Dignity and self-respect

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readMay 3, 2018

Source : Google photo of Rosa Parks (Craig Petersvikings.com )

Synopsis : Dignity and self-respect are wonderful values that everyone should strive for because it defines the character of the person that sets him apart from others who do not have it.

When the Japanese zeros appeared all of a sudden in the sky above Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, people panicked and ran for shelter where they could. They could not believe what they were seeing that people were attacking America and rained down bombs the like of which they had never seen before and had no experience of how to deal with the situation.

They picked up their pitiful and obsolete guns to fire at the Zeros very ineffectually but made no impression. The whole shipyards and docks where naval ships and destroyers were moored went up in flames and were totally destroyed in a short time such was the power of the sudden attack. It brought a great shock in Washington when they learned that their entire Pacific Fleet of ships and planes were in tatters so there was no defense left for them to stop the Japanese if they so desired.

The Japanese admiral Yamamoto was pressed by his staff to push ahead and destroy the land based military targets in California also to really cripple the enemy but he said that he has completed his task and will head back to Japan. The reaction in Washington was swift when the USA declared war on Japan the very next day and started to prepare for it.

One of the decisions taken by the government in Washington that day was to arrest all American citizens of Japanese descent and place them in concentration camps hastily put up in desolate areas of California and elsewhere that was an infamy seldom repeated in any country where their own citizens were thus treated.

Most of the Japanese people who lived in the United States were living in decent homes and had proper means of livelihood and led a peaceful if not prosperous lives so they were very surprised when one morning the military police came to arrest them and told them to leave everything behind except a small suitcase. They were hastily picked up but were not told why they were being arrested and where they were being taken to or for how long. Their protests that they were American citizens fell on deaf ears so silently they picked up a few belongings and climbed onto waiting trucks to embark on an unknown future. The women and children shed tears at this injustice but they did not cry out loud and tried to comfort each other by hugging and consoling but their nightmare was just starting.

They were treated harshly, photographed and documented, taken finger prints of and pushed into tents in the sweltering heat of Manzanar and many such camps where they were to live for an unknown length of time. The Japanese Americans took it calmly and did not fight back. They were very clean people so even in camps they kept their tents and all areas around it spotlessly clean.

When their clothes got tattered, they patiently repaired them and washed if it was possible. Most of all they kept their dignity silently. They never lost their self-respect even under the harshest condition they were forced to live under due to no fault of their own. They redefined the word dignity and self-respect.

Their houses were vandalized and looted by the hoodlums energized by the propaganda that all Japanese Americans were suspects because they may have aided the enemy somehow that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their frenzy of hate was fueled by the military that treated the Japanese Americans high handedly but they kept their dignity and self-respect.

It is known that the dignity and self-respect starts to vanish where people face harsh conditions under which they have to survive due to war or other calamities. You will see this in very poor people who will do anything to get food and shelter and will fight each other often spilling the food in the dirt in the process. They will lie, cheat and hide their identity to get food packages and water because to them survival at any cost becomes the motto.

That is why it was all the more admirable the way the Japanese Americans kept their cool and dignity even when their lives were turned upside down in an instant. They come from a rich culture that is thousands of years old where self-respect and dignity becomes a part of the DNA, where they would rather commit suicide than to face shame and injustice.

None of the Japanese Generals pleaded for mercy even when they were about to be executed by the victors later and calmly put the rope around their neck accepting their fate with greatest dignity possible.

I am often surprised at this lack of basic decency in people in many countries. In America you will often see people old and not so old who will approach you and start talking to you about something that you do not understand or care about. They will offend you with their foul smell, rotten teeth and poor clothes; will wink at you in an exaggerated manner and talk about somebody you do not know in a vulgar way.

There was a young woman in Washington who shared my taxi there one day and declared that she had just gotten engaged showing her finger where she had a ring. She was a total stranger. What surprised me was when she got off and the black taxi driver started denigrating her in most vulgar words calling her bitch and other such names. Where was the self-respect in the young woman and where was it in the driver? How could anyone share with strangers something personal as an engagement showing her rings to anyone? Where was the dignity?

Does poverty automatically mean that you have no self-respect and dignity? Couldn’t people learn something from the Japanese?

