Dignity and Flourishing Go Hand in Hand

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As I have been doing periodically, I am linking today's David Brooks New York Times column to my definition of sustainability as flourishing. Brooks writes today of the disappearance of dignified behavior from the public sphere, citing three recent events: the revelation of Governor Mark Sanford's dallying, Sarah Palin's resignation, and the buzz around Michael Jackson's death. Comparing today's public behavior to George Washington's standards, Brooks mourns the loss.

But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.

We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

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.

I think Brooks makes a good case, but has mislabeled it. He's writing about manners, not dignity. Dignity is about leading one's life according to his or her own standards, no matter what the circumstances are. Dignity is personified by Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. Dignity is closely related to authenticity, the practice of making choices based on one's own set of concerns and values, not according to the prevalent norms. Mannerful behavior might seem to be just the opposite as manners are a matter of social norms. But choosing to follow that particular set of rules is an individual choice, such as made and adhered to by George Washington.

In any case, I do agree with Brooks that manners have pretty much disappeared, but not with his reasons. The loss, I think, is related more to the extreme narcissism characteristic of so much public (and private) life. We are still a mix of "me generations." Capitalism does have something to do with this, but it is the particular form of capitalism that has made consumption the measure and imperative of living. We are a population of "havers" It's the loss of a sense of "being" as caring that leads to the current banality in public life. But, as Brooks notes, our current President is bringing back public manners. There is dignity in his actions because, I believe, he really chooses to live that way. I hope he will address the causes of our poor behavior at the roots, otherwise he will be able only to set an example that, given the cynicism of the press and media, is not likely to be recognized as the treasure that it is.

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