The demise of dignity is so ubiquitous in our society today that it is literally inescapable on a daily basis. I’m old enough to remember it didn’t used to be this way, but young enough to personally witness this gradual declining trend in slow motion, like lava flowing from a volcano in Hawaii spreading across the island.
Dignity is defined as the state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect. We all want to be treated in a dignified manner and deserve it in some way, shape or form just by virtue of being human. But, equally, we must bear the onus of responsibility in behaving in such a manner that demands dignified reciprocity. There is both the external quality of how we are received by others matched with our inner integrity that we project outwardly to be worthy of such behavior. But both of these dimensions, which I will refer to as The Dignity Code – a pact we must each sign off with society – seems to have eroded and stripped away.
My first real encounters with acts of dignity were in Italy. I would observe young people offer their seat to the elderly on the bus or witness the street sweeper mingling with the suits and shop owners. Whether one was a janitor, a barista or banker, there was a dignified level of respect in the person, a sense of community our lives were all interconnected and each individual is a worthy member and contributor to the fabric of our lives.
Of course, dignity is universal and exists in every small town but I would argue the start of the breakdown in civility began with the rise of technology: the Internet laid the foundation and the smartphone sparked the quantum leap. It created a cultural shift where we could be narcissists on Facebook, self-absorbed taking Selfies and carelessly tweeting to our hearts content. We removed the filter, so one can release information in realtime to the world instantaneously from the comforts of our living room without actually having to face anyone. Couples break up with each other all the time now via text, email or simply changing their relationship status on Facebook. We now admire celebrity over hard work, where the ethos of noble professions has been undermined by reality TV stars. The more controversial, outrageous and demeaning, the more one is rewarded with higher ratings or hits on YouTube. It feeds on itself, with the adverse effect that it spills into other areas of life and pollutes the moral atmosphere. Technology has sucked us into its seductive web, with the end result being we value whatever is on our screen more than who is in front of us.
But we cannot just blame this phenomenon on the Millennials (aged 18-35). It is coupled with the subtle shift the older generation is struggling with as they contemplate a confluence of frustrating factors: layoffs, lack of trust and loyalty with employers, globalization, celebrity status glorified over hard work, an emphasis on short term results over long term planning and a polarizing political landscape. A crisis of identity emerges based on status and self-worth, challenging our sense of self and loss of pride due to so many conflicting signals. In the old days, one could proudly say, “I may not be the richest or most famous but you can count on me as I strive to be a responsible, upstanding citizen and integral part of the fabric of my community”. That era valued traits like selflessness, generosity and self-sacrifice; all qualities sufficient enough to be deemed a life well lived. But now the notion of just gradually working your way through a humble but dignified job and quietly being a respectful member of society has dissolved in the modern world. We now value ambition, superiority, self-promotion, status and overachievement. We become less morally articulate and more self-centered to achieve success and external praise. Our perspective shifts from outward to inward to focus on the biggest star on stage (me!). We are rewarded and constantly validated to channel our energy towards ourselves and thus become approval seeking robots. The Selfie is a great metaphor for this as we essentially have turned the camera around as the subject of attention rotated from others to <me!>.
And so we all dig in, taking comforts in our technology, turning inward and shutting out the world. People are oblivious to their surroundings, completely immersed in their five inch screen as they tune out the world, talking louder on the phone, singing along with it or swearing at it, or texting away nonstop. The insensitivity to others arises as they bury their heads in social media as if the world around them doesn’t exist. Worse yet, they may be aware but simply don’t care. After all, if I am now the lead actor in this new movie called My Life why should I be bothered by the supporting cast? We become less morally articulate, losing the ability to connect and coexist and the ultimate result is the slippage in The Dignity Code.
In fact, there is so much lack of dignity and respect that I’m now often caught by surprise by moments of civility! What once was the norm has now become the exception. How often do you see a gentleman holding the door for a lady, people using proper salutations like Sir, Mr. or Mrs. (‘Hey’ is not a title!) or a friend completely removing a smartphone for an intimate dinner conversation? I’ve been turned away by my bank, told to use the ATM outdoors and directed to the self-service checkout at my supermarket (translation: talk to the machine, not me!). With increased automation, we are losing the human touch and all these subtle shifts gradually change our behavior towards others, with the cumulative effect of exhibiting less respect and attention to others’ needs.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our current toxic political atmosphere. The nasty rhetoric from our president trickles down to us all to create acceptable norms as the fish rots from the head. We need to hold him accountable to a higher standard and elevate the dialogue to be respectful and dignified as a society.
We live in a more individualistic society as the ten-word/two-letter motto “if it is to be, it is up to me” sums it up perfectly and has never ringed truer. But that doesn’t mean we have to compromise empathy, respect and attention for one another’s humanity. These moments of connection are the blessings and the signs of a beautiful life, one lived with by serving The Dignity Code.