Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Dearth of Dignity

David Brooks laments what’s lacking in our society today: dignity.

[George] Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.

The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.

Remnants of the dignity code lasted for decades. For most of American history, politicians did not publicly campaign for president. It was thought that the act of publicly promoting oneself was ruinously corrupting. For most of American history, memoirists passed over the intimacies of private life. Even in the 19th century, people were appalled that journalists might pollute a wedding by covering it in the press.


The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity.

First, there was Mark Sanford’s press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace. Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood. Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.

In each of these events, one sees people who simply have no social norms to guide them as they try to navigate the currents of their own passions.

Mr. Brooks does single out one example of dignity and dispassion: President Obama.

Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.

I think Mr. Brooks has a point here, but I don’t think this lack of dignity is a new phenomenon. Even a cursory glance at history shows that there has always been a lurid interest in the private lives of other people going back to ancient times; after all, the best Greek tragedies (Oedipus Rex, for example) dealt with issues that were the tabloid fodder of the day. The demise of dignity and self-control isn’t because our demand for the details is lacking; it’s because the people who are the objects of our attention are willing to share their most intimate details of their lives and inner thoughts. This is probably based on the mistaken notion that people actually care about them; no, they are just feeding their curiosity, and anything that distracts them for their own life is fine with them. For some, hearing the stories of Mark Sanford cavorting in Argentina or Sarah Palin’s daughter’s sex life is more entertaining than wondering how they’re going to pay for their health insurance, and why sixteen TV networks carried the Michael Jackson memorial service live.

To paraphrase the immortal Hawkeye Pierce, the instrument has yet to be invented that can measure my indifference to this event. And maybe that’s what we need; a little more indifference. Not from the people who are curious — that can’t be controlled — but from the objects of that attention. Both Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin are under the false impression that the public is hanging on their every word. They may be, but not for the reasons they think. If you want to be treated with dignity and respect, you have to stop telling us everything.