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A Culture of Dignity (Part 1)

This is the fourteenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


The public…demands certainties….But there are no certainties. –H. L. Mencken, American writer

Know you what it is to be a child?…It is to believe in belief. –Francis Thompson, British poet

The investigator should have a robust faith–and yet not believe. –Claude Bernard, French physiologist

When we hear the word fundamentalist today,we tend to think of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or others who are rigid in their faith. Images of zealous evangelists, self-righteous proselytizers, and fanatics leap to mind.

But I use the word more broadly to refer to any true believers and even to that part of ourselves that might be closed-minded about one thing or another. By generalizing in this way, we include those who dismiss anything contrary to their particular absolutist views, whether religious, scientific, artistic, or ideological. Such a stance is the antithesis of the model-building perspective.

Can a fundamentalist thus construed be dignitarian? Or is it in the very nature of fundamentalism not only to presume the superiority of its doctrine but also to try to impose it on others?

Fundamentalism and the Dignitarian Perspective

Though the stereotype is that all fundamentalists are intolerant zealots, there are people who call themselves fundamentalists who hold that their beliefs are for themselves only and who make no effort to convert anyone else. They are not haughty, nor do they harm others merely by holding fast to their doctrines. It may be that the fixity of their beliefs limits them by keeping them from availing themselves of advances in scientific, political, or religious thought. But so long as they do not insist on converting others, they cannot be accused of rankism. If they secretly think of themselves as having a superior worldview–well, they’re hardly alone in that regard.

On the other hand, if people assume the mantle of higher authority and presume to instruct others, then they are misappropriating rank, and that’s rankism. Fundamentalism of this imperious bent comes in a variety of flavors: moral righteousness, technological arrogance, intellectual condescension, and artistic snobbery, to name a few. It tends to be magisterial, elitist, strident, domineering, supercilious, and overbearing.

In a dignitarian world, fundamentalists have to compete with all comers on an equal footing. Claims to represent higher authority are not given special credence and do not exempt a doctrine from scrutiny. Infallibility is out; questioning authority is not only permitted but encouraged. The one thing dignitarian tolerance does not extend to is intolerance–that is, to those who would resort to coercion to achieve their own agenda.

Chapter 1 presented a range of examples of fundamentalism: the traditional Confucianism that protected the rapist in rural China; the mantle of infallibility assumed by NASA officials who overruled the engineers on Challenger; the “commissars” on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who arbitrarily substituted their own judgment for that of hands-on operators at Three Mile Island. In addition, there are fundamentalists of every faith who would impose their beliefs on others and revile those who disagree with them.

When scientists look down their noses at religious fundamentalists, they are as guilty of rankism as the targets of their disdain. It’s true that most religious fundamentalists, much like cocksure ideologues and smug scientists, do close their minds, but a person has a right to do this. Almost all people have some compartmentalized beliefs that they exempt from questioning, and in that sense there is at least some of the fundamentalist in everyone. As we all know, though, the parts of us that are closed are unlikely to be opened by derision and contempt.

When adherents to any fundamentalist creed demonize dissenters as immoral or evil, they’re treading a path that leads to dehumanization, oppression, and in the extreme, even to genocide.When nonbelievers put fundamentalists down as naïve and ignorant, they are taking the first step down that same treacherous path.

The problem is compounded by the fact that even when both parties agree to let the evidence settle the matter, there can be disagreement as to what constitutes evidence. One group might insist that anything in the Bible is ipso facto evidence, whereas the other might insist on substantiating biblical assertions with accepted scientific procedures. The only way to settle an impasse like this–aside from one side backing down–is to build a “metamodel” that reconciles the antagonists’ views on basic methodological issues. As rankism is ruled out, believers and nonbelievers can narrow the scope of their disagreements and simply agree to disagree on what remains.

Ideology and the Dignitarian Perspective

As noted above, there’s a little bit of the fundamentalist in almost everyone. It is in defense of that bit of “sacred,” unquestioned terrain that we are most likely to inflict indignity on others. Becoming aware of these tendencies in ourselves is an essential part of creating a dignitarian environment. Inhabiting a post-fundamentalist world will not be easy. It requires breaking our dependency on “intoxicating certitudes,” as it were, and finding our footing without recourse to absolutes.

