The timeless truth of human dignity

The timeliess truth-Alex Penk

Alex Penk

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball since the 1880s.

One of the most celebrated men in baseball’s history, his story is told in the movie ‘42.’

I watched it on a recent long-haul flight, and the abuse he received and the courage he showed were both remarkable. They also highlighted an important truth: that every human being has incredible dignity.

That was timely, because I was flying to a conference about effective solutions to poverty. At the core of poverty is the struggle for people to meet their own needs and participate in their communities; a struggle that presents a challenge to their dignity.

Slippery Idea

Dignity can be a slippery idea; people argue about what it means, or even whether it has any meaning.

I recently read an article by Professor Jeremy Waldron (New York University), in which he argues that dignity is a meaningful concept, one that’s part of “our moral heritage.”

He says dignity is a status that each person has simply because they are human, and that status has consequences; for example, it means every person should be treated with respect.

It is an equal status; that we are all equally human, and hence we all have equal dignity. It is also a ‘high’ status, the sort of status of value that used to distinguish nobles from peasants, or free people from slaves, which our society now affirms as belonging to us all.

Dignified status

Of course, people are not always treated with dignity, but that does not mean they do not have it.

That was what struck me about Robinson’s story: as he endured abuse from those who  tried to deny that he was equal to others, and even tried to deny his humanity, the attacks actually highlighted his dignity; something that his abusers attacked but could not take away.

His courage just amplified his dignity, putting his attackers to shame.

Universal presence

If you look around, you will see dignity everywhere, in the people around you and in the standards that we set ourselves as a country.

We sign up to international treaties that are based on “the inherent dignity … of all members of the human family.”

Back in 1988, the Royal Commission on Social Policy found that Kiwis think “social wellbeing includes that sense of belonging that affirms their dignity and identity and allows them to function in their everyday roles.”

I suspect New Zealanders think something pretty similar today; that it is important for each of us to be able to participate in society in a meaningful way, and that when someone cannot do this because of poverty, it is a challenge to their inherent worth and dignity.
Jackie Robinson’s experience is not ours, but the timeless truth of human dignity shows itself in modern New Zealand just as much as it did in 1940s America.

Dignity will always be a powerful concept.

That is why we celebrate Robinson’s history, and it still drives us today.

Alex Penk is Chief Executive of Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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