The Dignity Tour: Penn State laureate’s first reflection ‘poses the question’

June 30, 2014

Home Depot has figured us out. They know how scary change is, so they make it very simple. If the idea of a pergola is what brings you there, then you can start building it by looking for what kind of wood you would like to use. Someone there will help you find the wood aisle and even help you narrow down your choices. Everything you need to make a pergola is in Home Depot. There are tools, building materials, paint, the occasional bird chirping inside the building, and snacks. If you don’t know how to do something, somebody there does. All you have to do is ask. Even my 88-year-old father, who, in 1944, got on a military transport and sailed to France, asks for help in Home Depot.

At Home Depot, I can take a class in pergola building and work with elements of my project before I start, and if I start building my own and don’t like some of the things I have chosen, I can exchange them for something else. Everyone who works in Home Depot is trained to help you, and everyone who walks in the door, except for the person who has been dragged there on the way to someplace else, belongs to a group of people who are in the process of changing things for themselves or other people.  

Every group is made up of individuals who have their own goals, beliefs, and values. To form a group, the goals, beliefs, and values have to align with each other, and if there are differences of opinion, people have to amend or change their personal goals, values, and/or beliefs to find common ground. Once common ground has been found, each individual agrees to keep agreeing with the group’s collective decisions. To keep the group thinking and behaving in the same ways, someone in the group creates a set of rules. Everyone in the group has to follow the rules, but human nature has an ongoing conversation with change. When a person in a group begins changing how they think or how they behave, there are only three choices: the rules have to change, the person has to change, or the person has to leave.

The United States is a gigantic ongoing experiment with groups, agreements, and human nature. 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. We have a set of rules to follow, and the “law of the land” works to keep us inside the Constitutional borders of freedom, but laws do not make people behave. We keep making new laws, we keep going back to our cultural store to exchange merchandise, but we can’t get some of the building materials right. It might be the wood, the bolts, or the birds, but the roof leaks, the floor has gaps between the planks, and there is not enough room for everybody. And not nearly enough snacks. Change can be good, but change makes people, especially those who are benefitting from old ways of thinking, or those who have no idea what any other thinking looks like, just plain uncomfortable.

To change yourself, you have to open your mind to the idea that there may be other options available, and other people who know other things. Once you open your mind to other people, you open your view of the world and that makes everything very complicated. In the land of the free and home of the brave, it takes bravery to consider everyone else’s freedom as well as your own.

"In the land of the free and home of the brave, it takes bravery to consider everyone else’s freedom as well as your own."

-Susan Russell, 2014-15 Penn State Laureate 

Brave things have happened in my lifetime. I was 7 years old and my brother was 9 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 and 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.

If you focus a microscope down on anything, the thing reveals patterns and elements we human beings share with everything else on the planet. If we stare bravely into that idea, we can hear industries, religions, educational systems, political frameworks and social constructs screeching to a halt. These groups certainly have their place in holding our nation together, and the borders of those groups, the rules that keep the groups together, have built our national identity. These groups are powerful engines that chug and chug along the tracks we built for them, and many people’s lives depend on these engines continuing down the same old tracks in the same old ways. It is human nature to want to protect what you have, and in a country of “haves and have nots,” it is human nature to fear losing whatever small percentage of the “have” you’ve got.

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 turns a conversation about change into a conversation about what the person next door is doing to derail our engine. 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. Once someone becomes “different,” we can move them to the outside of any conversation, and once they are there it’s very easy to push them off a cultural cliff.

For the past seven years I have been asking Penn State students, faculty, administration and staff to join our local communities in an open discussion about the young people falling off those cliffs on a daily basis. Those who have attended Cultural Conversations events have had opportunities to hear young people tell personal stories about how race, gender, body image, violence, bullying, religion, economics, guns, childhood sexual assault, sexual orientation and politics affect their lives. I have brought international, national, local and student voices together with community audiences to pose real-time options to address real-time problems affecting very real people.

Listening to individual stories promotes personal investment in the storyteller, which can be uncomfortable, but when the audiences focus on the larger picture, the real work can begin. After audiences hear the stories, I ask them to back away from the individual kids inside that particular cultural portrait. When they change their perspective, they can see the frame that surrounds the kids. They can see the rules, too. They see powerful engines like media, entertainment, pornography, the internet, music, politics, economics, sports, science, engineering, religion…the list is overwhelming. Identifying the engines running around the frame opens up another story: the possibility that the viewer may have an investment in one or more of those engines. This perspective creates great discomfort because no matter where we look, we always return to where we are standing inside the picture. The bigger the world gets, the more people realize that we are all inside the same picture hanging inside the same building. Nobody can escape the violence that surrounds our kids, not even those of us in the ivory pergolas.

"The bigger the world gets, the more people realize that we are all inside the same picture hanging inside the same building."

-Susan Russell, 2014-15 Penn State Laureate 

This summer, the Chronicle of Higher Education is publishing articles about whether or not professors should put trigger warnings in syllabi to protect the students who are living with trauma. [i] All the articles pro and con are well thought-out and presented, and positions on both sides are supported by professors who are survivors themselves. The academy is having a conversation about academic freedom and educational theories within a population of survivors, and when you back away from that 2-inch section of the portrait we are painting every day, you see a picture of a culture systematically traumatizing its most vulnerable citizens. National statistics state that one out of every five female students who walk into a professor’s class will be sexually assaulted during her four years in an educational institution, and one out of 10 of the professor’s students, male and female, is walking in as a survivor of childhood sexual assault. [ii]

Engines race around our cultural frame 24 hours a day, and as a survivor myself, an educator, and an American, I pose the question: what if we, as individuals, shift the conversation on individual levels? What if we form a group agreeing that for the next year, everyone we see, 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? 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.

Dignity was a cornerstone for Martin Luther King Jr. as he reached out to a country, and dignity brought Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, Republican Senator Thomas Kutchel, and President Lyndon Johnson together as they drove the Civil Rights Act towards Congressional debate. The “elements of human dignity” as articulated in the Civil Rights movement became the foundation for a country’s personal and collective contemplation about what it means to be an American, and all of that collective contemplation has worked in large and small ways towards fundamental changes in our contemporary culture.

Yale law professor and author Bruce Ackerman writes in the New York Times article “Dignity is a Constitutional Principle” that constitutional development is now centered on upholding the dignity of all Americans, and this way of thinking is revealed in Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s comment that the Defense of Marriage Act is “an assault on dignity” for same-sex couples. When the Hon. John E. Jones declared the Marriage Laws of Pennsylvania in violation of the Constitution, he said, “All couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of marriage.”  [iii] [iv]

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. There are real people at risk, real children standing on very real cliffs. People change history all the time. When the Hon. John E. Jones changed Pennsylvania’s history, he did so saying, “In the 60 years since Brown was decided, separate has thankfully faded into history, and only equal remains. Similarly, in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.” [v]

"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."

-Susan Russell, 2014-15 Penn State Laureate

When Judge Jones made a rule of law he also afforded us a behavioral option: choosing a new way of thinking. Everyone is in charge of his or her own behavior. Everyone has options. Judge Jones asks people to choose the possibility that my wife and I, who were married by State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham on June 8, 2014, in the backyard of our home in Ferguson Township, deserve the dignity of 1143 laws and privileges that define a legal marriage in the United States. Everything begins at a beginning, and all we have to do is agree to start.


Last Updated July 01, 2014