On Michael Rosen and Susan Cain

On 25 October 1991, the Mayor of Morsang-sur-Orge, Paris, issued an order banning a dwarf-tossing competition due to take place at a local discotheque. Invoking his police powers for the maintenance of public order, the Mayor took the view that the practice of dwarf-tossing was an affront to human dignity. Certainly the proposed event – which was to feature one Monsieur Wackenheim being thrown by competitors onto an airbed – doesn’t strike me as especially high-minded. But what of M. Wackenheim’s wishes? Is a law curtailing his right to be tossed any less corrosive of his dignity than the act of being tossed itself? Such was the question before the Conseil d’État, the court of highest instance for French administrative law, when it ruled on the case in 1995. Unfortunately for M. Wackenheim, and for dwarf-tossers everywhere, it ruled in favour of the Mayor’s decision.

‘In my opinion’, writes Michael Rosen in his beautifully written and argued book Dignity, ‘M. Wackenheim’s case shows that the ubiquity of dignity in current legal discourse masks a great deal of disagreement and sheer confusion.’ The concept of dignity is fundamental to many conventions on human rights, and yet no one seems to have a firm idea of what the concept actually entails. Nor do we tend to take account of the various ways in which dignity may come into conflict with human rights, as in the case of Wackenheim, whose desire to be thrown around a Paris nightclub was adjudged less important than the struggle for dignity within the wider dwarf ‘community’. When the Cairo Declaration of Rights in Islam asserts that women have ‘equal dignity’ but not equal rights, it behooves us to investigate the distinction being made and to ask whether secular concepts of dignity differ fundamentally from religious ones. Why, indeed, in light of this confusion, do we need the concept of dignity at all? Is it not just a pompous façade?

Not according to Rosen it’s not. Rejecting Arthur Schopenhauer’s description of dignity as ‘the shibboleth of empty-headed moralists’, he identifies different conceptions of dignity and explores the complex relationships between them. Central to his thesis is Emmanuel Kant, for whom dignity was closely related to morality. For Kant, human beings have dignity by dint of their being moral beings. As Rosen puts it: ‘The presence of the moral law in human beings has a double character: it makes human beings intrinsically valuable, while, at the same time, prescribing to them the way in which they should act.’ The dignity of morality makes human beings – morality’s embodiment – worthy of respect.

Rosen shows how Kant’s ideas, when combined with other conceptions of dignity current in the eighteenth century, leant themselves to an emerging focus on political equality – a focus that reached its apotheosis with the French Revolution in 1789. But the debate about dignity didn’t end there. On the contrary, the church continued to deploy its own idea of human dignity – the dignity of the human being in a divinely ordered hierarchy – in order to push back against democracy. And while much of this tension dissipated with the end of the Second World War and framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, conspicuous conflicts still remain. One only need think of the different ideas of dignity employed in debates about euthanasia to see that the argument is far from resolved. Advocates of assisted suicide will talk of ‘dying with dignity’, while for many Christians human dignity gives a life a value that overrides the choices of the person living it.

Rosen does not claim to have resolved these conflicts, but he does add something significant to the debate. Appropriately, this comes in his discussion of death, in the course of his attempt to answer the question of why we should treat the dead with dignity, given that no one is benefited by our doing so. His answer, which follows from his reading of Kant, is that human beings have a duty to respect the very capacity for showing respect which they, as human beings, carry within them. Such duties of respect may be largely symbolic, but they are no less fundamental for that.

One of the definitions of dignity that emerges in Rosen’s book is the notion of dignity as self-possessed behaviour. The poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller was much exercised by this concept of dignity, and Susan Cain has perhaps missed a trick by omitting him from her sprawling homage to the ‘power’ of introversion, Quiet. After all, the two concepts – quiet and dignity – would often appear to be joined at the hip. How many times have you heard the phrases ‘dignified silence’ or ‘quiet dignity’?

Cain’s thesis proceeds from the bold assumption that ‘the single most important aspect of personality … is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum’. From here, she goes on to suggest that the US in particular is in thrall to an ‘Extrovert Ideal’ whereby the noisy prevail and the quiet go to the wall. As she puts it: ‘Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.’

Liberally laced with psychological studies, Quiet takes the reader into the ear-splitting world of what Cain calls the ‘Culture of Personality’. Much of it reads like an introvert’s nightmare: brainstorming sessions, evangelical churches, company songs, obligatory schmoozing. One chapter recounts a seminar given by the self-help guru Tony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant Within. It lasts for four, fifteen-hour days, but the crowd is never less than ecstatic. ‘If Jesus returned to Earth’, writes Cain, ‘it would be hard to imagine a more jubilant reception.’

Against such paragons of self-exposure, Cain sets a number of quiet achievers: Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi – people for whom mildness was a source of strength. She even suggests that the extrovert West may have a lot to learn from Asia, where introversion is not so stigmatised. If so, it has its work cut out: according to some of the psychologists Cain cites, the higher instance of extroverts in the West could have a genetic explanation.

Though Cain’s book contains some interesting insights, it is marred by its rather cloying tone. Indeed, the book seems strangely in thrall to the very self-help mentality it affects to treat with suspicion. ‘If there’s one insight you take away from this book,’ Cain writes in her introduction, ‘I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.’ Sorry, but that’s the kind of sentence that should send any self-respecting introvert screaming from the room.

Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning
Harvard University Press; US$21.95; 176pp

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Penguin Viking; $29.95; 333pp


First published in The Australian.