A “Dignity Gap”
By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D
Dignity is kind of an old fashioned concept and isn’t talked about much. But we all know what it feels like to be robbed of it, don’t we?
Written in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting of June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
A “dignity gap”? I’m not trying to introduce new jargon, but the notion is this:
We’re familiar with the “school achievement gap,” where the educational establishment produces lower scores (on average) for traumatized and unmotivated kids than for privileged kids who assume they have a decent chance in life.
There’s also a prison term gap, a job opportunities gap, an income gap, a wealth gap – and many, many more.
There’s also, I suggest, a dignity gap, where those in power are allowed to slap those without power but those without power are not allowed to slap back. If “slap” is too shocking a word, substitute “insult,” “humiliate,” “unfairly deny,” “spit on,” “stop and frisk,” and “terrorize.”
In fact, that’s how one knows who has power in this society. If you can slap, insult, humiliate, unfairly deny, spit on, stop and frisk, or terrorize another without fear of repercussion, as if it’s your right, you’ve got the power. Otherwise, you’re known as “underprivileged.”
Each of us grows up learning what we’re allowed and what we’re not allowed to say or do and what could happen if we cross that line. People on both sides of the power divide learn this at their parents’ knee and by watching those with the power.
Not that I’m encouraging that the offended spit back – obviously there shouldn’t be any spitting or humiliating of any kind. Humiliation is a form of bloodshed, if you think about it; it’s obviously hurtful, and life’s too short to make a practice of spilling others’ blood. It might rub off on you.
Dignity is kind of an old fashioned concept and isn’t talked about much. But we all know what it feels like to be robbed of it, don’t we? And dignity is what we saw in the faces, words, and actions of the victims’ families in the immediate aftermath of the June 17, 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church [Wikipedia, “Charleston Church Shooting”]
Such a scene allowed shame to emerge in the demeanor of those who recognized their culpability. One could see it on TV. That scene set a stage for change.
We saw leading elected officials at all levels saying things never-before-said. We saw them taking down provocative symbols of their dark power in gestures of conciliation. We saw them act with, dare I say, a measure of dignity of their own.
Let’s hope it’s sustainable.
Maybe all those “celebrations of diversity,” all those trainings where we learn to be nice to an Other, all those panel discussions at professional meetings, all the work done by so many different kinds of nonprofit and community organizations working to restore some measure of dignity and to celebrate steps towards self-empowerment, all those efforts to help more informed and well-meaning conversations along, all those petitions that we either signed or implicitly supported or at least knew about — maybe all of those are having a cumulative effect.
Maybe the Charleston massacre shocked so many sensibilities that the leading elected officials and even state Governors were compelled to heed and even get in front of a call to take down that flag.
There’s an opening for even more meaningful change – not just in hearts and minds but in changing the public and private systems that produce the gaps and disparities that keep millions of Americans down for the count. It’s time to take advantage of those openings.
Published originally on this site, July 8, 2015.
How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., A “Dignity Gap?” Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]