Human Dignity Is a Call to Fight, Advocate, 27/06/2015

It’s Pride Weekend in Toronto, and the insanity will have a special kick to it, thanks to the ruling at the United States’ Supreme Court that, throughout the country, marriage should be open to all people regardless of the gender of their partner.

The hypocrisy of Antonin Scalia isn't the most troubling
idea that the dissenters in the gay marriage case expressed.

But aside from the good news, and there was a lot of it, one part of the ruling really bugged me. It was the dissents, of course. Most people, if Twitter is anything to judge by, are most upset about Scalia’s dissent. But that’s mostly just his usual originalism incendiary filtered through incendiary and insulting language. He really can be dismissed with that photo circling around social media of Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud.

I’m most interested in what Clarence Thomas had to say, because he actually made a philosophical statement that’s much more profoundly offensive than Antonin Scalia yelling at us to get off his lawn. The core of his argument against nationally outlawing marriage discrimination against gay couples goes like this:

The proponents of marriage equality say that restriction of this institution and its material benefits from non-straight couples is an assault on their dignity. But Thomas says that nothing can harm human dignity, because dignity is inherent to humanity by natural law. We’re all human, and therefore we all have human dignity. So no government action can bestow, grant, bolster, erode, harm, or destroy essential human dignity. Not even slavery, internment, torture, or the relegation to second-class citizenship. 

In case you think I’m misreading it, I’m not. From Thomas’ dissent, on page 17 of the whole Supreme Court ruling:
“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.”
Elsewhere in his dissent, he refers to this principle of the natural inherent dignity of humans as John Locke articulated it. Locke’s political philosophy, and the broader conception of what personhood is that lies behind it, was one of the primary influences on the activism and ideals of Washington and Franklin’s generation. 

I don't think Clarence Thomas understands that his
dissent doesn't respect human dignity, but laughs at it.
Justice Thomas may think he’s being loyal to the memories and intentions of the original Founding Fathers, but it’s actually a profound affront to the revolutionary ideals that drove the initial development of liberalism. Liberal political philosophy was developed, in the era from Locke to John Stuart Mill (England from the 1680s to the 1830s-70s), as a means to free people from control by state armies that acted as tools of monarchist dictatorship.

Liberalism, when it was first developed, was a philosophy of anti-monarchist activism at its core. This is true even as the philosophy’s believers continued to think the existence of the crown legitimate. It was a political thought that encouraged popular political participation and representation, and the freedom to think and believe according to your own conscience. 

Today, it seems to have met its limits, but we should praise liberalism for what it accomplished. The concept of humanity in which each individual has an inherent dignity means that we all have a duty to build a society where all aspects of that dignity are respected. 

Justice Thomas says that a slave still has her inherent dignity as a human person, the same for an interned migrant, or a person who’s unable to extend the same civil benefits as his neighbour to a life-long partner because of his partner’s gender. He says there is no need to stop someone from suffering institutionalized indignities because such discrimination and material harm can never take away their inherent dignity.

Thomas interprets liberalism as an injunction for quietism: we have no obligation to correct injustices when it’s in our power, because human dignity survives whatever injustice is done to it. 

The slave retains her dignity even when being raped and murdered for attempting to escape her plantation. 

The black man retains his dignity even when hanging, blood-soaked and broken, from a tree. 

The Japanese-American retains her dignity even when military police uproot her family from their home to live in a prison camp. 

The gay man retains his dignity even when dying alone in his hospital bed, as his family screams insults at him and the love of his life is sent home because he isn’t family, but only some man.

Yes, in the liberal tradition, these people retain their inherent dignity as people, despite their unjust suffering. That unyielding dignity is the reason we change our societies and laws, to respect it.

Locke and the other philosophers of the liberal tradition wanted to change their societies to recognize and respect the dignity they saw inherent in all people. When Thomas says the opposite, he betrays all that was good in liberal political thought.

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