Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More on Dignity...Point and Counterpoint

Here is a (the?) comment I received on my last post. He makes some good points, and I would like to open up a little more dialogue here:

One of your bottles washed up on my beach and I must say I've rarely endured such a tongue lashing re: dignity. Yes, I am a baby boomer, aged 54 years as of yesterday. I grew up in the deep south, Birmingham, Alabama to be exact and had it not been for iconoclasts like those you condemn as the source of our cultural decline I dare say we would still have white and colored water fountains. Granted, you seem to make an exception for opposing racism and antisemitism but then make sweeping generalisations about the negative impact my generation has had on subsequent generations. True, there were excesses but that is true of any cultural change. You mention the "greatest generation" and their sacrifices during the depression and WW II but go back and take a look at prohibition and the "roaring twenties". I suspect there were more than a few of those paragons of virtue you describe that drank untaxed liquor and danced in a speakeasy. I could go on but I think the one that needs to practice moderation is you, before you throw all the boomers out with the bath water, like so much sewage.

Arguing that a return to the values of our elders is the only chance of saving the planet must be one of the most grandiose things I've ever read. As the father of two daughters, that would be anathema.

Sometimes, in order to be treated with dignity, one must DEMAND IT!


Randy Johnson

You are right, Randy. I did make some sweeping generalizations. But in-depth treatment of this particular subject would have required a book…perhaps several. In trying to keep this short enough to make a point in the space of a decently readable journal post, I omitted a lot of the peripherals.

Yes, history is, to some extent, a parade of generations, each rebelling against and rewriting the rules of the previous one(s). Without that intrinsically human desire to stretch the envelope, civilization would have stagnated and disappeared eons ago. But I think that we boomers and our parents faced some unique challenges that caused some rather larger blips on the civilization meter than have transpired in a long time. Or perhaps it’s simply that since I am a part of this particular generational schism, it seems like a really big deal to me.

The "Greatest Generation" (our parents) attained adulthood to find a World War—against a true evil—staring them in the face. Fighting that war, and then reconstructing their lives afterward, kept them from doing too much rejecting of the values of their elders. I suspect that after the upheaval of the war years, they actually craved the relative calm and ease of their parents’ lives, and set about trying to emulate rather than break free of it. They settled down and gave birth to—the post-war baby boom. And because many of them had also faced the deprivation of growing up during the Depression, they wanted to make sure we had all the things they couldn’t have when they were kids. Which may have been one of their biggest mistakes…

The Boomers were presented with a very different set of rules. First of all, we were (here comes another of my infamous generalizations…) spoiled. Our parents, rich or poor, did everything they could do to make our lives better than theirs…because they could. To a point. Unfortunately, we also grew up in the shadow of something our parents gave us that I’m sure they wished they could take back—the mushroom cloud.

Perhaps we believed that if we were going to make changes, we’d better hurry up before the world exploded around us. Perhaps we felt betrayed that our parents not only didn’t contrive to leave us a better world; they created the means by which our world might be snatched out from under us at any moment. I think it’s safe to say that could make anyone a little bit crazy.

Too, as we came of age, many of us were sent halfway across the world to die in a war that we were told had direct bearing on whether that mushroom cloud would indeed explode in our faces. When we figured out that was a lie, I don’t think we had a whole lot of patience left to pick and choose what parts of our parents’ social codes to reject and which ones to keep. We just picked up the whole mess and heaved it.

My argument is not that we need to return to the values of our elders. My point is that we need to understand that some of the things we threw away were not "values of our elders" at all, but things basic and necessary to the survival of a society. What makes dignity one of those things? To have dignity is to be "worthy, honored, esteemed." Respected. What does our society, as a whole, respect anymore? We don’t respect each other; we don’t respect ourselves. Respect, compassion, empathy, charity—these are the things that keep us from annihilating ourselves. As we reject these concepts, we move closer and closer to the brink.

The question is, how does a society go about recouping when it starts throwing away the basic building blocks of its very survival? I don’t know the answer to that. There must be historical examples; then again, how successful could they have been, as it seems that every great society in human history has eventually gone down to decay. Are we there now? Are we on the brink of that extinction? And since we—the Boomers—took such an unusually large step down that road, can we discipline ourselves to take a giant step back? Or is it too late?

