The term “dignity” is easily defined. A “quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” “a composed or serious manner,” “a sense of pride in oneself.” And, if you have reached a certain age, it is also pretty easy to mourn the decline of dignity in our society and culture.
Growing up as low-income children of immigrants, my brothers and I were taught to aspire to be something better. And that “something” involved a sense of dignity that went beyond wearing clean underwear so that, when you got run over by the car, the hospital would know you came from a good family. It involved how you presented yourself and being worthy of the respect of others.
This is not a paean to some non-existent lost golden age. But something has been lost. Communities didn’t accept levels of public vulgarity that are seen as being quite normal today. The worlds of entertainment and sports were not the showcases of crudeness and tawdriness that they have become.
The idea that a 10-year old would be constantly exposed to suggestive commercials for “erectile dysfunction” says more about our society and its crassness than it does about the dysfunction. The dominance of film and television by mindless violence and sex is so pervasive that, in watching “coming attractions,” it becomes almost impossible to tell one film from another. In the sports arena, decades ago, the idea that great black athletes would “celebrate” their achievements or demean their opponents by playing the fool for audiences of white people would have brought a quick reprimand from their peers. And comedians did not find it impossible to deliver a line without using the word “f*** at least twice.
Then we come to the world of politics, where the negative forces have all coalesced to produce our current dire reality. As politics has morphed into just another form of entertainment, it has adopted much of the trashiness, negativity and violent imagery of our broader entertainment culture. Like many other things, “ordinary” people in the past would have considered our politics, despite the fact that they are dominated by extreme wealth, to be “low class.”
The attack and the insult, formerly tactical tools, are now, along with the constant focus on scapegoats, the central features of our political life. And the flames are constantly fanned by newscasters and “pundits” whose shallowness, irresponsibility and ignorance would have been unthinkable decades ago.
A downward spiral becomes a near certainty when this poisonous environment deters all but the most narcissistic from standing for office. What right-minded – and dignified – people would subject themselves to the personal attacks and the money grubbing required of candidates today? Who wants their entire life judged by the worst thing they have ever done after it is inevitably dredged up and converted into a 30 second spot by the other candidate’s negative research team?
All of this is on full display in the Republican debates. (Our current definition of “balance” would require saying that the same is true of the Democratic debates, but that would be false equivalence. While Bernie Sanders’ anger and Hillary Clinton’s focus group/consultant tested answers to every question are not exactly dignified, they do not sink to he gutter level of the Republicans.)
This week, at center stage were the pouting racist Donald Trump and his sneering rival, Ted Cruz. The two account for something like 60 percent of the current Republican vote, and they are exhibit No. 1 of our loss of dignity. The others, with few exceptions, aren’t far behind.
In place of self-respect, we have displays of preening self-regard. Instead of a “quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” we see these values being debased over and over again. Dignity is typically confused with “weakness” by our non-military serving war-mongering candidates. Instead of a “serious manner,” we see the most profound issues facing our country and the world dealt with in a frivolous, simplistic, superficial and trivializing manner. There is no seriousness to be found.
Then there are the constant insults. Leaders have a responsibility to model dignified behavior, whether they are they aspire to lead a country or are high officials in the Virgin Islands. When they fail that test, they diminish everyone. And they further fuel the coarsening of our society by making contemptible behavior normal and acceptable.
That is the damage that Donald Trump is doing. And it is the damage that others do when they engage in these behaviors, even on smaller stages like the territory. The damage is compounded when the offending person tries to justify it as a part of “our culture” or “our heritage.” Whatever our culture, do we want it defined by how we demean or marginalize others?
Whenever President Obama is on television, I have my son sit down and watch because, I tell him, a year from now, he will be gone. And, whoever replaces him will not be as good as he has been.
One of the most important things that the president has brought to his office is a sense of dignity. It is sad that his white detractors have not been able to see this quality, often seeming to see the president of the United States as being too “uppity” for their tastes. It is sad because, whatever policy criticisms someone may have, the president has behaved with dignity. I am able to say to my son that, if he is looking for someone to model for how he presents himself and behaves, he need look no further than President Obama.
The connection between dignity and hope is not so easy to define, nor the link between loss of dignity and pessimism. As a country, we are on a downward trajectory on both fronts, and the deepening pessimism, fueled by our undignified and coarse political life, is a major driver of this dangerous trend.