Saturday, June 27, 2015

What is the Source of Dignity?

What is dignity? According to Merriam-Webster it is:
: a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control
: the quality of being worthy of honor or respect
I pondered this question after the Supreme Court's historic ruling on marriage equality. As I was reading through all the social media buzz, I saw a tweet which mentioned part of Justice Thomas' dissent. Specifically, this part:
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
Many people are in disagreement on this point, but as I thought about it, I found myself in conflict. I am in no way a Justice Thomas apologist, or even a fan. I want to be totally clear on that point. 


I agree with this idea - that dignity cannot be granted or removed by any external authority or power. If the US government granted my husband the right to physically discipline me, it would not remove my dignity. My dignity is inherent, just like my value.

This is where Justice Thomas' opinion actually falls apart in my completely NON legal, uneducated view.

If all humans carry innate dignity, then that is precisely the reason they must be granted civil rights. If Justice Thomas is correct, as I think this one paragraph is, then he is obligated to grant marriage equality, which he didn't. FAIL.
The inherent value, worth, and yes, dignity, of each human being demands civil rights and equality, regardless of DNA variables.

I believe my view on dignity is influenced by my gender and my religion. As a woman, I know full well that my dignity (my way of behaving, my worthiness of respect) is not affected by sexist pigs who treat me like a sex object. Having worked in a male dominated field and attended churches with sexist Christians, I know this from personal experience. Yes, it hurts to be dismissed. Yes, it removes my rights and my freedoms. Yes, it can be a violation. But it does not ever take away my dignity.

As for religion, as a Christian, I worship a man who was despised and devastated by his community and his government. Jesus was stripped naked, whipped, and nailed to a cross. His dignity was not lost. The Bible teaches me repeatedly that external authority serves the rich and the evil, and that God is on the side of the oppressed and poor. It demonstrates again and again that God turns the story upside down, using people considered the least worthy of respect or dignity to implement change and new life.

Was Justice Thomas right? I believe so. Did his correct opinion lead to the right action? I think not.


  1. Maybe a government may not be able to bestow or remove a person's innate dignity, but this dignity should be recognised by ensuring the human rights of all.

  2. Mary, I feel the same way. Human dignity is exactly the reason that all humans must receive equal treatment and equal rights. And those are things that the government does bestow or remove!