We were chatting about cultural dignity and I was reminded of Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl was a German Jewish psychiatrist, author, and psychological innovator. He was the founder of logotherapy, a successor theory to Adler and Freud. If these weren’t remarkable enough achievements, he was also a survivor of one of the most cold-blooded and savage assaults on culture and dignity the world has ever seen.
Frankl survived the Nazi death camps, where his wife and both parents were murdered. He wrote famously about dignity under the most horrific conditions where the Nazis treated Jews as üntermensch, or sub-humans.
‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Another German, Victor Klemperer, kept extensive diaries from 1933 to 1945 chronicling the Nazi regime’s compounding humiliation of Jews at home. Part Jewish himself, only his World War 1 decoration for bravery and his marriage to a Christian saved him from deportation to certain death. They could not, however, save him from the daily attacks on his dignity.
His detailed, accurate, and mostly objective journals leave a chilling expose to the frightful damage we as a species cause when we undermine dignity.
Dignity — humanity’s first distinction
Humanity’s first distinction from all other species lies in our mutual acceptance of dignity. At our very least and poorest we know, or should know, we are worthy of honour and respect. Cultures, religions, and social movements the world over, uphold the central notion of dignity, from the sacred potential of childbirth, to the reverence of age, and the mourning associated with death. We thrive in the presence of dignity, and falter in its absence.
As civilisation continues to advance, and our knowledge of other cultures grows, the world around us shrinks. Dignity is an unalienable birthright, a gift we universally celebrate. Dignity is the moral foundation on which we survive, live, and thrive. Only aberrant cultures like Nazism deny it. Dignity and courage in the end defeat them.
But for all our vigilance, indignity is never far away. It begins with comparisons and judgements that we as humans are too often unable to resist. Our unconscious wants to believe that one culture — usually ours — is superior to another — usually theirs. These judgements lie at the heart of all the isms: racism, sexism, ageism, and many more, all parcelled together into a box that we might term otherism.
Expressed publicly, these judgements diminish others’ dignity in order to bolster our own.
World-renowned child and youth neuroscience researcher, Dr Bruce Perry, talks about the six stages of adolescent development of which the last stage is maturation, represented by an appreciation of diversity.
His definition of diversity requires worth, celebration, respect, and dignity. He believes we should be surrounded by them all, and act towards others with each. In recognising and celebrating dignity in others, we enrich innate dignity in ourselves.
How to preserve our cultural dignity
To preserve our cultural dignity, we need to understand other cultures, not just our own. That understanding has to rest on the unshakeable belief that every human is intrinsically worthy and valuable. Only then can we begin to grasp our own biases and blockages, and see them as the impediments that obstruct otherwise rewarding human relationships.
Dignity — identifying it, restoring it if it’s gone missing, and certainly celebrating it — is the beginning and end of Mahana’s work. We preserve, protect, and replenish cultural dignity through mental, emotional, and cultural intelligence.