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A Question of Dignity



When Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion this summer for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on what was essentially marriage equality, he centered his writing around the concept of "dignity." This raised eyebrows with some, as Justice Thomas espoused that the government was incapable of providing anyone with such a feeling, continuing on with a ramble about slavery. Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who has been in the news of late for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, would seem to agree with that line of thought.

Davis added that “I don’t think dignity is guaranteed in the Constitution. I think dignity is something that you find within yourself. I feel really sad that … someone could be so unhappy with themselves as a person that they did not feel dignified as a human being until they got a piece of paper. I mean, there’s just so much more to life than that.” This coming from a woman who got herself four pieces of that paper.

The issue isn't as simple as one might think (or hope) it is at first glance. We're dealing with people's deeply rooted belief systems, and where it is they fundamentally believe their worth comes from. Those can be fairly intractable positions from which to carry on a substantive argument. When one set of folks think that dignity is derived by the law, whereas another group of people believe the it is divined from God -- and dignity is used as the crux of an argument -- then it's no wonder we're in our current state of conflict.

As for where I come down at on the argument, regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to know that I'm for the more legal definition of the issue. As I see it, there are three main prongs of attack when it comes to the argument of dignity.

First, after perusing various definitions, it would appear that dignity has a very secular meaning. Note that I consider this slightly different than being grounded in law (which we'll come to in a moment). In short, dignity isn't something divined from a god. It is, like most things, a human construct that we have developed over time in civilized society.

Second, there is the religious aspect, which can't be ignored. If one is to seek dignity, one has to seek God (or so the theory goes). It is a deeply personal, spiritual matter, one unaffected by the doings of mankind. I think this is why Justice Thomas referenced slaves being able to still have dignity. It mattered not how they were treated by their fellow man, as long as they stayed true to God and derived strength from His power and their own inner self.

Finally, there is to be considered the guarantee of dignity by law. This is where, I believe, Justice Kennedy was coming from with his majority opinion. It would seem to follow the first notion of dignity, that it is a human creation and, not only that, deserves promotion and protection under civil law. This recognizes that dignity can be influenced, at least partially, by external forces.

It is a noble, empowering notion that one's dignity can be derived solely from within. For better or worse, however, none of us live in a vacuum and, try as we might, how we feel about ourselves, our station in life and our worth as individuals is based partly on our standing in society, and treatment by others.

So, yes, a "piece of paper", and the struggle behind its existence, can mean a whole lot when it comes to dignity. Odd, that if someone such as Kim Davis seems to place such little regard in it, she would have sought out said piece of paper four times for herself.


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