Over the past few months, I’ve heard the word dignity thrown around quite a bit. In most cases, the discussion was about poverty. On one hand, the poor needed to have or show some dignity by working harder, by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” And, on the other, the working poor deserve a livable wage so that they can live with dignity. In fact, because I’m finally in a job that uses and tests my education, I now have a more dignified job.
My response, sometimes vocalized, was one of confusion. Is being poor or working a job that doesn’t require a degree or a particular expertise, exclusive of dignity? According to the aforementioned paradigm, yes.
In both instances, a lack of money and capital equates to a lack of dignity. Consciously, subconsciously, and culturally, this language suggests that our bank accounts are intimately linked with how much honor and respect we are given and with which we view ourselves. Yes, living comfortably on the salary of a single, 40-hour-a-week job is a luxury everyone should be afforded, but not living such an existence doesn’t necessarily make people feel less worthy of respect. I hear stories about a middle-class that once existed in this country, a middle-class that prided itself in working hard and earning a living. As those people continue to tumble down the tax brackets, now it appears that they had only dignity in numbers of the populist kind.
It’s unfortunate (though hardly surprising) that something as subjective, personal, and unique as respect has been usurped by a symbolic practice. And until money ceases to be the token for succeeding at life, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. If even the deeply altruistic believe dignity is bestowed with cash, then even the good guys are cogs in a system that must, at the very least, be re-calibrated. Honestly, we’re all just rats the maze. But seeing the dignity in others should have nothing to do with their bank accounts. Unless, you truly believe a person can be paid their worth.