Dignitary

All humans are dignitaries. Not only distinguished persons, no, all seven billion humans who live on this planet in all their diversity and manifold capabilities, are „WürdeträgerInnen”, literally translated ‘persons who carry dignity’. This dignity can be understood as inherent to every human being, inseparably belonging to them. Human beings are invested with this ‘dignity’ irrespective of their value either for the community, the religious or political institutions or any other merit, or for the labour market, the marriage-market or whatever value system a society uses to make hierarchical distinctions between human beings. For all these human beings are ‘persons who are in this world for their own sake and not for an extraneous purpose, unique and not replaceable by any other equivalent’.

With this inherent dignity come rights: human rights that are meant to promote the good life for all. The inherent dignity of all humans forms therefore the basic assumption of the universal human rights discourse, which is clearly shown by the fact that it is laid down in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, just as it is laid down in the first article of the German constitution.

But although all human beings have inherent dignity, this dignity needs to be acknowledged in mutual practices of recognizing the other as bearing this dignity. The expression seven billion dignitaries can (help to) produce this effect. It is explosive in that it turns over the usual value scale while transferring the meaning associated with ‘dignitary’ to all. This implies that any person has to be approached with the respect and reverence that is due to a queen or king, invoking wonder and respect for personal boundaries.

The strength of the word „dignitary” when it is wrested from its received meaning is its strong evocative power. It calls forth a wealth of images of concrete human subjects and situations and enables humans to understand themselves as dignitaries: someone worthy of respect and sovereignty.

To understand oneself as a dignitary can have an empowering effect; it makes it possible to appropriate the abstract concept of human dignity and refer to oneself as (a) dignitary: someone who is in the world for their own sake, free to follow their desire and sovereign in their choices.

Speaking of human beings as dignitaries also has a strong ethical appeal. It suggests that the good life is not only for the distinguished persons, but for all; that the good life for all means enough to eat and drink, a safe place providing shelter for the elements; a basic income; safety from violence; respect for the integrity of the body; care and attention for all in need of it – and more than this. For although these are basic assumptions, being and/or becoming a dignitary also calls forth that this being can realize their capabilities – and become who they are capable of being – someone with and of dignity, worthy of respect and admiration.  

Anne-Claire Mulder, Divine Wo/men are Dignitaries: Seven Billion of Them Walk in Dignity and Flourish, in: Feminist Theology 21(3) 2013, p. 232-243.   

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