I was 7 years old when the Civil Rights Law of 1964 passed. As a child, I saw television coverage of young people being shot in the streets, I read newspaper articles about adults being killed in their front yards, and I witnessed people in my own community take to the streets on both sides of change. My parents supported the changes. That support cost them friends, jobs, and churches, but they wanted to raise children who thought differently than the previous generations, so they changed.
Making legislative changes makes sense if we want to develop new ways of thinking and successful collaborations with each other and the world, but legislation cannot change how people behave. People have to be responsible for how they behave towards others. That statement seems so simple, just like what you were taught in kindergarten, if you were lucky enough to go. Do unto others, share your toys and be nice. Somewhere along the way, we lose focus, we get lost and we forget to change.
Our personal obstacles to change reveal how frightened we are of loss, and our cultural obstacles to change show how frightened we have become that the person sitting next to us is going to take our stuff. Fear makes things less complicated by telling us we are different from the person next door, and once that happens, it’s easy to think he or she doesn’t deserve the things we want for ourselves.
The framers of the Constitution created an experiment that throws personal freedom, human nature and community building into the same pot. These original architects gave us the building they wanted, which is a unified country based on the principle of personal freedom, and they left us to figure out the design, the building materials and the labor pool.
What if we, as individuals, run a simple experiment? What if we agree that for the next year, everyone we know, come in contact with or read about, all the people that we will never meet but still share this planet with, deserve “dignity.” How will that simple way of thinking change us? How will freedom, personal and collective, look to us in a year if we consciously give everyone the dignity we want for ourselves?
Dignity was a cornerstone for Martin Luther King Jr. as he reached out to a country, and the “elements of human dignity” as articulated in the Civil Rights movement became the foundation for what it means to be an American.
Dignity is a tangible thread running through our cultural design since 1964, and if we are to address the changes that need to take place in the 21st century, perhaps we can begin to address our personal fears by changing our neighbors from “different” to dignified.
If the great experiment called the United States runs with or without us, let’s contribute some data and see what happens. It will not be easy. Data is easy; being human is hard.
Susan Russell, associate professor of theatre, is Penn State laureate, assigned half-time for one academic year to bring an enhanced level of social, cultural, artistic and human perspective and awareness to a broad array of audiences at Penn State campuses and across Pennsylvania.