When our models can’t change, behavior patterns become frozen, including abusive and unjust ones. Thus, our attitude about the evolution of models–the degree of inner freedom we feel toward allowing this process to unfold–has important consequences for attempts to make relationships and institutions dignitarian.

One reason it can be so hard for us to accept the notion of changing models is that they are composed of interlocking sets of fondly held beliefs–and nothing dies harder than a cherished opinion. Many people are so identified with their beliefs that they react to the idea of revising them as they would to the prospect of losing an arm or a leg. Institutions are less flexible still. Fighting to defend our ideas often feels tantamount to fighting for our lives.

Avoiding the violence this breeds requires that we learn to hold beliefs not as unvarying absolutes but rather as working assumptions that, taken together, function as a pragmatic model. As we’ve seen, this is how natural scientists hold their theories. The same is true of artists and their sketches, cooks and their recipes, or dancers and their movements.

Indeed, it is how people from every walk of life who are really good at what they do conduct themselves.What the public sees is the finished product. But typically, this has been arrived at through a great deal of improvisation and experimentation.

Creative people in every line of endeavor adopt beliefs provisionally for their usefulness and elegance and freely consider new ones as they present themselves to see if they are improvements over those currently held. As museum curator Kirk Varnedoe said: “Modern art writ large presents one cultural expression of a larger political gamble on the human possibility of living in change and without absolutes.” In a dignitarian world we’ll hold beliefs not unto death, but until we find more accurate, comprehensive, useful replacements that prove their worth by enabling us to make more precise predictions, better pies, or more beautiful dances or paintings. Welcome to the post-fundamentalist era!

Detachment from our beliefs does not imply indifference, let alone resignation. The instinct to defend our beliefs strenuously does serve a higher purpose. Usually disagreements have a legitimate basis and the only way to advance toward a better model is to advocate for our views as effectively as we can while others do the same for theirs. We fail to serve the search for an improved model if we don’t mount the strongest possible defense of our ideas. Each of us helps discover the new model by holding out until our individual perspective can be absorbed into broader public synthesis stripped of personal idiosyncrasies.

This idea–the duty to advocate for our beliefs to the best of our ability–is one of the main themes in the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. In a key passage, Lord Krishna counsels Prince Arjuna to fight his current foes, relatives, and those who were formerly allies–impersonally, dispassionately, and unreservedly.

The adversarial method, while intense, need not be personally antagonistic, even in those especially awkward situations in which we know our opponents intimately. That is the essence of dignitarianism. Once we accept the inherent inconstancy of beliefs, it’s easier to entertain ones that differ from our own. From there, it’s but a small step to recognizing the individuals who hold opposing views as worthy opponents and treating them with dignity. If it’s our own case that crumbles in the end, we can simply admit our error and join in welcoming the discovery of something new and better. When our beliefs go to battle and lose, we ourselves live to argue another day, just as lawyers do when a judgment goes against one of their clients. Certain models turn out to be of limited validity, but this brings no shame upon their architects or advocates.

Not infrequently, we sense our own mistakes at about the same time others do. Why is it so difficult to admit such an awareness publicly? It’s because we fear that admitting to imperfection or error will subject us to indignity, if not outright rejection. But this overlooks the fact that people ultimately love and respect each other not as perfect beings but as fallible human creatures whose very essence is the capacity for change. It’s in our own interest to admit a mistake once discovered because our own creativity and development are crippled if we don’t. It need not damage us to be wrong, but it’s debilitating to compound things by trying to cover it up. The best model builders admit their errors freely and learn from them quickly.Niels Bohr, the father of atomic physics, ascribed his success to making his mistakes faster than others.He also held that the opposite of any deep truth is also a deep truth, and routinely invited people to imagine the opposite of their pet theories and beliefs.

Bohr was a true dignitarian. So was Einstein. The two men disagreed profoundly on the nature of physical models, but the dialogue they conducted with each other on the subject is as exemplary for its respectfulness as it is famous for delineating a divide in the road of human thought. People capable of handling social contradictions, artistic ambiguities, interpersonal disagreements, philosophical paradoxes, and identity crises–both their own and others’–are the opposite of ideologues. They cultivate equanimity and detachment and let go of self-righteousness and blaming. Should they forget, it is the nature of modeling to provide them with frequent lessons in humility. Mature model builders are problem solvers or artists in search of a synthesis that satisfies all parties.

