Keep Your Money: A Series on Dignity

SINGING SANDRA (Photo courtesy of the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago)

This is the first part of a series on dignity that will appear on ZA, featuring the usual collage of songs, history, documents, and short essays.

While there are treatments of “dignity” in Western philosophy, it is interesting to note the absence of the idea as a concept in the works of most anthropologists, which suggests that we are not paying as much attention as we think (or say we do) to the language, ideals, and principles of those we study, nor are we doing much to build dignity as a concept in our theoretical analyses. It’s a shame really, because the absence or the silencing of the idea has serious import for how we think others think about the world, and for how we ought to think about the world, while using the idea/concept as a way of questioning the preferred constructs of the institutionalized, liberal elite–such as “agency,” in the works of Anthony Giddens and his bourgeois coterie. It’s also unfortunate because the absence or silencing of dignity as a concept leaves us vulnerable to very simplistic, hegemonic notions: dignity as in “being dignified” (which is commonly spoken about as a pose, a tone, an appearance–superficialities), or dignity as being “self-righteous,” which is seen as a “bad” thing among the structurally adjusted, “pragmatic” merchants who pose–in a most dignified manner, it has to be said–as academics and intellectual leaders. So dignity is dismissed as either a veneer, or loathsome moralism (it gets in our way), and we thus manage to diminish our ways of seeing, speaking and thinking–diminishing to the point where we have this, and why it keeps getting smaller. Thus some have obvious difficulty comprehending how one can act in the most undignified manner precisely because one has irrepressible dignity.

The first problem we encounter when trying to make present the concept of dignity, is the problem of Eurocentrism. Most of the available material on “dignity” always seem to default back to the ancient Greeks (or more recent European philosophers), as if some of the people who wrote about dignity, somehow invented it. This is like trying to understand the many lifeways and belief systems in the world by way of reading Christopher Columbus’ journal on the “discovery” of the “new world”. As I recently mentioned here, in universities we do not teach “non-Western anthropology,” just as in philosophy they do not teach enough “non-Western philosophy”. However, it’s good to hear from Justin Smith that, “there is much talk in academic philosophy about the need to open up the discipline to so-called non-Western traditions and perspectives,” which is the same kind of talk encouraged by ZA. By defaulting to Eurocentric origins, the problem is that dignity can become rooted in ideas of “intrinsic worth,” and thus value, a remit that is far too narrow and thus does not really capture some of the other, almost visceral ideas of dignity that not only take it beyond value, but rebel against it.

The second problem is that there is no sharp dividing line between “Europe” or the “West” and the nations that either will merely be mentioned in this series, or from which examples and insights are drawn: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Libya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. All have served harsh sentences as the colonial possessions of Europeans, and of white settlers. (Iran, mentioned in passing, is largely an exception.) In most of these cases, a European(-derived) language is spoken, and for a long time the schooling was mimetic of European curricula. Therefore, it would seem that finding a distinctly and radically separate idea of dignity is impossible. But not quite. I would first argue that dignity seems to carry a much larger punch in speech and thought in these societies than in North America, for example. It seems to be a root idea, a basic organizing principle, a religious value, loaded with emotional and visceral force. Secondly, I would argue that even if the ideas of dignity were exactly the same in these nations as in North America, that is not a good excuse for ignoring or downplaying such a central construct–after all, there is an “Anthropology of….” virtually everything, except dignity. I think the fact of the oversight is interesting in and of itself.

So even while acknowledging that their own treatments of the concept of dignity fall back on Greek ideals, some have pointed out the impact of emerging ideas of autonomy to the extent that “human dignity” has now been enshrined and protected in the Constitution of South Africa, and since 1995, “a body of human dignity case law has gradually developed in South Africa”. An Iranian philosopher combines a detailed review of Greek conceptualizations of dignity but then also provides an understanding of dignity in Islamic philosophy, if anything renewing old lines of communication between philosophical traditions that have long been in dialogue with one another.

Dignity in the cases we will talk about is different from the concept of agency that has been popularized in the Western social sciences, with all the talk about the “knowing subject” and voluntary action. At the very least we are dealing with alternative theories of agency, involving an inner motive force. Here we are dealing with dignity that is about autonomy, respect, pride, honour, and the ethics of one’s relationship with others. What I especially like about these ideas of dignity is that they can take us from the personal to the geopolitical, and in the case below how feminism can provide an anti-imperialist reading of international relations (more later).