…And as to "DEMANDING" to be treated with dignity… One can demand to be "treated with dignity," but if one is not dignified, one would be demanding acknowledgement of a trait one did not possess. That would be like McDonald’s demanding to be treated like a fine dining establishment. (President Bush’s handlers have demanded that he be treated with dignity…but since he hasn’t an ounce of dignity in his body, at least none that he has ever demonstrated to the public, how can he realistically expect to be "treated with dignity?" For that matter, Bill Clinton’s exploits demonstrated his lack of dignity as well). Dignity is no longer cultivated, even in the highest echelons of our society. For whatever reason, our generation branded dignity a stuffy and outdated concept, and we set about not only throwing away our own, but making damn sure no one else had any, either. A glance at any of our highfalutin 21st century media will leave no doubt about that.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Dignity

Main Entry: dig·ni·ty
Function: noun Inflected Form(s): plural dig·ni·ties
Etymology: Middle English dignete, from Anglo-French digneté, from Latin dignitat-, dignitas, from dignus
Date: 13th century
1: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed

Lately, I’ve contemplated the concept of dignity. We argue and wrangle and orate, these days, about "death with dignity." For whatever reason, it’s of profound importance that we die with our boots on, with our heads held as high as our failing faculties can hold them. But apparently death is the only activity upon which our society will confer the blessing of dignity. Perhaps that is because such a large block of us—we, the ubiquitous baby-boomers—step closer to that eventuality with each passing moment.

Yes, we boomers demand Death With Dignity. But aren’t we also responsible for the death OF dignity? Worth? Honor? Esteem? Haven’t we contrived, since we were old enough to brandish protest signs and burn our bras, to tear down everything our parents—indeed, everything every American generation before us—esteemed, honored, or thought worthy?

Much as we would like to assign the blame for the state of our society to those generations that came after us—to gen-x or –y or Little Cat "z"—the fault is ours. It was our generation that scorned our parents’ etiquette and social behaviors, creating a nation of inconsiderate boors committed to "looking out for number one." Our generation that spawned the shock jocks and the foul-mouthed comedians and the gritty violence of modern cinema. Our generation which threw off the sexual constraints of our forebears, creating a societal obsession with all things pertaining to below-the-waist relations. We were too cool, too hip; too busy cultivating our infant world vision to be constrained by our parents’ "hang-ups." And now, as our parents die and we step into the roles of matriarchs and patriarchs, we wonder why our children, and their children, wouldn’t know dignity if it bit them in the ass.

Dignity is an old-fashioned concept. Our grandparents were dignified. And a little bit scary. They mostly didn’t stray much outside the communities into which they were born. They walked tall through adversity—and they walked through adversity that we can’t even imagine. They kept their personal business to themselves. And yet the community always rallied to stand behind a member or a family in need. Quietly. Without fanfare or hullabaloo, they went about the business of life. With dignity.

Our parents were born into those communities. And the monumental events of the Great Depression and The War changed and molded them. But still, they understood about dignity. They had it themselves, and they allowed for it in others.

Then, along came the Boomers. We didn’t understand the social codes that were handed down to our parents from their parents, and we were in too much of a hurry to take our places as the movers and shakers to learn. While our parents’ society was heavy on loathsome concepts like anti-Semitism and racial bigotry, it also embraced the injunction to care for those less fortunate; the mandate to protect the weak; the obligation to fulfill the needs of others before looking to one’s own needs. The softer and nobler concepts that differentiate humans from lower animals, and that keep a society from destroying itself from within. But we….we were so eager to throw over the outdated prejudices of our parents’ society that we didn’t take the time to sort the good from the bad. Wholesale change was the order of the day. And we threw out the baby with the bath water.

Why is it surprising to us that our children, and their children after them, took our selfishness, our carelessness and our impatience, and ran with it? It’s unfortunate that our progeny did not wholesale reject us as we did our parents, and turn in the opposite direction: toward mercy, compassion and…dignity. Unfortunate that the downward path—toward corruption, self-centeredness and anarchy—is so much easier to tumble down than it would be to clamber up a road to a nobler, more liberal plain.

Life, now, has to be lived at fever-pitch and light-speed. Everything is exaggerated. We all live as perpetual adolescents, where there is no happiness, only ecstasy; and sorrow can only be utter desolation. The measured, circumspect concept of dignity has been utterly forgotten.

I don’t know about you, but I’m too old for this…this world that we have created. What should we do now? What can we do now? Do we bug out of the 21st century? Fade out and live our remaining decades in the quiet shadows of the world we wish we had created? Or do we rouse ourselves, become the critical mass of which we are capable, and foment one more colossal change? Can we all—all xxxx-million of us—drop our feet off the side of the merry-go-round and slow it down, just enough for society to shake its head, get its bearings, and find the stuff that we threw off thirty years ago?

I think the future—of our nation, if not the planet—depends upon us doing exactly that.