Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Three Cheers for Human Dignity

[Three classes of people]: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.—Leonardo Da Vinci
For dignity has no price, that when someone starts making small concessions, in the end, life loses all meaning.—Jose Saramago in Blindness.

In many ways, we are making small concessions that erode our human dignity. In doing so, we are devaluing ourselves and our well-being. And we know it and feel it. It gnaws at us.

When it comes to devaluing people, there are many ways to do so. One common way to devalue people is by equating what they do and subsequently earn as a prime indicator of their worth and value to society. We even have a measurable term, Net Worth, So, in such a scenario, a hedge fund manager or corporate CEO is worth more than a doctor, university professor, photographer or writer.

In such a simple measure of things, there is no need to find out more about the other person. It's already assumed by looking at his bank book, so to speak.

When people put a price-tag on everything, including humans, not only does the value of the object decrease, but the person doing the appraisal loses a little more humanity. Humans are not only valuable because they produce something valuable, whether for companies, universities or governments, but because they are human and are like you and me. This is not a trivial point.

Work, productivity, efficiency certainly has its place in society. Yet, not as large a place as it currently commands, or as some people think it ought to. What about people who do not produce, or who produce little. Do they have any value? Lest we need reminding, humanity is frail, and many people within humanity are frail, needing our protection. These include the young, elderly and everyone in between.

The intrinsic value of humans lie in giving us something that is not materially measurable. It is many things. And more than the sum of its parts. A memory. A laugh. A smile. A human gesture. You get the picture.

To be sure, there are economical, moral, philosophical and, for some, religious considerations to consider. (For a well-written view on protecting the weak, see "Disability writer Donna Thomson's clear-eyed look at the value of a life." by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe & Mail, Sept 6, 2010)

The heart and soul has to be activated if we want to remain human. Sometimes all it takes is looking at the language we have adopted. Consider the following term: human resources. Viewing people as human resources—I loathe that term— is absurd. It gives license to treating people like any other resource, for example, like a natural resource, to be extracted, refined for a purpose and the tailings, or useless remnant, discarded.

Truly, the language we use says a lot about the way we think. Three cheers for human dignity.