But first let’s start with a monumental calypso classic from Trinidad and Tobago, “Die With My Dignity” by Singing Sandra, that has been transcribed with many thanks to our friend, Guanaguanare, whose site has gradually become an online encyclopedia of Trinidadian calypso lyrics and music videos. With its long tradition of social and political commentary, calypso is itself a vast resource inviting consultation, and therefore one very good place to start this series (with more to come later).

You want to help to mind your family,
You want to help your man financially
But nowadays it really very hard
To get a job as a girl in Trinidad
You looking now to find something to do,
You meet a boss man who promise to help you
But when the man lay down the condition,
Nothing else but humiliation.
They want to see your whole anatomy
They want to see wey your doctor never see
They want to do wey your husband never do
Still you ent know if the scamps will hire you
Well, if is all this humiliation
To get a job these days as a woman
Brother, they go keep dey money, I go keep my honey
And die with my dignity!

Some of them done park up already
Yet they sit down waiting like mapepire
Using the power of their cash and position
Waiting to abuse and exploit any woman
To get the work you have to go to bed with he
Become he slave, second wife and deputy
And as a next woman come on the line
He start to tell you, “You ent good, you can’t wine.”
They want to see you with some fancy, fancy pose
They want to see how you look without your clothes
They want you cock up like a bloody acrobat
Their wife at home, they can’t ask she to do that
So before I have to lick down somebody
Or cuss and let the police come for me
Tell them they could keep dey money, I go keep my honey
And die with my dignity!

Looking for work, you might bounce up a fellow
Who might be looking quite handsome and macho
You tell yourself you want to work with he
So you decide to try a ratchifee
But when you done is then you get to know
He wife leave he and gone long time ago
With all the cash he have, he is a failure
The man is nothing but a blinking soucouyant
They want to feel up your navel and your breast
They want to see if you have lota on your chest
The things they want to do you with dey hand
Like if they searching to find the promised land
I am a woman who don’t make any skylark
Before I slap them and they die of heart attack
Tell them they could keep dey money, I go keep my honey
And die with my dignity!

It have a lot of women just like me
Who might be not too well off financially
You need a job and you really need it bad
A man decide to help, you must be glad
But if you value yourself as a woman
You will demand respect from the vagabonds
Stand up to them and let them know the truth
Is work you want, you ent no blinking prostitute
You have a mole on your back, they want to see
They want to see if you have marks on your belly
They want to know how much man you had before
And if you strong enough to take any more
I have my pride and I have my ambition
I want to hold my head up high as a woman
So brother, they go keep dey money, I go keep my honey
And die with my dignity!


Aavani, Gholamreza. (n.d.). “Some Philosophical Reflections on the Dignity of Man”. Iranian Institute of Philosophy.

Guanaguanare: The Laughing Gull

Jordaan, Donrich W. (2009). “Autonomy as an Element of Human Dignity in South African Case Law”. The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law, Volume 9, September 8.

The Newspeak Dictionary

Non-Western Anthropology?

Pele, Antonio. (2006). Human Dignity in Philosophy and History. PhD dissertation, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

Smith, Justin E. (2012). “Philosophy’s Western Bias”. The New York Times, July 3.

3 thoughts on “Keep Your Money: A Series on Dignity

  1. Cher Max,
    OK, I been thinkin’ on it and here is what I came down to:
    “Dignity” is about the individual and his or her ego.
    Integrity is about the individual as a node on a kinship/community identity matrix or web/network.
    Integrity as in “integrated”, not isolated, individuated consumer; an integrated culture, not disintegrated; resisting entropy. Part of a society that communes through shared “genuine culture” the history of which is known in common; not a society that is co-ordinated through written laws handed down from the mountain of the ruling class of the Empire that not only regulate behavior, but requires taxes to pay for regulating behavior.
    My personal dignity is offended by that. I am indignant.
    And, of course, it was the Indignados of Spain that ignited the Occupy movement in the US, not the converse, as so many USan occupiers claim.
    Your explorations are alwarys stimulating. Thanks.

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