounded’ to a characteristic (or characteristics) that is (are) shared with others (usually those with a similar identity).

One of the many possible grounds is tradition.

Tradition has multiple meanings. Here I will only discuss one of the meanings, which is ‘origin’.

The interplay between tradition and dignity can be stretched to explain the current political tendency that filled the headlines in the media. Dignity is asserted, rhetorically, by referring to tradition in the sense of ‘origin’ and ‘the past’. Public are presented with (and accepted) the idea that they can reclaim their dignity if they go back to ‘the origin’. This is usually accompanied by a contrasting depiction where the ‘natives’ are losing their worth due to the departure from the tradition (origin). Social tensions emerge when the discursive assertion of dignity for one group is coupled with the move to de-value the ‘out-group’.

But tradition in the sense of ‘origin’ is problematic since it privileges one point of origin over the many points of origin. For if origin is to be taken seriously, all must agree that our origin is something far from pompous—i.e. a sperm drop. Therefore, tradition as ‘origin’ is more precisely described as that ‘glorious origin’.

But dignity has a double ‘dignity-effect’ for both the addresser and the addressee. When a group discursively undermines the dignity of others, their own dignity is also, by effect, undermined in the eyes of the audience (who are outside the group).

By contrast, when a person or a group is willingly act to serve others (sometimes even to the extent to be a servant, or servant-like), the dignity-effect that is produced is not of a devaluation, but of an elevation. This act thus elevates, by effect, the dignity of the addressee and the addresser.