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. Continue reading