It was astonishing to see “Equal Dignity” on the front page of The New York Times last weekend. It was a good day for Dignity all around. The Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage a right nationwide focused its argument on protecting the inherent worth of all people. It was a long awaited decision for the gay community and for all of us who care so deeply about how people are treated, especially under the law. There is one thing, however, that has been missing from the ensuing discussion after the ruling, overshadowed by the joyful celebrations.
While dignity is all about our inherent value and worth, there is another part to the definition that has not been highlighted. Dignity is also about vulnerability. We are born valuable and vulnerable at the same time. We don’t have a problem seeing our physical vulnerability–we have all kinds of laws making it a crime to injure others. It is unacceptable to walk down the street and start punching someone.
The fact is, our dignity is equally as vulnerable to being injured. There is research that shows that the brain experiences a wound to dignity in the same area as a physical wound. It hurts. Yet no one gets arrested for an assault to our dignity. Discrimination and marginalization has as much an impact as a physical wound but it so often goes unrecognized.
The dignity wounds that the gay community has endured after years of discrimination are immeasurable. The suffering that has been created by being treated as less than and inferior is shattering to one’s identity. People should not be made to feel that there is something wrong with an inherent part of who they are. We are all vulnerable to such degrading treatment but those who have been particularly degraded by homophobia, racism, sexism and other societal ills deserve to be acknowledged for the pain they have suffered. Their dignity has been trampled on and they need to know that there is nothing wrong with them; instead, something wrong happened to them.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a mechanism to apologize for the harm we have caused to people who just so happen to be born “different”? It is one thing to have one’s identity affirmed by a Supreme Court ruling, but what about the shame and humiliation that one has lived with all one’s life? How do we right the wrong once society wakes up to what it has done? Is there a public way to say we are sorry for the suffering our ignorance has caused?
Maybe we cannot adequately recognize and redress the deep wounds we have inflicted upon one another’s dignity, but we can certainly commit to not doing it again—to anyone. Waking up from ignorance about the pain we inflict on others is the first step; but once we are aware, we are responsible.
The responsibility goes beyond preserving people’s dignity legally to being responsible for how we treat others; for the impact we have on them. We have it in our power to both honor and degrade people. The choice is ours and the Supreme Court decision pointed us in the right direction.
It always helps to remember that when we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.