Thousands of people in Tahrir Square chanted the slogan: “Bread! Dignity! Freedom!” It was 2011, and the height of the Arab spring. Standing on my own in the crowd, I recalled a middle-aged worker I’d met in Buenos Aires a decade earlier telling me why he and his colleagues had taken over a factory during Argentina’s economic collapse. He rattled off reasons such as hunger, poverty and inequality. But then his voice changed: “And the boss … ” he said. “Well, he never said good morning to us and, you know, that destroys your dignity.”
Dignity is a slippery word, almost too elusive a concept to be put in a social contract or win inclusion as a demand from a new political movement. Yet it is the word that best reflects how surviving economic hardship isn’t the only thing that angers poor people. Being messed around, mocked and deprived of the last traces of humanity makes the physical consequences of everyday poverty harder to bear. It was a single mother of four living in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Istanbul, on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus, who taught me this. She wasn’t furious when she told me her children went to bed hungry some nights, but she was when she recalled her boss sarcastically saying “but then you do have a sea view”. She quit her job after that, saying: “Oh yes, we dip bread in the sea for our dinner!” Her proud face taught me that defending one’s dignity sometimes tastes sweeter than the bread – yes, even when you’re hungry.
Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul and Puerta del Sol in Madrid: not so long ago these and other places were sites of protest and hope for radical democratic movements that wanted to remake politics and restore people’s dignity. They were either violently suppressed or absorbed into conventional global politics.
Now, once again, millions around the world are protesting. But the mood and the message have changed. This time they are demanding respect for their “truths” and their divisive political choices. The battle for dignity has been replaced by an aggressive assertion of pride – in the nation, or in a particular version of “the people”.
Between the words “dignity” and “pride” there is a world of difference, and that difference is at the heart of the global political and moral mess confronting us now. The need for dignity is inherent to being human, and connected to our love of humankind. Pride, on the other hand, is a facade, it’s about a craving for exclusionary recognition and an answer to the question of who is superior to whom. It is divisive. But when crowds are desperate enough, it is easy for political actors to reduce the need for human dignity to a vindictive clamour for pride. And this is what rightwing populism does. [Continue reading…]