"In a world where it seems no-one agrees on anything, a world where politics divides, religion divides, and race and even cultural borders seem to divide, dignity is something that everyone can agree on." It is based on this premise that hundreds of activists are coming together this week to build on and advance on a movement to uphold dignity as a crucial human right.
As we look around at the world, the challenges facing us are numerous and at times overwhelming. And yet, the opportunities are even greater, thanks to increased wealth, technological advancement and, most importantly, unprecedented civic activism. Especially for those of us who live in relative luxury, there is much we can do to improve the lives and dignity of the most needy. For example, we have a tremendous opportunity to enact positive change in our world when we could save the over 20,000 children in developing countries that die unnoticed each day from preventable causes. Similarly, we could improve allocation of food resources, especially when millions in Somalia are literally starving to death today, and over a third of all food in America is still thrown away. Most importantly, we could value all human life equally, even as Stalin’s observation that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic” has never been more true.
Today, we refuse to accept these “statistics.” For too long, as a society, as humanity, we have not valued each precious life equally. There is something fundamentally wrong with this attitude, and at Global Dignity, we think of this problem as a “dignity gap.” We believe dignity is a basis for concern about other social causes, and until everyone values their own dignity as well as the dignity of others, we will not realize our collective potential. A society with dignity respects everyone's life regardless of the cards that fate has dealt its individual members. We helped start Global Dignity in part to raise awareness about dignity and encourage people to start thinking about how they can live a more dignified life and how they can dignify the lives of others in their day-to-day lives.
So what is “dignity”? To paraphrase a certain Supreme Court Justice, you know dignity when you see it. Over the course of our work with Global Dignity, we have come across some amazing examples of dignity, both ordinary and extraordinary. From South Africa to Vietnam to the United States, we have seen examples of those who embody the concept of ubuntu (I am me because you are you) and see their own dignity being upheld in the dignity of others.
The ethics underlying the idea of dignity is that people must have a right to have equal opportunities to realize their potential, so that one’s fate is not pre-determined by “reproductive luck” (i.e., the socioeconomic status of one’s parents) or random circumstances of life. Dignity is linked to the ability to identify with, and respect, the fates of other people. It is based on the ability to imagine that our circumstances and fortunes could have easily been reversed vis a vis others (i.e., the ability to "Imagine that we were 'us' just like now, except that 'I' would be 'you' and 'you' would be 'me'."). The “Golden Rule” is a basic guideline for dignity: an action has dignity only if I could feel dignified if I were treated in the way I'm treating the other person.
As such, everyone – from a small child to a homeless stranger to a President – can “donate” dignity. When you help the old lady safely and comfortably cross the street, you are donating dignity. When you teach an illiterate person how to read, you are donating dignity. When you plant a tree the fruit of which you will never taste for the sustenance of future generations, you are donating dignity. When you look a beggar in the eye and ask for their name, you are donating. Basically, when you give to others more than you take in life, you are donating dignity.
On October 20, 2011, Young Global Leaders (www.younggloballeaders.org) and hundreds of other volunteers will teach a course on dignity in countless classrooms around the world. Thousands of children will exchange inspirational stories of how they “donate” dignity in their everyday lives. We encourage you to join us on Global Dignity Day and share your dignity story. Become your best self and learn/teach how to live a dignified, dignifying life.
*Pekka Himanen is a philosopher and professor at the Helsinki Institute of Technology. John Hope Bryant is a philanthropic entrepreneur and Founder, Chairman and CEO of Operation Hope. Pekka Himanen and John Hope Bryant are Co-Founders of Global Dignity (www.globaldignity.org), along with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.