Dignity Is Sacred
The hope for a united, pluralistic German culture within a larger unity of Europe will, to a considerable degree, depend on how we think about who we are as women and men. Just look at the gender muddle stirred up by the Koeln New Year’s attacks. How do we not blame women for being “provocative” and simultaneously not stigmatize men from cultures in which, as one Muslim asylum seeker from Eritrea said, “if someone wants a lady he can just take her and he will not be punished”? We are living side by side with such vastly different beliefs about the right and appropriate ways for women and men to behave. These differences aren’t casual or mere irritations. They go to the living heart of who we are.
Right now, gender is a minefield. The progress toward gender equality has created great insecurity and frustration amongst men whose identities have been built on protecting and providing for their wives and children. Add to this fragile situation stressed migrant and refugee men from cultures where only prostitutes walk by themselves on the streets, smile and make eye contact with men, and show their arms and legs. The specter of the dark-skinned man raping a blue-eyed young woman—hinted at in a recent AfD poster—motivates both traditionalists and hooligans to assert their manhood and save their women. The gains women have made in the last fifty years toward autonomy and independence will be sorely put to the test in a climate in which it is felt to be less safe to walk the streets. All of this plays out against a continent-wide economic squeeze and the continued devastation in the Middle East that humiliates and isolates young Muslims, particularly men, as even those born on the Continent find it increasingly difficult to find a place here in terms of work or integration into society. The result, for a tiny but critical percentage, is the ultimate sacrifice as a suicide bomber with the ultimate reward of scores of heavenly virgins.
From all sides, there is an experience of disrespect—a disrespect that goes to the core of one’s sense of being truly a woman or really a man. In our secular society, do we have the capacity to grant respect across such a range of cultural expectations? Do the values that we espouse as the basis of Western culture meet our intrinsically human need for respect? Creating a culture in which we respect each other for the sake of respect would ground the soul of Europe. Can we develop and hold such a context so that a deeper human connection amongst us all can take root?
Could wearing a burka develop self-respect? For some time, I’ve been very curious about wearing one. Not simply a hijab, like the headscarf covered in gorgeous roses that the young intern in my doctor’s office sometimes wears. I’m interested in the full covering, with the small mesh window to see out of. My curiosity might also be offensive to Muslims who see the burka as an important aspect and expression of their faith. I’m not being casual or disrespectful. I actually wonder if these veiled women may have easier access to an inner containment and self-possession that we postmodern fashionistas have almost lost. For us “anything goes” Westerners, being covered head-to-toe strikes us as oppressive and as a limit on our freedom of choice. We also react to the very real limits that patriarchal Islamicists have put on women, which doesn’t just include the burka but also the horrors of forced marriage and honor killings. At the same time, many very intelligent Muslim women choose to veil themselves, in the West, by their own choice. Perhaps our ideas of freedom and repression are too simplistic within a diverse cultural landscape.
A dear friend of mine told me about a conversation she had with a young Muslim Londoner in full burka. My intrepid friend had dared to open up the question of freedom with her: did being veiled by religious custom limit her sense of personal freedom? The young woman was emphatic in her response: no. Instead, she argued strongly that young Western women are more enslaved by the constant need for male approval and affirmation of their “hotness.” She has a point. Are adolescent girls and young women in the West really expressing freedom in how they appear? On the other hand, being told to wear a full body covering like the burka, niqab or even the chador at puberty could easily lead young women to feel shame about their developing bodies. Why would one have to keep one’s body out of public view unless there was something bad or dangerous about it? (And dangerous to whom?) From the outside, women in burkas appear anonymous, devoid of personhood, a blank space in the sea of social interaction. Young European women, by contrast, seem to be free to use their dress as a form of self-expression. But what is the inner experience? I could imagine that the experience of being protected from prying eyes that judge women on appearance might be a deep relief—and could even be an empowering act of resistance against the social “meat market” that builds self-respect. The young woman in the burka has little respect for the freedom to dress as we please that we insist on. To her, it looks more like a deluded form of enslavement.
