September 30, 2014

Human Dignity, Self-Respect and Self-Humiliation

In the contemporary philosophical debate on human dignity exists a view that understands it as self-respect. This concept can roughly be said to have its origins in Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society and centers on a discussion of humiliation. The definition of dignity as something that can be lost and has to be protected is closely linked to the discussion of human rights. The link between dignity, human rights and humiliation is also discussed in other disciplines. The theoretical definition is usually approached ex negativo, i.e. as an attempt to show how humiliation is the negation of self-respect. I think a shift in perspective needs to be integrated in this view, as the negation of self-respect can only be self-humiliation.

Philosophers tend to establish an objective perspective that is not linked to the individual feelings of a person who is humiliated. Self-esteem or self-worth seem to get in the way of a neutral understanding of what humiliation is supposed to mean. It is often sketched as an assault on an attitude all human beings share – like a wish to be respected as individuals or a belief that we should have normative authority over ourselves. Yet, this does not seem to be what self-respect usually denotes; and in whatever way humiliating experiences actually affect the self-respect of the afflicted person her persuasion that she is worth just as much as all her fellow human beings cannot simply be destroyed from the outside. I do not want to imply that anyone could develop a feeling of self-worth without a (to a certain extent) positive social environment. However, a negative influence like humiliation is not enough to explain how self-respect is corrupted.

I believe that an inside perspective, heeding the psychological dimension of what happens when someone feels humiliated and loses self-respect, needs to be developed. Moreover, the crucial experience that endangers dignity is not humiliation as such, but self-degradation. Someone can only lose self-respect by denying this respect to herself. And this can ultimately only be done by herself. Once this inner process is focused we can ask for the prototypical situations that negate human dignity as self-respect. My suggestion is that these are moments of extreme shame in the way they are defined by Brené Brown (cf. Brown, 2012 71-74). Of course, shame is a cultural phenomenon and differs in diverse sociohistorical contexts. We really need to focus on the involved fear of social exclusion and the processes that undermine self-worth. Yet, in western cultures the analysis of shame seems to be an extremely fruitful area to understand how dignity is impaired by certain social practices. It also allows us to think about the vital perspectives we should take on life to enable us to live in dignity.


Margalit, Avishai. The Decent Society (transl. Naomi Goldblum). Cambridge/Mass. Harvard UP, 1996.

September 29, 2014

Crucial Differences

Doesn't one word sometimes make all the difference?

I am the person I am today because of my parents.

I am the person I am today despite my parents.

Or is this, after all, just same same (but different)?

Mai 09, 2014

Social Media as Socially Inhibitting?

I recently watched yet again an appeal to switch off our smartphones and other distracting devices to allow ourselves to be more connected to the people around us. The idea was: Let go of virtual communities and embrace real social contacts. Somewhat ironically, it was posted via Facebook. In general, I am all for this sort of thinking. If I had to write a categorical rule for behavior, I would probably want social media (albeit their positive effects) to be excluded from intersubjective relationships rather than included. In fact, I might be one of the last westerners of my generation who does not even have a smartphone. But there are two counter-arguments that should be considered. I think something can be said in favor of electronic distraction as a protection from unwanted social contacts. And, more generally speaking, I fear that condemning the devices we use in anti-social behavior is rather talking about the symptoms and not the reasons that cause us to act in this way.

If you really think about the problems of disconnection, excessive individualization, self-centeredness, isolation etc. it is obvious that they have a much longer history than that of social media and the increasing use of arguably socially separating electronic appliances (cf. e. g. Dahlern, 2013 100-111; in the online version: 83-93).

“Struc­tu­ral modernization was accompanied by cultural modernization which is characterized by secularization and in­dividualization of religious and moral values, the rationalization of society, fast information diffusion, and the origination of a consumer culture” (Ester/Halman/Moor, 1993 3).

Industrialization and modernization could be seen as factors that have supported social disintegration and have led, for example, to the dissolution of family ties. For anthropologists it seems to be a commonplace to assert that contemporary children in the West typically learn language in dyadic structures (i.e. in one-on-one situations, usually with the mother), at least in middle- and upper-class homes, and that they also spend a lot of time alone (cf. e. g. Small, 2001 94). Other research shows that our culture of scarcity and, intertwined with it, shame, comparison and disengagement are major sources for anti-social behavior, fear and suffering in our societies (cf. Brown, 2012 24-30).

It is simply illegitimate to single out one current form of behavior such as the use of social media and electronic devices to explain pervasive social and cultural changes of this size. Moreover, it seems very doubtful that the simple advice to stop this behavior is even helpful, because it does not address the real issues.

Besides, I personally feel that it is possible, and not too difficult, to listen to (moderately loud) music over your headphones and/or to text someone via your mobile phone and still pay attention to your surroundings at the same time. I actually find it a lot harder to concentrate on anything else when I’m reading a book, which I sometimes do in public. I am much more cut off from social contact when I am engaged in a gripping novel than when I am writing a text message or listening to a song. In addition to this, I sometimes feel that it is relaxing not to have to listen to everything people around you are saying and to give yourself a break from chitchat with strangers. So the second argument could be summed up in a question: Should I be available for every communicative contact just for its own sake? I would argue that the answer has to be no, as this is an overbearing demand.

Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly. New York: Gotham, 2012.
Ester, Peter, Loek Halman and Ruud de Moor. “Value Shift in Wes­tern Societies.” The Individualizing Society: Value Change in Europe and North America. Eds. ibid. Tilburg: Til­burg UP, 1993.
Small, Meredith F. Kids – How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children. New York: Anchor 2001.

April 29, 2014

The Time Being Passing Her Time

It seems almost ironic that it took me such a long time to read Ruth Ozeki's wonderful novel A Tale for the Time Being. I am usally a fast reader, but for numerous reasons I could not manage to finish it, and it really made me smile when one of the narrators faced similar problems trying to finish the diary of the other narrator she is reading in the book. I also came across lots of other passages that bore simiarities to my own life and thinking, which is probably what makes you love a book in the first place.

Ozeki quotes from Marcel Proust's Le temps retrouvé at the beginning of Part II, commenting on this very phenomenon:

"In reality, every reader, while [s]he is reading, is the reader of [her] own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument ... to permit [her] to discern what, without the book, [s]he would perhaps never have seen in [herself]..." (Ozeki, 2013 109).

I think I have always been aware of this fact, yet, it still surprised me how very much I could relate to this story or, rather, relate this story to myself. On top of everything else there is a quote that terribly reminds me of what I wrote about language and ghosts from the past haunting our words last December:

"Where do words come from? They come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead to life. [...] The ancient Greeks belived that when you read aloud, it was actually the dead, borrowing your tongue, in order to speak again" (ibid. 345f).

Of course, we are probably both influenced by the metaphors and concepts already existing in our cultures and, thus, in the language making up our worlds... The idea of ghosts borrowing your tongue is as eerily beautiful as the whole novel. Thank you Ruth Ozeki!

Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being. Edinburgh and London: Canongate, 2013.