Identity-based oppression is usually framed as a harm to dignity. When someone has suffered an injustice based on their race or gender, we commonly say that they have not been treated with dignity, or that their dignity has been violated. On the dignity account of oppression, oppression is morally wrong because 1) it is a failure to respect an individual as a human being, due to their identity in a social group, and/or 2) it is a failure to even recognize that an individual is a human, due to their identity. Note that social identity is the reason for oppression, on this account, but it is not the primary thing that is being disrespected. What is being disrespected is fundamental humanity, if we can abstract such a thing from supposedly morally irrelevant features of identity. To stop oppression, we should get oppressors to see their victims as humans. We need not respect collectives as such, only the humanity of individuals within these collectives.
I am skeptical that the dignity account correctly diagnoses the nature of oppression. Oppression seems to occur not because people fail to see similarity, but because they fail to respect difference. At best, the dignity account tells an incomplete story. It may even go so far as to obscure the nature of oppression so that some means of resistance are seen as illegitimate. I want to suggest that honor, an old tool that has historically been used by radical activists, might allow us to look at oppression with new eyes. As Sharon Krause has noted in Liberalism With Honor, Frederick Douglass and the suffragists have framed their oppression using the language of honor, emphasizing the martial virtues and the duty to stand up or die trying. So have radicals from groups as diverse as the founding Zionists and the Black Power movement, who rejected assimilation into the dominant culture and thought their cultures worthy of special respect. Today, black racial justice activists continue this tradition by describing the Baltimore protests as an “uprising” and emphasizing self-love not in spite of their race, but because of it. Since these individuals were and are on the frontlines of resistance, we should take the idea of honor seriously instead of trying to shoehorn their ethos and actions into the dignity framework.
The dignity account has a few flaws, in my view. The first is that it that it takes the individual as the fundamental unit of oppression. In one sense this is undeniably and obviously true, as only individuals are capable of having experiences. But in another sense, it is false. When someone is oppressed due to their race or gender, they are oppressed as a representative of their social group, so it is actually the group that it is the primary unit of oppression. Because dignity is given by the “core” self, it does not make sense to speak of the dignity of an identity group, except as the aggregate of the dignity of individuals within it. By contrast, honor is easily predicated of groups, and honor is often derived from group membership.
The second problem is that equality of humans is perfectly compatible with oppression, but the dignity account takes a failure to recognize equality as the main cause of oppression. To blame or morally disparage someone, one must recognize and possibly even respect that person as a moral equal. (Kate Manne makes a similar point about humiliation as a tool of oppression in this insightful article. She also writes about the adversarial, status-anxious feature of oppression, which is a key aspect of honor societies.) Just as it wouldn’t make sense to blame an animal, it would be incredibly patronizing to never blame a person for their failures. But blame is often used in oppressive ways to justify the subordination of some groups: think of the welfare queen stereotype notoriously invoked by Ronald Reagan, or the thug narrative used to justify the mass incarceration and police shootings of unarmed black men.
If oppression requires a presumption of equal humanity in order to take place, it might be more accurate to say that it is a violation of group honor. Seeing oppression this way accounts for the adversarial, status-competitive aspect of oppression, as mentioned by Manne, as well as the perception that the dominant group deserves special recognition. On this account, the oppressed are humans – just not very good ones (e.g. they are lazy, violent, greedy, passive, unenlightened in various ways). In a hyper-meritocratic society such as the U.S., it is important that these characteristics are under individuals’ control, as this entitles the dominant group to special recognition for excellence – a central feature of honor. If the dominant group is just better, perhaps because their culture is morally and intellectually superior, then they deserve various social goods. The flip side of the dominant group’s excellence is that the claims of the oppressed are just the whining of losers who need to get their act together. Note that the dominant do not need to relegate the marginalized to subhuman status in order to justify their position at the top of the social hierarchy. They also do not need to refer to essentialist characteristics, such as the inherent superiority of whiteness, as racists of the past used to.
Perversely, then, it seems that a key feature of today’s oppression is a recognition of marginalized individuals as equal humans, combined with disrespect for the marginalized group as inferior to the dominant culture in some morally relevant way. My analysis may not apply to neo-Nazis, but it applies to the much larger “All Lives Matter” crowd (assuming they’re sincere). Even if we think the dominant group holds double standards for themselves and others, there is nothing conceptually incompatible between oppressive blame and the dignity account.
If the concept of honor better captures the nature of oppression than the concept of dignity, then subscribing to this account on a normative level has several implications for self-respect and resistance. Just as a Southern gentleman could not opt out of a duel without dishonoring himself, one cannot opt out of resisting group oppression without being a dishonorable person. Group membership and the duties it entails are not optional, but given by birth, so there is significant tension between individual autonomy and identity. (For more on this point, see Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Ethics of Identity.) Thus, honor makes demands on the oppressed that dignity does not: it demands that the oppressed resist injustice, even at significant personal cost and even if resistance would achieve nothing. Normative honor is a double-edged sword here: if those who resist oppression are worthy of praise, those who do not resist are shameful, and even deserving of their oppression. It goes without saying that those who choose the side of the oppressor over their own are the most shameful of all – many groups have pejorative names to shame such individuals. Depending on your perspective, these implications are either problems or benefits for the honor account, so we can question whether and what features of honor should be taken on at a normative level.
Regardless, honor’s uncompromising demands make it more useful for organizing collective resistance than dignity. Honor’s militarism also has radical implications for what counts as an acceptable means of resistance: the exemplar of honorable resistance may look more like Dr. Huey P. Newton and less like the mainstream depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By “mainstream”, I am referring to the common but false portrayal of Dr. King as someone who thought violence and riots unjustified under all circumstances. This is not to say that one can aggress without provocation, but if one has been hit, the right response would be to hit the aggressor back instead of turning the other cheek. (See Dan’s earlier post on the right to violent resistance.)
At the risk of sounding cynical, I sometimes wonder if dignity’s colorblindness is a product of bad faith. Race, gender, religion, etc. were considered morally relevant until very recently, in terms of justifying the superiority of whiteness, maleness and Christianity. It seems convenient that when marginalized groups champion their identity today, they are called divisive and even racist, because dignity is universal. Violence was also considered a legitimate means of suppressing the marginalized, until very recently – it still is, though few would openly admit it. It seems convenient that defensive violence is considered an illegitimate means of resistance when used by the marginalized, because dignity requires peaceful behavior. Perhaps honor’s embrace of identity politics and physical resistance allows us to more honestly acknowledge what’s really going on.
*I presented a paper on this topic at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in Boulder, Colorado. A draft version can be found here.