Yesterday, January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of a U.S. President, people around the world took to the streets in solidarity to take a stand in defense of human dignity. The marches were organized by women in protest of misogynistic laws, customs and public statements by those in power that demean and diminish women. These demonstrations also stood in solidarity with people who have been “othered” because of their skin color, ethnicity, nationality, religion or because they are queer or other-abled. And there are other targets of bigotry.
The struggle for human dignity is ages old. It might even be the struggle for progress toward humane society. Whether by slurs or negative stereotypes that are specific to gender, skin color and all the other forms of bigotry that man gets up to, denigration in its many variations is intended to humiliate and thereby deny dignity. And it is intended to establish and reinforce a “less-than” status of the other that so legitimizes and normalizes oppression that it can be denied that it even is oppression.
Gandhi said that the first principal of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating. Yesterday millions of people around the world took a public, non-violent stand in non-cooperation with everything humiliating.
I think of my life as at the constant crossroads of a continuous question: Given what is before me, what is to be my response? If I am awake enough to see the reality of pervasive oppression, then I am awake enough to know that I can’t turn away from it. In addition to the many opportunities for organized social action, I can educate myself – there are many excellent resources. I can speak up. If I am in the presence of someone using demeaning sexist, racist or homophobic language, I can speak up for human dignity. If I can do so skillfully, without confrontation, I can bring humane values to the conversation without diminishing or dismissing anyone. If I am firm in my commitment to defending dignity, I can, by my demeanor, affirm the human dignity of the one who, perhaps thoughtlessly, undermines the dignity of others. And I can make an effort to listen to those who won’t listen to me.
I have an unshakeable conviction that if I could only see deeply enough, I would find that everyone is doing the best they can. I think that anyone this side of enlightenment is burdened to some degree with conditioning that can make empathy difficult. Our human development personally and collectively depends upon seeing the truth of harmful conditioning and working through it toward a fully realized humanity. I believe too that only the oppressed understand oppression. They are the ones who have the life experience. The oppressed are the true teachers of the oppressor. It’s like Lao Tsu said, What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher. What is a bad man but a good man’s work. And this work calls for great patience and good will.
I won’t say to not have anger. But don’t let it take on a life of its own. Don’t let it become bitter and vengeful. Don’t let it compete with your generosity of spirit. And I won’t say to not have fear. But don’t let it turn you away from the essential work that must be done.
Yesterday the world saw the non-violent majority who will not cooperate with humiliation. Those who humiliate others for whatever reason are in the minority. Perhaps a small minority who hold power by dividing the good willed majority and setting it against itself. But no one can humiliate someone who will not be humiliated.
The good work of defending dignity has been ongoing for ages. Now it’s our work to do, and we in turn will hand off to the next shift. And it will get done. It can be difficult to see in the short term, but steady progress is made. Yesterday, women led millions of people around the world in joyous testimony to that fact.