Globalizing Dignity

All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity

Posted Apr 08, 2014


It is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. –William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

War’s a game, which, Were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at. –William Cowper

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. –Albert Einstein

The “Evolutionary Blues”

Everyone has known the blues: you lose your job or your health, your partner leaves you or your dog dies. Sorrow is an inescapable part of the human condition. You don’t need the wisdom of the Buddha to know that life is suffering.

The evolutionary blues consist of sterner stuff, affecting not just an individual but our species as a whole. These are the growing pains that accompany the political, cultural, environmental, and existential crises that have beset humankind throughout its bloody history. They stem from man’s inhumanity to man and are carved deeply into the human soul. This book argues that building a dignitarian world can mitigate the evolutionary blues. By confronting rankism in its fiercest guises we have a chance to unsaddle at least some of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and put their fearsome steeds to pasture.

We learn history as the history of wars. They stand out as terrible course corrections in our social evolution. As many are now warning, the advent and spread of weapons of mass destruction herald catastrophe for our species in this century if we don’t find a peaceful way to complete the epochal transition from predation to cooperation.

Before suggesting a dignitarian alternative to war, I want to take a farewell look at it as it lives in our imagination. Only as we see through war’s deceptive promise can we end our dependence on it and bid it adieu.

A World War in My Sandbox

Fighting Nazis and finding love–that’s what my life is about. –Scott Simon,Weekend Edition, National Public Radio

For my friends and me,World War II was a game we played in the sandbox. The less popular kids had to be Nazis. Pearl Harbor was reenacted hundreds of times because it justified what followed–we fought back against our enemies and gradually turned the tide. Sandbox wars ended in massive bombing raids on “Berlin” and “Tokyo”–the Axis always lost because the Allies “controlled the skies.”

In school there were air raid drills, but despite life-and-death exhortations from the principal, for us they were comical. No bombs ever fell. After all, didn’t we control the skies? On Sunday evenings the family gathered around the radio–which stood on the floor and was a big as a bureau–to hear Walter Winchell’s news bulletin “to all the ships at sea.” I loved the hushed intensity in the room as we listened. Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech still gives me chills.

The most powerful memories from those years are not events. Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s death, and the dropping of the atomic bomb pale beside the patriotic feeling of everyone being united in a noble cause. Even kids had a part. Mine was to collect used tin cans and help my mother in our “victory garden,” and I did so without complaint. The thought of dissenting from this war simply did not arise. In one voice, we vowed to force our enemies to “surrender unconditionally.” World War II ended with a bang. I was only nine but I remember just where I was standing when I heard about The Bomb. My father told me that it harnessed a new kind of energy, the energy of the sun.

This scientific first interested me less than something unprecedented in his voice–awe, tinged with alarm. Throughout the war, he had always sounded confident that things were under control. Now his tone warned that things would never be the same.Not long afterward, newspapers proclaimed the advent of the “atomic age.”

A Dignitarian Alternative to War

A century ago, the American psychologist William James famously called for a “moral equivalent to war,” and people have been trying to come up with a better “game” ever since. So spellbound are we by war’s glories and horrors, we fail to notice that it performs an important, if amoral, function. War can deliver an entire people to an open fluid place wherein they become capable of changing direction and embarking on a new course. For “losers” this can mean a fresh start, for “victors” an affirmation of their collective identity. This applies not only to the soldiers who do the fighting but also to those who stay behind and are thrust into new roles. For example, World War II transformed the lives of women, as was symbolized by Rosie the Riveter.

War and tribalism–or nationalism, its modern-day counterpart–have gone hand in hand precisely because the tribe–or nation–is the locus of our group identity and the battlefield is where it has historically been forged or shattered. The guilty knowledge that physical combat has been an instrument of identity transformation has surely been a barrier to finding a viable alternative to it. That is the reason for the deep ambivalence we feel toward war. We speak openly of our hatred for battle but hide our fascination with it. When we are not actually at war, it often lurks in our imaginations as an enticing adventure. To end our dependence on war as a means of affirming or changing identity, we need to find a dignitarian alternative for accomplishing the vital task of periodic social transformation.

