Monday, July 6, 2015

Not O.K., Takei: On Defining Dignity

By now, any of you with an Internet connection and even a mild interest in pop culture has heard about George Takei's unfortunate remarks about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In short, Takei, who is in a civil marriage with another man, took issue with Thomas' dissent in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which found that there is a Constitutional right to civil marriage for same-sex couples. Much of the media focus has been on Takei's racially-charged remarks and not on the merits of his criticism of Thomas. Takei finally apologised for being "uncivil" in his remarks towards the Justice (after explaining that there is totally nothing racist about saying that a black person is a fake black person, because famous actor, or something), but he stands by his critique. The problem is, his critique is as baseless as his racist remarks are offensive.

Don't worry, George. This won't hurt. Much.
In his dissent, Thomas took issue with Justice Anthony Kennedy's assertion that denying same-sex couples the right to civil marriage was a denial of their "dignity in the eyes of the law." From Thomas' dissent:
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away. [Emphasis added.]
This is what set off Takei, who said in an interview:
He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn't belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn't he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back? If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves or— My parents lost everything that they worked for, in the middle of their lives, in their 30's. His business, my father's business, our home, our freedom, and we're supposed to call that dignified? Marched out of our homes at gunpoint. I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America. [Emphasis added.]
Takei, who is Japanese-American, then wrote an opinion piece in which he discussed his own family's experience in an internment camp during World War II:
To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process. At the very least, the government must treat all its subjects with equal human dignity. To deny a group the rights and privileges of others, based solely on an immutable characteristic such as race – or as in Obergefell, sexual orientation – is to strip them of human dignity and of the liberty to live as others live. [Emphasis added.]
And here is where Takei is wrong. Although Justice Antonin Scalia is perhaps the most vocally Catholic member of America's highest court, he is but one of six Catholics on the Court today. All four of those in the minority of Obergefell are Catholic, but it was Thomas' opinion that most clearly invoked Church teaching, albeit not on marriage itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the concept of dignity quite clearly. Dignity is not an earned quality, afforded from our treatment by our fellow men. Rather, it is part of our very nature as creatures uniquely created in the image and likeness of God, creatures uniquely willed by God into existence. What's more, the Catechism's definition of dignity conveniently dovetails with the Church's understanding of the roles of male and female:
Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. "Being man" or "being woman" is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity "in the image of God". In their "being-man" and "being-woman", they reflect the Creator's wisdom and goodness. [Emphasis added.]
It is worth noting that Takei is not a Catholic — or any sort of Christian, for that matter — but even a cursory understanding of Christian teaching and philosophy should have given him the wisdom to understand Thomas' argument. The Justice was not saying that mistreatment of a fellow human being is not undignified. He was saying that it is impossible to take away dignity as much as to take away one's humanity.

No-one would credibly argue that American slaves were, in fact, less human by virtue of their legal status as property, and no-one can credibly argue that those slaves possessed less inborn dignity than their masters. Although, apparently, Takei believes that one's race can be taken away, given his black-splaining of Justice Thomas.

...but that's none of my business.
Anthony Kennedy did not redefine marriage. As I said last year, that happened years ago with the advent of no-fault divorce and the socially accepted serial polygamy that followed. He merely took that redefinition to one logical conclusion. Kennedy did, however, redefine dignity itself, and this deserves our correction.

The dignity we as human beings possess does not come in degrees. There is no hierarchy of dignity, any more than there is a hierarchy of humanity. The Culture of Death would have us believe that this innate trait should be viewed as a utilitarian quality, rather than as an absolute, but our culture is wrong.

The dignity of the slave is equal to the dignity of the slaver.

The dignity of the rape survivor is equal to the dignity of the rapist.

The dignity of the murder victim is equal to the dignity of the murderer.

Every person, from the teacher to the terrorist, is granted the gift of dignity by God. He or she cannot be denied it as a fabricated right of the State. We are united in our humanity, for all of our many faults, and we are further united through Christ, no matter who we are, where we come from or whom we love. For all are one in Christ Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Special thanks to the inimitable Tommy "Tsunami" Sundaram for unleashing a volley of furious Facebook statuses that encouraged me to write this post!