Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dignity and Social Movements

What is Dignity?  And why does it galvanize social movements? 

The more I study social movements and conflict resolution, the more convinced I become that dignity is an essential basic human need;  denied this, a social manifestation will almost always occur.  I wrote about this extensively in Land and Dignity in Paraguay, and have continued to observe the primary role of dignity in the Arab Awakening as well as the Occupy movements that have essentially been demanding economic dignity.  It even seemed to be paramount in the recent protests in Moscow which demanded (at a minimum) an investigation into recent election fraud. 

I increasingly view dignity as a way to understand these dynamic interrelations.  Theorizing dignity, however, does even more than help us understand contentious politics.  It can help us progress towards actionable clarity regarding how to expand free democratic space with respect to women, first peoples, minorities and other groups whose specific historical experiences make contentious politics necessary. 
This all suggests that we need a more developed theory of what dignity is exactly and why it seems to matter so much to the kinds of socio/political/economic conflict that we’re seeing today.

So then, what is the nature of dignity?  Let’s start with what it is not.  I recently spoke at a workshop on Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, where it was argued that humiliation is dignity’s opposite.  To be humiliated is to be treated as something less than human—dehumanized.  Extending this, dignity must involve or enable somehow rehumanization.  This is especially true when we think about dignity in post-conflict (or during conflict) contexts, where it arguably matters most. 

So, first, dignity is political.  I have observed elsewhere that dignity is related to inherently political ideas such as autonomy and participation.  As Seyla Benhabib recently (2011) wrote, Arendt was one of the first to really theorize dignity as a political concept. This, Benhabib explains, was a response to explanations of anti-Semitism which Arendt viewed as relying too heavily on economics at the expense of the political.  Indeed, the important question to ask is how the political, the economic and the individual (culture, identity) interact in very specific historical contexts.  The political nature of dignity is almost certainly why social movements demanding dignity for certain groups simultaneously demand political (and social) recognition/inclusion as well as autonomy. 

Second, dignity is relational.  While some of us are amazingly, defiantly self-possessed, especially when we think of the socio-political sense of dignity, we know from social identity theory that we define ourselves largely via connection to or in opposition to others.  This is why a sense not just of personal but of social esteem is so important to a theory of dignity. 

Third, dignity is a basic human need.  From the standpoint of basic human needs, then, we know that it cannot be negotiated away.  The only sustainable, just way to resolve a conflict in which one party feels her (their) dignity has been lost is to meet that need.

This leads me to the question of why dignity seems to be such a prominent theme in the social movements, like the Arab Awakening and Occupy, within what some have called the “Spirit of 2011”.  To simplify quite a bit, social movements tend to emerge when there is

1. Shared grievance
2. Shed helplessness.

Part of this occurs because social movement leaders make political claims that resonate.  Other times it is more organic, especially in our decentralized social media era.  What’s key here is that individuals no longer see their struggle as individual and they no longer see themselves as to blame.    This appears to be just what is happening with the Occupy movement worldwide as a response to the global dominance of neoliberalism.  What is it then that people find so dehumanizing about neoliberalism? Quite a meaty subject, this we will have to leave for a future blog.