Not long after James’s call for a moral equivalent to war, H. G.Wells unknowingly answered it with a statement destined to become equally famous: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” To see war as a problem whose solution is education was prescient at the time. But education–at least the kind available during the twentieth century–did not keep us from going to battle.

What sort of learning might accomplish this critical goal? I believe that, paradoxically, it is the very skill that has, via technological development, made war so dangerous; the moral equivalent of war can be found in the conscious, dedicated pursuit of model building.

At first glance, this might seem too cerebral an activity to compete with the guts and glory of war. A closer examination, however, reveals that model building undercuts our dependence on war in three ways. William James couldn’t realize this because in his time modeling was considered applicable only to nature, and the self was held to be something apart from nature.

For starters, model building develops and facilitates the capacity to change our minds, to replace one belief system with another, to transform our understanding of the world, and to evolve new personal and group identities. While we have relied on violence to achieve these tasks in the past, contemporary model-building skills afford us an alternative that is at once less destructive and more precise. Modeling goes to the very crux of identity formation and reformation, and it does so without destruction of property or loss of life.

Once we give up the notion that we are our personas,we can let them do battle in our stead rather than putting our lives on the line. Our ideas and beliefs can be sent into “combat” and defended to their death, not ours. The ultimate deterrent to war is not the threat of retaliation, but the availability to both sides of more cost-effective methods of self and group transformation. (The situation that arises when one party to a conflict absolutely insists on settling it with brute force is the subject of the next section, “What About Bad Guys?”)

Second, there is the richness, excitement, and fulfillment that we experience in exercising our model-building skills. It’s not hard to imagine the exhilaration that must have accompanied modeling and then constructing the first airplane, nuclear reactor, or computer. Less obvious is the fact that the satisfactions of model building do not depend on resultant fame. What brings genuine satisfaction is the ongoing pursuit of our own interests, contributing the fruits of our labors, and acknowledgment of those contributions.

People involved in model building, no matter what the field, are less susceptible to the drumbeat of war because they are already fully engaged. They are immune to demagogic calls to battle because their personal quests feel as heroic and noble to them as any military undertaking. In the past, when many were stuck in routine lives devoid of excitement, going to war could seem like an adventure. But as model building, in all its captivating varieties, is practiced in ever increasing numbers, it will act as a vaccine that confers partial immunity to martial seductions.

Finally, model building can be applied to the very political contradictions that in the past have triggered violent conflict. A team of model builders–people who have traditionally been called diplomats, mediators, or negotiators–can be assigned the task of coming up with a metamodel that embraces and resolves the competing positions of potential adversaries. Such comprehensive models allow for change–not only of one’s own mind and of the opponent’s, but also of the world–without resort to war.

Faith in the belief that a unifying model can be found is analogous to faith in the existence of one God. Monotheism is the theological counterpart of the model builder’s belief in the ultimate reconcilability of apparently contradictory observations, or positions, into a single, self-consistent framework. In this setting, the proverb “God is love” testifies to the belief that there exists a unitary framework in which apparently contradictory, antagonistic pieces of the whole can nonetheless be brought into harmony. Model building, like love, is inclusive and unifying. This goes to the heart of why it is such a valuable tool in building a dignitarian world. Not only can we use it to anticipate indignities, but the end product–a synthesizing model–reveals everyone’s contribution to the whole. Wrote English novelist John Fowles:

“I’m still defeated by the conundrum of God. But I have the devil clear.”

“And what’s he?”

“Not seeing whole.”

With the advent of a dignitarian world, humankind will set war aside like children putting away their toy soldiers for the last time. We will honor all those who fought for us as we now honor pioneers and explorers. They were pushing into the unknown on our behalf, in the only way we knew how at the time. But now we have a better way–one that will spare the men and women at the front from having to make the ultimate personal sacrifice in our collective quest for truth.

People give up power only to grasp greater power. They abandon a familiar game only to take up a better one. Model building is a better game than war. Compared to the dialogues of model builders, the slogans of demagogues sound like the braggadocio of adolescents. Compared to model building, war is not only clumsy; it is boring.

What About Bad Guys?

