All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: There’s this idiom we use, we speak about ‘human dignity’, but it’s just a set phrase. In Japanese, there’s two different terms. There’s ‘son-ke’, which is respect for whatever is above you, and it implies a hierarchy, it’s tied to the notion of a status. And there’s ‘son-cho’, which is about universal respect, and that’s tied to that concept of human dignity. What son-cho’s about is that every person deserves a certain form of respect, there are things you just can’t do to them. Like you can’t lynch a criminal.
B: So there’s something about dignity that’s unconditional?
A: Yes. It’s also connected to the word ‘respect’. ‘Le respect de la dignité’, it’s a set phrase in France. But then, when you hear the way that it’s used, often the person who’s asking for that dignity to be respected, I’m getting the impression that they’re asking for conditional respect, not unconditional. I mean, they seem to want respect in for a competence they don’t have. Like, they’re smart, or they deserve something, when that’s just not the case. So, it’s associated with a kind of entitlement.
B: Well, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me. There’s an organisation here called Leadership ***, and they run programs for migrant community leaders. I saw that pop up in my feed one day, and thought I might apply. I got shortlisted and went to their session for shortlisted appliances. And then I had a shock. I was the only white person in the room, and there was this woman talking to us, and she was saying things like, ‘so, there’s 45 of you shortlisted, but we only have 30 places in the programs, so you must understand that not everyone will get in. Duh. But if you’re from Africa, we’ve got a program that’s for African community leaders, so you might also get into that.’ And she was using – I don’t know, there was a tone, and the way she was talking to us, it was like we were complete idiots. And I was thinking, wow, we’ve been selected as community leaders, and that’s how they’re treating us. I actually, I almost ran off. They needed you to be there at certain dates for the program, and they said ‘and we expect you to be there at all those dates’, and I raised my hand and said I was travelling on those dates for my work, so was it worth me doing the second interview? And she seemed annoyed, but said, then probably not. And after I left, I realised, it was the first time in my life I got condescended to. As a middle class white man, it never happened to me before. And that time I understood what it feels like, and I told all my women friends and my Chinese friends, it’s horrible! But so yes, I guess that’s what condescension is about, it’s refusing a certain unconditional dignity. It’s saying, if you want a relationship, it’s gonna be based on a strict hierarchy, and you’re starting on a lower rung.
A: Wow, that sounds tough. I mean, when I hear that, I wonder if dignity is actually about unconditional equality? One thing we might look at is how each culture handles its minorities. When you look at France, we have a hierarchical relationship with black people from Africa, and for Muslim populations, it’s rejection. In Japan, there’s a hierarchy where white people are at the top, but you might still be rejected as a foreigner. It’s a rejection on principle. It’s like you’re excluded from a club, and you won’t ever get in, no matter what you do. That’s actually what racism is about. It’s a hierarchy that’s based just on status, not actions. While dignity, that’s about the capacity to develop a relationship on the basis of radical equality. And so, when you there’s somebody that gives you this unconditional dignity, but they still disagree with your actions, then that disagreement has a real weight.