Dignity Lost, Dignity Regained?

Years ago, an elderly lady shared with me a photocopy of a card carried around in the wallet of her long deceased uncle, Luther Duncan, a 4-H pioneer, Alabama Extension administrator, and Auburn University president.  The card essentially functioned as a wallet-sized catechism —a summary of the ethical standards that Duncan held most dearly. 

The frayed edges and smudged ink apparent even in the photocopy testified to the seriousness with which Duncan regarded these ethical standards. I imagined him perusing them time and again on those long train rides between 4-H meetings and farm demonstrations.

For me, this frayed card attested to the intense preoccupation, if not outright obsession, many 19th and early 20th century Americans had not only with high ethical standards but also with another attribute they closely associated with ethics — personal dignity.  In the view of most, acquiring these attributes involved a lifetime commitment and encompassed every bit as much of an inward as an outward transformation.

My parents were not born in the 19th century, though they could have just as well been.  They were sticklers for everything from posture and reasonably refined manners to grammar and diction. They never failed to note the slightest breaches of etiquette or moral lapses.   My father, who was born in abject poverty but went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, solemnly informed my brother and me that neither of us would drag the Langcuster fortunes back into the squalor out of which he had struggled.

What I hated then with a passion — those straight talks and dire warnings — I recall today with a sense of profound and abiding gratitude, though I confess that I remain a work in progress.

From an early age, I suppose I intuitively understood that ethics and dignity went hand in hand.  Likewise, in dealing with others, I tended to assume that one attribute was accompanied by the other: One who comported oneself with dignity likely evinced high ethical standards and vice versa.

I suppose my upbringing accounts for why I read and zealously forwarded to friends David Brooks’s recent op-ed: “In Search of Dignity.”

While observing that Americans continue to recognize and appreciate dignity where it can still be found — in public icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Tom Hanks, Ronald Reagan and, it now appears, Barack Obama — Brooks nonetheless believes that any objective understanding of dignity has been lost.

What are the factors that account for this loss?

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

If dignity has been lost, how can it be regained?  More important, how do we reacquire something so intangible — something, much like humus, which is acquired only after long passages of time and only through the most careful and assiduous nourishment and stewardship?

Are you listening, 4-H?

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