Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, March 09, 2008


People who associate with me know or get a good sense that certain things rankle me. One of those things is when people start to become disparaging about other individuals [to depreciate by indirect means (as invidious comparison); speak slightingly about], usually when they are not present. which to me starts to diminish the person(s) being discussed, and ultimately takes away some of their dignity. Maybe I'm the only one that sees it this way.

Dignity is defined as "the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed"; it also refers to high rank, office or position. I'm not so concerned about that because that is something given. I'll give some examples from personal experience about the first definition, and I'll note upfront that it may be easy to offend in terms of taking away dignity, and I will admit that I may be guilty too.

My father, who suffered a stroke, previously fit and able and active, now has to deal with not being able to walk easily, can't do much exercise himself, and needs help with a lot of personal functions such as going to the bathroom. He never complains about being limited but he loses some dignity in the eyes of people because someone has to help him urinate and manage his bowel movements. (This is a family blog, so I try to be careful with expressions.) Therapists and I have tried to work with him over the past year or so to give him back some of his independence and that should help him regain some of his dignity. For the time being, he can't walk for miles (a tour around the house is like a marathon) or just jump up and dig yams or pick oranges. His appetite is good, though, and he can be proud that he is able to feed himself and, bit by bit, is getting himself mobile again. His brain functions very well and he can still express himself as clearly as almost anyone.

Disabled people (or "challenged" as now seems politically correct) often suffer indignities that may not be apparent; the blind person being helped to cross the road may not appreciate the help if unsolicited. I remember once in Germany taking the hand of a blind lady when the traffic lights changed [when it's safe to walk there is a high pitched signal]. She hit out at me with her cane and said "Listen, whoever you are! I don't need your help. Once I hear the signal I know I can cross, and I know where I'm going." Ouch! I thought I was being helpful, but she did not need to feel "pitied" or whatever was offending her. Being helped was undignified.

Black people being given jobs because of quotas instead of on clear merit may feel undignified because there will always be speculation about whether they deserved what they got. If you got your job normally but are the only black person in an organization, questions about "How did you get to work here?" can sting when you know you were at, or near, the top of your class. Or, because of our different physical characteristics, we may be mocked. Again, once in Germany, I sat on a park bench with my then brother-in-law, who is white, and lived and worked there. Two elderly ladies started to eye me. Then chattered in German (which I spoke badly then and even worse now). My bro' started to giggle madly. Then one of the women reached out toward me and before the panic could hit me, touched my hair. I recoiled. "Entschuldigung" [meaning "Sorry"], she said and then proceeded to explain that she had never touched a black man's hair wanted to know how it felt. Was I offended? No. Confused, yes. Did I feel undignified? No? Did I feel dignified? Yes, in part. (She felt that I was noteworthy rather than to be shunned for my colour or for being a foreigner.) I always ponder what would have happened if she had said to herself, "I've never had sex with a black man...".

My little daughter often puts on a face that shows she's offended. When I ask her what's the matter, after a little pouting she says "The children at school say that I'm [fat, ugly, black, have bad braids, suck my thumb, can't spell]." I pause and look her in the eye, then reply "But you know that those things are not true or [that you really are beautiful]." She sniffs. "I know, but they still hurt my feelings." So, damage done, and someone has to repair that. Teacher may not be aware. She has not run around crying in front of the class. But she did not feel good and this was no simple tummy ache which medicine could ease. How long will the child go on feeling bad about herself? That depends. We as parents have to do all we can to bolster her self-image not least to ward against the negative images that others will try to paint on her. Oh, and as she will grow into a black woman we know that the world out there could be very uncomfortable for her.

A work associate has his or her personal foible [a minor flaw or shortcoming in character or behavior] discussed by other colleagues, none of whom have asked the person being discussed anything about this foible. The conversation suggests that the colleagues "see" or "find" some problem with this foible, and may even start to make judgements and assertions about other aspects of the person's character. To me, this is not innocent banter. The conversation is not neutral; some prejudice is "at work" (or "in play"). Something bothers the people having the discussion, but they have not "done the dignified thing" of getting the matter out in the open with the person concerned. They may even say "Well, he (she) might be offended by the question." I would say people, if you think that then surely you have to figure out what will cause the offence, and pose the question as delicately as you can. Talking about the person "behind their back" in non-complimentary manner or making negative speculation about that person diminishes their dignity. If one of the people in the discussion is the manager does this make this speculation worse?

Going beyond personal experiences, look at recent events. One interesting, and perhaps complicated, instance is (black male) American presidential candidate Barack Obama's (white female) Irish aide, Samantha Power, calling (white female) American opposing presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham-Clinton "a monster" in an off-the-record newspaper interview (see Washington Post report). Ms. Power said her remarks were "inexcusable" and resigned almost as soon as they were published. She is also reported to have said "We f***** up in Ohio," [I presume the "f*****" is that well-known expletive deleted, but that's how it's reported. It could be "fouled" I guess, but probably not as it was deleted.] "Monster was inexcusable? But "f*****" is excusable? Ok. Ms. Power said several undignified things. She acted with dignity by resigning immediately. Ms. Rodham-Clinton's dignity was tarnished. Mr. Obama's dignity? Perhaps enhanced by not condemning Ms. Power and by not condoning her remarks. The journalist who quoted the off-the-record remarks? Undignified in my book: off-the-record should mean protecting the source. (But see a New York Times journalist's (Ms. Maureen Dowd) take on the Obama-Clinton oppostion getting heated up.) Is there dignity in politics?

Dignity is a two-way street and, I think, part of a virtuous spiral (say "feeling good") or part of a downward spiral ("feeling bad"). If we behave with dignity, we are dignified, we can feel good ourselves and the other person(s) should feel good too.

If we behave in an undignified manner we will be undignified; we diminish someone else and we should feel worse about ourselves. Look at three images of that great basketball player, Dennis Rodman, pictured here in some public off-court charity activity to promote rights for short people, doing his "thang" on the basketball court, and in some comfortable off-court leisure wear, and ask yourself some questions about his acting with dignity or if he is treating others with dignity. Your call. Don't duck it and hope for a jump ball.

We don't have to go to the extremes of abuse in our words or actions to become undignified or make someone else undignified. I don't know if it balances out. It can obviously ebb and flow. If you have taken it away can you get it back?

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