Gandhi’s truth-seeking strategy held that each person has a piece of the truth, but no one has the whole of it. The first step to a broader understanding is to take a strong stand for our piece, and then to engage in principled struggle with those who disagree. If we listen, more truth emerges from the process. As Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish philosopher who died in the year 50 CE, remarked: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Learning to see nature models as provisional has resulted in previously unimaginable technological and economic gains. A parallel transformation in which we open ourselves to changes in our social, political, and self models is our best hope for combating the rankism that now threatens to divide us hopelessly into a nation, and a world, of somebodies and nobodies.

Models have the extraordinary property of shielding individuals who espouse them from personal indignity. You can champion a model that turns out to be wrong, but that does not make you wrong. A model-building approach is inherently dignitarian, in stark contrast to the ideological posturing and put-downs that currently pervade politics and culture.

Moreover,models aim to reconcile all points of view, to account for everyone’s perceptions, and to validate everyone’s experience. In short, a good model is a synthesis (not a compromise) that makes everyone’s perspective right in some respect.

There’s no denying that we need beliefs, but we can get along quite nicely without absolutes. We cannot manage without working assumptions but we should resist elevating them into eternal verities. To know who we are does not mean we know who we’ll become. Moral codes are prescriptive behavioral models and, like all models, they evolve. This is not to say they are arbitrary or that “anything goes.” That morals lack universality and infallibility does not mean we are free to ignore them where they do apply–just as the breakdown of Newtonian mechanics in the atomic realm does not render Newton’s laws inapplicable to planets and projectiles. On the contrary, in certain domains, any particular moral principle will remain as valid as ever. Making such distinctions is part of learning to live in a post-fundamentalist world.

Identity in a Dignitarian Culture: A Self Model for the Twenty-First Century

Such are the facts in human experience…rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself….In the long, weary march, each one walks alone. . . .This is a solitude which… every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea–the solitude of self. –Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American reformer and women’s suffrage leader

To address the relationships we have with institutions and with other individuals in an attempt to prune them of rankism, we need also explore a third, more primal relationship: the one we have with ourselves. All three of these relationships are constructs, or models, and as we’ve seen, the nature of models is to evolve.

But how can we talk of such change when it comes to our very identity? Like many, I chanced upon a tentative answer to this question in my teens, and like many, I didn’t realize its full significance until I was considerably older. But over time, I came to see my identity for what it really is–a surprisingly fluid pastiche.

In high school science courses I noticed that everything we were being taught rested on assumptions. Yes, these assumptions were grounded in observation, but they were nonetheless assumptions, not unassailable truths. I accepted this absence of bedrock in science because the axiomatic approach seemed adequate to its goal, which was to describe how nature behaves. Moreover, on those rare occasions when the laws of science did fail us, there was always a remedy. We patched up the existing theory, or in the worst case scenario, abandoned it altogether and created a new and better one. No sentimentality. No clinging. No problem.

With regard to ordinary affairs, however, I was brought up to think that things were different.My parents and teachers all took it as self-evident that there were absolute verities when it came to people and their behavior. Science laws could change, albeit infrequently and only when confronted with irrefutable evidence. But unquestioning fidelity to a rigid set of timeless moral beliefs was taken as a measure of character. But not long after my realization that scientific theories weren’t carved in stone, the idea hit me that what was true in science was very likely also true in everyday life. One day, standing alone in my bedroom, it struck me that beliefs of every sort were fallible, and by the same token, subject to improvement. And that meant it was impossible to demonstrate beyond doubt that anything was absolutely true, once and for all.

It was as if, at that instant, I had suddenly grown up. The experience, although strangely liberating, was also sobering. My revelation left me feeling unmoored. And because my sense of self was shaken, I saw my identity as I might have seen someone else’s–from the outside.

Before going downstairs to dinner that night, I decided to keep all this to myself, at least until I could defend it. I didn’t want my parents to think I’d gone crazy.But a seed had been sown and for decades afterward, without understanding why, I was drawn to people and ideas that nurtured it. My new perspective subtly affected the relationships I had with my friends. I began listening to them differently. Instead of judging what they did or said as right or wrong relative to some preordained standard, I drew them out and absorbed what they told me. Perhaps I was gathering information with which to put Humpty Dumpty together again. For whatever reasons, I became curiously nonjudgmental in responding to their troubles, and within a short time my circle of intimates began to expand.

