I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.
Resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” (Oxford Dictionaries.) One of the most prevalent difficulties in modern life seems to be the ever-growing cacophony of Those Who Are Offended. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but last week I read an interview with author Lionel Shriver that brought my own sense of offense to a head. Here’s a quote from that article:
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“Shriver … is not the first to argue that the right to give offense is one of the very foundations of freedom of speech. ‘We’re moving in the direction of enshrining the right not to be offended, which is the end of liberty and certainly the end of good books.'”
Oxford Dictionaries defines offense in four ways:
A breach of law or rule; an illegal act.
A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural.
Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.
The action of attacking someone or something.
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The principle of free speech is taking a real battering in the United States. It’s a one-size-fits-all justification for whatever beliefs and ideologies we espouse. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute. There are limitations around it intended to protect community and individual rights, including the “offense principle,” a restriction based on perceived offense to society. Freedom of speech is a principle that relies on social guidance, which is to say the intelligence and compassion of us, we the people.
This is a problem in a nation where compassion is daily more distorted and taken advantage of and critical thinking and civil discourse are increasingly difficult to come by. Who gets to define “perceived offense to society?”
Everywhere I look, listen and read, I observe people who appear to believe they have a right not to be offended. Freedom of speech grants such people the right to be offensive, as they’re quick to point out, but it’s only a one-way street. Offensive ideas and beliefs are becoming a broad category. Disagreement is offensive (and hateful and bigoted). Certain words, like ‘uterus’ are becoming offensive. Certain pronouns are offensive. Real or perceived exclusion is offensive. A perception of cultural appropriation is offensive. Identity politics of any sort are offensive. Science and evidence-based thinking are offensive. Name any religion or spiritual framework you like — it’s offensive.
When did we become so precious, infantile and entitled that we stopped dealing effectively with being offended?
When did the cancer of selfishness destroy our willingness to consider the needs of those around us?
When were individual distorted perceptions given power over a larger, more common good?
When did disagreement, questions and citing scientific data begin to earn death threats?
Our social, cultural and political landscape is enormously complex, at least at first glance. We’ve become fantastically and gleefully skilled at silencing, deplatforming, invalidating, gaslighting, projection and the fine art of withering contempt. We suffer from an epidemic of what I call Snow White Syndrome. Remember the wretched queen stepmother and her mirror? “Me, me, ME, not you! I’m the fairest, I’m the best, I’m the most victimized, I’m the most downtrodden, I’m the richest, I’m the most offended!”
At first glance, as I said, it’s all so complex. At second glance, it’s all distraction and bullshit. The bottom line is always a power dynamic. Is an individual or group requesting or demanding power-with or power-over?
It really is that simple.
I’m offended every single day. School shooters offend me. Tantruming and pouting politicians offend me. Silencing tactics offend me. Being forced to deal with the sexual fetishes of others offends me. The list goes on and on. You know who’s responsible for dealing with all this offense?
It’s not your responsibility to refrain from offending me, and it’s not my business to tippy-toe around your delicate sensibilities, either. Many of us try to approach others with kindness and courtesy, but that doesn’t mean we’ll receive either in return. I don’t expect the world to accommodate me. Life is not fair. Equality is an ideal rather than a reality. Inclusivity is not a right.
My rights and needs are as important, but not more important than anyone else’s.
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Individuals and groups who lobby to take away the rights of others work from a power-over position. They’re weak and fearful and use violence and intimidation to distract others from their impotence. Individuals and groups who lobby to create more equal power dynamics work from a power-with position. They’re confident and seek authentic connection through information sharing and constructive contribution toward the well-being of all.
Resilience, not priggish rigidity or sheep-like agreement with the prevailing social fashion, always wins the evolutionary jackpot. Resilient life flexes and bends, masters new environments, learns and successfully reproduces, continues. Life that doesn’t dies. Evolution is not personal. It makes no distinctions between a human being and a cockroach. Evolution has a lot of time, millions upon millions of years. The ebb and flow of species on earth is nothing but ripples. Patiently, intelligently, life begins again, over and over, building its complex web.
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If we can’t figure out how to live in harmony with our bodies, our communities and the earth, we will be deselected. Walking around with a mouth like a pig’s bottom because we’re offended, mutilating and poisoning our bodies, creating sexual pathology that interferes with our ability to reproduce our DNA, wasting our time and energy engaging in idiotic arguments and eradicating education and critical thinking will all lead to deselection, and it should. Such a species is more destructive than constructive to all the other forms of life on this planet.
Difficulties of all kinds are a given. They always have been. Difficulties are the pressures that shape us and make us stronger — or deselect us. If we want to survive, we need to put aside our offended sensibilities and concentrate on the things that contribute to the stuff of life: food, water, shelter, connection, raising healthy children, our physical and mental health and the well-being of Planet Earth. It seems to me that’s enough to be going on with. If we can’t begin to achieve resilience, the debate over who gets to use which bathroom becomes as moot as it is ridiculous.
Resilience can be learned. We foster it by letting go, learning to be wrong, exercising our intelligence, and forming healthy connections so we can learn from one another, figure out how to share power and support one another. Life was never advertised as a free ride. The privilege of life comes with responsibility, demands and competition. Taking offense is not a life skill. Malignant destruction of life, either our own or somebody else’s, is not a life skill. Taking our proper place in the food web and the natural cycles of life and death, on the other hand, is essential if we expect to continue as a species.
Life, in the end, is for those sensible enough to live it, and part of surviving and thriving is resilience. Maybe, if we can get a grip and refocus on what matters, we can learn from the cockroaches, viruses, bacteria, mice, flies, ants, crows, soil organisms and many others that have figured out how to adapt and evolve through every difficulty they encounter.
This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …” And the Artist sang a star. It was a shining star. “Color me a sun,” said the star. And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather. It was a red feather. “Weave me a tree,” said the feather. And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web. “Build me a fence,” said the spider. And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world. It was a glorious world. “Tell me a story,” said the world. And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …” It was a wonderful story. “Tell me some more!” So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories. They were strong people. The people said, “Teach us what love is.” And the Artist said, “Sing me a star …”
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Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
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It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
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What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
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Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
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The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.