Dignity - statue of a Native American woman with a star quilt, overlooking the Missouri River in South Dakota, USA. A rainbow is in the sky above her.

The Worth of a Human

The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Dignity - statue of a Native American woman with a star quilt, overlooking the Missouri River in South Dakota, USA. A rainbow is in the sky above her.

Dignity, photo by CorbieVreccan (CC)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

I am worried about the state and future of the world. After the end of the Cold War, it seemed like things were going largely in the right direction in the Western world. More freedom of religion, sexuality, gender, rights for minorities, less war and fewer armed conflicts. In the last decade this trajectory has been sharply reversed, with nationalist populism gaining ground, attacks on minorities, power grabs by fascists, dismantling of political and democratic norms now alarmingly widespread.

I don’t know all the causes or what to do about this; I certainly agree that the fruits of the post-1980s wealth have not been fairly distributed and inequality is at a crisis level in many countries. That is not what these thoughts are about.

These thoughts are about dignity.

I got the urge to finally write something down after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on undocumented workers in the Koch Foods plant in the United States.

Non-US citizens without valid work authorization were arrested at their place of employment. They are being taken to unknown locations, likely without meaningful access to legal counsel, with no regard to their family members and children. This episode has caused outrage, especially since the organized criminal elements here, i.e. the employer, seems to be unaffected by the “law-and-order” fiction.

One aspect that grates me about this travesty of justice, as well as so many interactions between law enforcement and the public in the United States, is the lack of dignity. In the United States, when you are stopped for a traffic violation, or really pretty much any reason whatsoever, it’s pretty standard procedure that a police officer, armed with a taser, pepper spray, a club, and of course an arsenal of weapons, is standing a safe distance from you, and is verbally instructing you to do specific and unusual things. The simple act of taking out your wallet out of a back pocket or glove box is a highly suspect activity fraught with the danger of getting shot. These encounters can escalate quickly, with yelled commands, people on the ground, people handcuffed or zip-tied, people kept in the back seats of cars while their papers or belongings are checked and so forth. If you are detained, or arrested, you will be shackled, deprived of freedom, and subjected to the whim of arbitrary rules and the complete power of the correctional officers, who may well be minimum-wage employees for a for-profit company.

The only consideration is the “safety of the officer.” Any indignity seems to be justified by the idea that it keeps the person in power safe. Any indignity is justified if the human being subjected to the state coercive powers is suspected of having committed a crime, no matter how trivial.

That is what bothers me. Allowing people to be held for minor infractions is not OK. Allowing people to be ordered about at gunpoint without any reasonable reason to think they are capable or willing of offering violent resistance is not OK. These are things that seem to be taken for granted in the United States, but they are perverse and wrong. When captain Carola Rakete was arrested in Italy after bringing to port her ship with people rescued at sea, by one of the most vocally pro-fascists governments in Europe, what struck me was precisely that contrast — she was not handcuffed or manhandled. She was told she is under arrest, and escorted to a car. There were no drawn guns, no zip ties, no body armor — why would there be? She’s an unarmed ship captain with no history of violence. Afterwards, during the legal process, she was confined to house arrest, not forced to sleep in a tent in a field, or a cage, or a cell. Why should she be? Were we afraid that she was a danger to someone if she wasn’t forcibly incarcerated?

Fundamentally the only justified situation where someone should be deprived of their freedom and bodily autonomy is if they pose a danger. Does a food factory worker pose a danger? If they do not, how come they’re confronted by an army of paramilitary personnel in body armor, zip tied, and sent to a Kafkaesque system of incarceration with dubious and limited rules or rights, separated from their family, with no concern to children suddenly left to fend for themselves?

That, then, is the second part. The bureaucracy in the United States — especially when applied to non-citizens or the poor — appears to be practically designed to humiliate. Detention and prisons have no regard for a person’s dignity, and in fact frequently humiliate on purpose. Even visits to immigration offices, social security offices and such consist of unnecessary paperwork, bizarre rules, and a complete tyranny of the State that undermines the dignity of the person. The assumption that a person is an untrustworthy, dangerous, diseased threat is what everything is designed around. I find no other explanation for not being allowed to take a Kindle to my 3-hour wait in the immigration office lobby, or all the employees wearing medical gloves when touching me, my belongings, or papers I submit. There are no questions, no leeway, no judgments, just following the orders from a computer or procedure. The value and right of a person to their dignity seems to be completely forgotten.

The United States is not the only country with these issues, of course, but of the countries where I have dealt with bureaucracy, it is the most offensive. Especially in terms of the conditions of immigration detention, Europe needs to take a hard look in the mirror and go clean up its act in a hurry as well.

The lack of respect for human dignity, I fear, is both indicative and enabling of something bigger and darker. As the Declaration of Human Rights points out, it is this disregard that has in the past led to barbaric acts, and I fear history is repeating itself. If you cannot respect the dignity of a lesbian, or a jew, or an asylum seeker, a shoplifter, or even a person who is attempting to enter a country outside of the proper channels, then what is left to prevent you from treating them as animals? As non-humans? It’s the disregard of human dignity, especially on a systemic level, that enables us to not even attempt to empathize, connect, and understand. If a law enforcement officer, or a bureaucrat shows no respect for our dignity, and has no interest or concern in us as a human beings, it’s difficult to imagine why they would expect any respect from us.

Posted by Toivo Voll