Over the last century, wars do appear to have been declining, both in frequency and intensity. But even if aggression is becoming less likely with the passage of time, it can never be completely ruled out. Any group can choose to destroy the peace and may well do so if it thinks it can get away with it. This means we must always be prepared to face such an opponent–whether it be an individual committing a crime, a group engaging in terrorism or genocide, or a nation declaring war–in a more elementary struggle wherein brute force determines the outcome.

The durability of any post-rankist framework is bought at the price of preparedness to meet “bad guys”–those who refuse to play by the new rules–on their own turf. To make and keep the brute force option unappealing, a credible superior force, willing and able to disqualify or dominate aggressors,must be kept in readiness and in sight. Just as referees and umpires prevent cheating and police deter crime, so a strong defense–national and/or supranational–is required to deter rogue organizations or states.

From the perspective of human social evolution,we can see ourselves as now emerging from a long history of predation, as suggested by statistics on war-related deaths. As we make this transition, it’s all-important that we erect steep barriers to slipping back into our old ways. By doing so we should in time be able to make transgressive criminal lapses rare. The most important thing we can do to avoid having to resort to force, however, is to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the whole.

Malrecognition and Counterterrorism

Trying to identify a single “root cause” of terrorism is a futile endeavor.

Indeed, it is clear that the psychological, political, cultural, and religious motivations of the individuals who actually plan and execute acts of terror are complex and varied. As the Russian novelist Dostoevsky put it: “While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Fortunately, we do not need to understand the precise motivations of terrorists to mount a defense against their activities.

Why? Because the reasons that bystanders sympathize with terrorists and ennoble them as “martyrs” are not so difficult to understand, and by addressing those reasons we can marginalize the activists. Sympathizers generally see the activists as protesting chronic indignities with which they, too, identify. Regardless of the individual psychology of the activists, a developing wisdom suggests that terrorism, as a strategy, is adopted in reaction to what is perceived by a larger group of sympathizers as organized dominance behavior that is to their detriment.

Although bystanders generally limit their own protests to passive resistance and noncooperation, they are not displeased when those they see as their oppressors are made to suffer at the hands of their activist compatriots.

In the aftermath of an act of terrorism it is often possible to catch a glimpse of the extent of the latent support for activist perpetrators. Following the attacks of 9/11, thousands of disenfranchised young Muslims, many with little concern for the precise political aims of the Al Qaeda leadership, celebrated in the streets of foreign capitals. This often happens in instances of domestic terrorism as well. In the weeks following

the shootings at Columbine High School, throngs of school outcasts all over the United States voiced complaints about intolerance, humiliation, and bullying. Similarly, when an employee goes “postal,” browbeaten workers from near and far,while distancing themselves from the violence, begin urging their employers to appoint ombudspersons.

The extent to which active terrorists depend on passive sympathizers for material and psychological support varies from one situation to the next. But for there to be a renewable supply of purveyors of violence and suicide bombers, volunteers for such missions need to feel they are making a statement on behalf of a group whose members regard them as heroic martyrs. They want to believe that their sacrifice will not only bring recognition to themselves personally but will also draw attention to indignities suffered by the entire class of people with whom they identify.

Any cause that can draw significant numbers of passive adherents out of their latency poses a grave threat to the status quo. The Gandhi-led struggle for Indian independence, the American civil rights movement, and the people-power revolutions in Soviet satellites (including Poland, Hungary, and East Germany) and former republics (the Baltic nations, Georgia, Ukraine) showed the world what happens when those suffering in silence find a way to act out their resentment.

For centuries, African Americans stoically resigned themselves to slavery and, after their emancipation, to menial jobs in a segregated, racist society. Protest had to remain covert because open rebellion was summarily punished. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., the Gandhian strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience gave millions of people who were passive sympathizers an acceptable way to cross over into activism. Huge numbers of them marched in the streets and subjected themselves to arrest and police brutality while the world watched with mounting apprehension.

As the ranks of nonviolent protestors swelled, Congress had no recourse but to begin dismantling deeply entrenched segregationist barriers to equal opportunity, and initiated a series of reforms to eliminate degrading societal practices. Faced with escalating disruption, Americans realized that evil lay not in the protestors but in the racism that fueled their outrage.

