In 2016, I have watched the UK and the USA give themselves up to the politics of hatred and fear. I’ve seen half the population define the other half as the problem, fueling an “Us vs Them” attitude that strips away empathy and compassion and promotes division and violence. Values that I thought had become embedded in our culture over the past fifty years are being challenged or set aside.
I feel as though I’m in Yeat’s “Second Coming” waiting to discover:
“what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Part of me wants to curl up in a ball, accept the historical inevitability of a slide towards selfishness and try to minimise the damage to those I care most about.
Part of me wants to pick up the weapons of fear and hate and unleash them on my new-found enemies.
I don’t trust either response. They both feel like losing. I don’t want to hide and I don’t want to go to war.
I’ve realised that what I want is for people to choose to be better versions of themselves. I want them to look at the people they are throwing their hate at and see real people, not sub-human stereotypes that it’s OK to despise. I want people to have a voice and to have their fears, their frustrations and their hopes taken seriously and treated with respect.
I want to live in a society where every citizen has a reasonable expectation of living their lives with dignity. free from poverty. Any government that doesn’t set out to provide this to all citizens does not deserve to be allowed to continue to govern.
I did some research to see whether others feel the way that I do and I discovered that my fears and hopes had been shared by a United Nations team, lead by Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1948. The team was trying to find a way forward after a decade of almost unimaginable violence and degradation. They published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a baseline set of expectations on how we should treat one another.The first article of the Declaration starts:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Dignity can be a slippy concept to define. Legally dignity is usually interpreted as an innate right to be valued, respected, and to receive ethical treatment.
At a personal level, I believe we are better at knowing when dignity is being violated than we are at defining what is.
Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll see what I mean.
For most of us, the ability to see when dignity is being taken away and to move to restore it, is more important than being able to define it.
I believe that moving towards the kind of society I want to live in starts with my own ability and willingness to respect and protect the dignity of others and to refuse to surrender my own dignity, even in the face of pressure from those more powerful than me.
This means that I will not denigrate those who voted for things that I don’t believe in. I will grant them the dignity of trying to understand why they feel and act the way that they do and to be open to ways of helping them without sacrificing the dignity of others.
It means that I will not stand by silently when the media or the politicians or the public strive to degrade those that they hate.
It means that I will regard those who knowingly and persistently attack the dignity of others as a threat to be confronted and refused.
It means that I will pity, but will not follow, those who sacrifice their dignity or trade the dignity of others for a place at the decision-making table.
It means that when I find people with dignity and people who protect the dignity of others, I will praise and support them.
None of this may be enough but it is what I have to offer.