The value of freedom—freedom of choice—has a hypnotic power in the secular West. The feminist movement in the late twentieth century made freedom of choice the rallying cry of women’s liberation. But what are we choosing? Most choices are made within the status quo—and the status quo has changed since those of us who are post-50 adults rebelled against a traditionalism that masked barbarism. Today’s status quo is rooted in a materialist capitalism that cultivates our compulsions by reducing relationship to sensation—food, comfort, sex—and dulls our capacity for meaningful choice by busying us with inane options—shampoo, cheeses, cellphone contracts. Increasingly, human relationship is also offered as a commodity, just another choice for an hour or evening. Are these choices a sign of our freedom? Perhaps. We are free to do whatever tickles us, aren’t we? I suppose it depends on what is doing the tickling. Going along with the unconscious compulsions that cling to our core mammalian instincts isn’t what our capacity for choice was made for.
Nor is it freedom. Progressive media often fastens onto the fact that the most religiously fundamentalist nations clock the most hours spent watching porn—particularly the brutal and bizarre. I guess we are supposed to shake our heads or cluck our tongues at their hypocrisy. After the 9/11 attack, there was a news story that has stayed with me about a reporter who spoke to a neighbor of one of the jihadi pilots. The neighbor told the reporter that he vividly remembered the only conversation he had with the pilot. In typically American fashion, the neighbor had asked how this obviously Middle Eastern, and probably Muslim, man liked the freedom of being in the US. To the neighbor’s shock, the man responded with a derisive scowl and said, “I hate your freedom!” The police found stacks and stacks of porn DVDs in the jihadis’ apartment—porn that is completely forbidden in Islam. Why would this man hate the US when he was free to do as he pleased here? Porn “addiction” seems to be nearly an epidemic amongst militant male Islamicists. Binging on porn, feeling desperate and defiled because he is failing as a Muslim man, and then expressing righteous rage at the “source” of the defilement—the West—is a common pattern. Even though this jihadi’s hatred of our freedom may be a displacement of his responsibility for his self-defilement onto Western culture, he may recognize, perhaps more than we do, that there is neither freedom nor self-respect in the compulsive binge.
The freedom of choice that we have in the West is unlike anything else in the world. It has been hard-won in the developmental trajectory of humankind. Our capacity for rational choice developed through the struggle and effort to make choices free from the drives, impulses, emotions, and compulsions that our humanity is wrapped in. This capacity for choice becomes debased and loses its strength and power when it is only used in a marketplace that caters to the most unconscious, compulsive, and conditioned aspects of our selves. To continue to develop our capacity for choice so that we can bring more heart and intelligence, rather than fear and reactivity, into our engagement in the world is both a practice of spiritual freedom and a path toward self-respect.
In a social context where one feels that one’s identity, as a man or a woman, is not respected, the freedom to be who one pleases isn’t a strong enough value to bind us together across our differences. Moreover, despite the postmodern laissez-faire belief in do-what-you-want, we have trouble truly respecting the humanity of those who are really different from ourselves—such as veiled women or nationalistic hooligans who assert their “superiority” as men through threats of violence. We are, on a social and geopolitical level, creating a situation of chronic disrespect. And as psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, explains, “The purpose of violence is to force respect from other people.” Violence creates fear, he notes, which is “an ersatz, substitute for admiration.”
Even though gender identity is such a deep part of who we are, we have to look still deeper to find something to bind us together into one European soul. That “something,” I suggest, is dignity. Dignity is that essence of our humanity that calls us to respect another. We recognize it in the graceful bearing of a woman who has lost her only child and becomes a source of strength to others. Or we see it in the eyes of a David Steindl Rast who knows human frailty intimately and still expresses gratitude for life. It is a gift we offer to others, the fruit of serious spiritual practice grown at the intersection of the human and the mystery. Dignity arises from the conscious knowing that we are here, caught in the midst of forces that we cannot control, and yet the life we share is unbelievably precious. “You don’t have to commit yourself to a particular form of religious belief to believe that some things are sacred,” says Gilligan. There is “something about the human personality or the human soul or psyche, whatever you want to call it, that is sacred.” This sacredness doesn’t belong to any particular religion. It is our birthright as human beings, no matter who we are.