To combat terrorism, societies must of course pursue and neutralize violent extremists just as they do criminals within their borders and aggressor nations. Governments will have to learn to counter the open-source, guerilla strategies employed by terrorist networks with innovative methodologies of their own. But no matter how sophisticated the counterterrorist strategy, the ultimate outcome of the struggle hinges on preventing a wholesale shift of passive supporters to active terrorism. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, “The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful.” We’re unlikely to succeed in eradicating terrorism unless we alleviate the systemic indignities that depreciate lives and lead onlookers to ally themselves with extremists. However, once that sympathy is gone–and with it, all manner of psychological and material support–the chances of shutting down terrorism improve greatly.

We inhabit a world in which millions of individuals, informed by radio and television, can see that their potential to contribute to the world is being thwarted–by whom matters less than that regrettable reality. There is nothing more combustible than hordes of bored young people suffering from chronic malrecognition. Embittered and with nothing left to lose, they are shopping for an identity in which they can take pride. Unless they can lead better lives–lives of engagement and recognition–they remain ready recruits for violence, even if only as supporting players helping to carry out the agenda of a leadership whose incentives and motives may well be different from their own.

Terrorists can also be drawn from the ranks of a relatively privileged but alienated and angry middle class if they can be persuaded they would be acting on behalf of a greater good. The London suicide bombers of July 2005, like the March 2004 bombers in Madrid, joined the global jihad after radicalization by extremist Islamic teachings. The willingness to kill innocents is dependent in part on the belief that one is connected to a cause larger than oneself.

Terrorism itself is an extreme manifestation of rankism. Eliminating it will require removing sources of chronic, ill-considered provocation. The reforms spurred by the civil rights and women’s movements opened doors to education and jobs that had previously been closed to blacks and women. Opportunity worked before, and it will work again. Opportunity is really all that ever works because without it there can be no dignity. But now it must be provided the world over. Facilitating this internationally and conforming the foreign policies of developed countries to such a goal will be difficult, but not impossible. Among other things, it requires systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relations with other societies, cultures, and nations.

In a world where the weak can threaten a superpower–a world in which experts warn that an act of nuclear terrorism is likely–it is a vital part of self-defense to ensure that national policies are manifestly respectful, fair, and just. Wherever there is domination, paternalism, condescension, exploitation, occupation, or colonization–in short, wherever there is humiliation and indignity–there will be indignation, and a few of the angry will volunteer for what they and their admirers see as martyrdom. Passive aggression and violent outbursts in the workplace and schools, computer sabotage, terrorism, genocide, and war all have their origins in chronic malrecognition.

Seeing terrorism in such a light does not excuse it any more than attributing a theft to poverty does. Nor can it prevent some individuals from committing isolated acts of terrorism for reasons of their own. But without taking into account the effects of systemic malrecognition on maintaining a supportive base for terrorism, any counterterrorism strategy is incomplete and doomed to fail. It’s like addressing dysentery with high-tech antibiotics while ignoring the fact that the water supply is contaminated.

Eliminating malrecognition is a generational task, like going to Mars or ending world hunger, and in some ways is even more complex. Whereas malnutrition cripples individuals and occasionally rises to the level of famine, it is not contagious. In contrast, malrecognition spreads because when our dignity is offended, our first impulse is to reciprocate in kind. The twentieth century demonstrated that war, unlike famine, can leap easily and quickly from one continent to another. So can terrorism.

Indeed, it already has.

By pursuing nonrankist international policies that safeguard the dignity of all, we can support a nonviolent democratic approach to the inescapable challenge of the twenty-first century: achieving global social justice.

Handling “Domestic Violence” in the Global Village

Just decades ago, the proverb “A man’s home is his castle” was interpreted to mean that what the head of the family did within his home to his wife and children was none of the public’s business. If someone took it upon himself to intervene, that person was regarded as a meddler or vigilante. Now there are laws–and the willingness to enforce them–that apply to family matters.When it comes to domestic abuse, the burden of proof has shifted from the presumed victims to the alleged victimizers. One phone call is all it takes to have the police knocking on, or knocking down, the door to the home of a spouse or parent suspected of violence.