After completing school and working for a dozen years–first as a physics professor and then as a college administrator–I took some time off to recover from burnout. It was toward the end of this phase that I recalled my high school epiphany. Then in my late thirties, I had accumulated enough personal history to see that over time I had indeed presented several rather different “selves” to the world. Like the evolving science models I had studied in school, I now saw that my identity, too, had undergone periodic metamorphoses. In addition to lots of incremental changes, I’d been a nobody, a somebody, and then a nobody again, with no end in sight to the cycle.

But if my persona could keep changing, then just who was I? And if this was also happening to others–and it seemed to me that it was–then who were they?

Self-understandings, like scientific theories, undergo continuing revision. I now see personal identity in model-building terms. Over time, we fabricate our sense of self bit by bit until, like a resume, it gradually assumes individualized form and acquires a kind of totemic status. It feels “real” and permanent, but a close, moment-by-moment look reveals identity to consist of elements that are constantly in flux. The “me” we ordinarily take ourselves to be is not an object in the classical sense, not a “thing” at all, but rather a provisional, working model. Despite our heroic efforts to pass as somebodies, we are all of us more tenuously assembled than we appear to be–none more so than newcomers to somebody status who mistake it for the be-all and end-all of life. Once this becomes clear, we realize it makes good sense for us to accord others the dignity we’d like for ourselves–at every stage in the journey, whatever our relative status.

To keep our identity in working order, we continually amend and burnish it, principally by telling and retelling our “story” to ourselves and anyone else who will listen. The older we get, the more we feel the need to rehearse and shore up the narrative, perhaps because we sense the possibility of our identity disintegrating into its constituent bits like the collapse of a rickety old shack.

Seeing personal identities as models allows us to see ourselves from a distance. It’s easier to feel detached from a model than it is from a self-image. By understanding our identity as a particular model that we use at a given time under specific conditions, we gain the freedom to let go of pieces of it and allow new ones to replace them in response to changing circumstances. The feeling that life is a battle is replaced with the sense that it’s a game played with opponents who, upon deeper reflection, are unmasked as allies.

Absent adversaries, it’s almost impossible to raise our game to a higher level.With age,many come to this perspective. Former antagonists–colleagues, spouses, parents–are seen to have been essential participants in one’s development.Accessing a dignitarian outlook earlier in life can spare us and others from the consequences of self-righteous posturing and from inciting continuing rounds of conflict in an attempt to even the score.

This is something Nelson Mandela learned in prison and later exemplified as he led South Africans toward reconciliation. It’s a concept that has been put well by many writers and poets: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us,” said novelist Hermann Hesse. “Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so/Not for thy faults, but mine,” wrote English poet Lord Byron.

My own identity, which had rested on institutional affiliations, had to realign itself with a freelance life after I left the relative security of the academic world. Although the dissolution of an identity can bring on a case of the blues, it loses some of its sting once you’ve built several different personas over time. Wrote Philip Massinger, a sixteenth-century English dramatist: “True dignity is never gained by place, and never lost when honors are withdrawn.”

During the 1960s, as her children left home, I watched my mother undergo a profound and painful transformation of identity. Unfortunately, the fundamental change in women’s self models that was sweeping through the world at that time had come a little too late for her. If she could have seen her transition as a natural metamorphosis rather than a loss of her “real self,” it might have made things easier.

In the past, most individuals’ self models were under less external pressure to change than they are today.Until recently, men and women tended to do the same kind of work their entire lives, keep the same partners, reside in the same place. But now with career, spouse, and geographical changes becoming commonplace, identities are becoming less permanent. They’re more apt to dissolve and recrystalize numerous times during a single lifetime.

The point is not simply that any particular self model might be in need of revision. It is that the very notion that our self models are solid and invariant is false–as erroneous as was the presumed immutability of the nature models that enjoyed the church’s seal of approval in the past. To see the world as changing and not include our identities in the flux is naive.Moreover,we cannot expect to remodel our personal and institutional relationships if we are wedded to unchanging models of ourselves.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]

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Robert W Fuller

Robert W Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of "Somebodies & Nobodies", the book that identified the malady of rankism and "All Rise", which describes a dignitarian society committed to overcoming it. His most recent books are "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship" and "The Rowan Tree: A Novel".

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