I see this in children in Africa where they will fight each other for a scrap of food because they lose all discipline and self-respect when someone offers them food. It happened to us in Mali when we offered meat and rice to the village children one day during Christmas. There was enough for everybody but they could not wait, pushed and shoved each other so that the food fell onto the dirt that they started picking up an eating. We were appalled and shocked.

But when such behavior is found in adults then you wonder if they have any self-respect and decency. When self-respect is deeply ingrained in the culture of people, it shows the way they stand erect in the face of adversity and never give up. The Japanese people showed a deep resilience even after the atom bomb was dropped on them killing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, young and old and mourned their losses with unbelievable bravery.

It was the same way the Vietnamese people stood up to the French and Americans for decades, suffered in their hands and silently buried their dead with prayers but fought on with stronger determination that eventually gained them complete victory and freedom.

The legendary heroine in Vietnam was immortalized in a book called Kim Van Kieu where Kim prostituted herself to feed her family like so many women during the war. They had pride and self-respect even when they sold themselves. When the Americans visited the memorial shrine in My Lai where hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred by the troops in the most infamous incident of the war, they found people there who had lost their loved ones who forgave the visitors. It takes great courage and dignity to forgive the perpetrators of such crimes.

I have lived in many countries and have noted that in many places people behaved in a manner that can only be described as undignified and callous .In Algeria people openly suggested that my bank transactions would go smoothly only if I allowed them to use my apartment for their sexual adventures. They had no self-respect or dignity at all .Frankly they should have been ashamed of their behavior but they weren’t.

So I think that people have to learn from their childhood the meaning of self-respect from their parents in their family. It comes from education but not always. When I gave a ride to my village people in Mali, they always left a basket of fruits or a chicken at our door because they had self-respect and would not take a free ride although they were so poor and uneducated people.

When I worked with the farmers in Algeria often late in the day, they would put eggs or a loaf of bread and a chunk of cheese in my hood at the back of my djellaba ( an Arab gown of camel hair) out of gratitude. They were so poor that they wore tattered clothes and shoes but they had dignity. They shared their frugal meal with me delightfully.

We were taught since childhood not to accept anything from anyone unless our parents gave their nod. They taught us what it means to have self-respect. It meant never to bow to anyone and ask for anything. It meant that frugality they practiced and taught us was nothing to denigrate because it allowed them to live within their means and still meet their daily needs. It meant going without the things they considered luxuries in order to pay for our school fees. It meant cheaper clothes and shoes that our Ma always washed and polished just like the Japanese mothers in the concentration camps in the USA.

They taught us values that are priceless because you do not learn such things in schools. But now it seems that such values are disappearing judging from greedy children who misbehave when they see something given away for free. It shows in adults who fall in line again and again to get the aid packages dishonestly because the donors cannot remember their faces. It shows in people who bring plastic bags and secretly fill it with food that is given out for people to eat there.

Once we were invited to a village wedding feast in India but our Ma cautioned us to eat before going there because she said that village folks are rough and tough and will shove us aside to get to the food so exactly that is what happened shocking us. We were brought up differently and patiently waited for us to be seated and offered food but it did not happen.

So I often think about this topic of self-respect and dignity and why some people have it while others don’t. What does it take for one to learn that self-respect does not have much to do with poverty as such because it is a value that one can learn from the parents if they practice it?

I think that honesty is at the root of all good behaviors. If you are honest, it means you have a conscience that tells you what is wrong and what is right all the time but this honesty is a learned experience. You can’t grow up honest in a den of thieves and dishonest people.

Recently nearly 300000 students taking the high school exam in the northern State of Uttar Pradesh in India dropped out because they could not cheat due to the CCTV cameras installed in examination centers. This sort of massive cheating in Board exam was unheard of during our time showing a deterioration of moral values in young people now. Such dishonesty is a learned experience so the question to ask here is who is teaching these young kids to be so dishonest?

A country cannot move forward through dishonesty and immorality because it is degenerative by nature and destroys the social fabric necessary to make a country strong and proud. Dishonesty makes room for corruption that is like termites eating away at the foundation of a nation.

So honesty, frugality, self-respect and dignity are all wonderful values that determine the nature and the character of people so collectively they make a nation great.

Once an Englishman asked Swami Vivekananda why couldn’t he find a decent tailor to make civilized clothes for him to which he answered “ Sir , in your culture a tailor defines the person but in our culture it is the character of the man that defines him and never his clothes.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.