As the world becomes a global village, it is natural that what have been regarded as sovereign national domains become subject to the watchful eyes, and under dire circumstances, the forceful intervention, of neighboring states. A famine in Ethiopia or Somalia; a genocide in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the Sudan; an earthquake in Iran, Turkey, or Pakistan; a tsunami in Southeast Asia; the HIV-AIDS pandemic; a hurricane like Katrina–all are rapidly becoming everybody’s problem and everybody’s business.

At what point does our responsibility to fellow human beings warrant the abrogation of a nation’s sovereignty? In the late twentieth century, we grappled with this question as it applied to our neighbors down the street and decided that the rights of battered spouses and abused children outweighed those of the “man in his castle.” In the twenty-first century we have to answer the same question as it applies to the neighbors with whom we share this ever-shrinking planet.

An important step toward a dignitarian world is to fashion rules that tell us under what circumstances to override state sovereignty and intervene. And we need to create the global analogue of standing municipal Emergency Response Teams–variously referred to as Rapid Response Forces or SWAT teams–to enforce the rules governing intervention. In the case of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, the victims and their governments usually invite outside assistance. But for man-made horrors such as torture, murder, and genocide associated with despots and police states, there is not only the resistance of the perpetrator but typically disagreement among outsiders about the proper course of action.

Former President Clinton now regards not stepping in during the Rwandan genocide as the biggest mistake of his presidency, and he has formally apologized. In the final weeks of his term of office, President George H.W. Bush did order the military to enter Somalia and a genocidal famine was halted. Estimates are that this saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, notwithstanding the view of many Americans that the mission was a failure due to the subsequent loss of life and horrific broadcast images that followed the shooting down of a Black Hawk helicopter.

If powerful nations have the ability to stop a genocide, it is hard to make the case that the right thing to do in dire situations is nothing. But just as with the police who knock down the door to a man’s home to stop him from beating his wife, when sovereignty is breached and intervention undertaken, it has to be done correctly. Great care must be exercised to minimize the harm done to innocents. The FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in April 1993, in which seventy-six cult members died, is an example of a failed intervention, one that linked SWAT teams with the use of unnecessary force and tarnished their reputation across the country. But in truth, despite some notable excesses, the majority of these teams consist of highly trained professionals who represent society’s front-line response to volatile situations and who exercise great skill in delicate and dangerous circumstances.

Obviously, it is not always wise or even possible to become involved, especially in the internal affairs of a state. The price may be too high, the risk of doing damage too great. Every case must be decided in light of the particulars. As with domestic abuse, there is no single formula for right action, but it’s better to do nothing than to make a bad situation worse. Sadly, the latter has often been the case in international interventions, in part because some states have used the alleged misbehavior of others as a pretext to advance their own agendas.

But in recent decades there has been increased willingness, for reasons unique to each circumstance, to confront abusive regimes in other countries. The Vietnamese intervened to stop the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia in 1979; the Tanzanians did so to put an end to Idi Amin’s despotism in Uganda; and more recently, NATO stepped in to halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In 2005 the United Nations acknowledged limits to state sovereignty by adopting the principle that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. More to the point, the U.N. recognized that if a state fails to do this, the international community has an obligation to act. In other words, the U.N.’s so-called responsibility-to-protect principle creates a legal and moral framework for intervening in the next Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, or Darfur. The U.N. Security Council now has an explicit mandate to act as the world’s policeman, but unlike the standing police forces of cities, these international “cops” are hired and deployed on a case-by-case basis and only as the Council sees fit.

One thing is becoming obvious. To be effective, military intervention usually needs to be multilateral and also part of a larger package that includes humanitarian assistance, economic development, and subsequent rebuilding of social and civic institutions. The analogy with domestic abuse holds. After an intervention, social workers try to ensure that net harm does not befall the family as a result of removing the offending party.

Creating a ready multinational capability to intervene in a timely fashion in the sovereign affairs of nations guilty of abusing their own citizens remains one of the great unfinished tasks bequeathed by the twentieth century to the twenty-first. It will take dignitarian states to field global emergency response teams in a fair and proper manner, but doing so is an essential part of owning the power that is ours.

This is the sixteenth 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.

[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.]