Value and Dignity

Do we talk about values only to stay silent about human rights?/ Refugees coming into Europe from beyond its borders are being used and misused to create social disintegration inside Europe. / Anyone who wants to defend “our values” is critical of identitarian thinking. / On the search for self-determination and respectability. / On the value of basic and human rights in times when they are being relativise.


Four years ago we wrote the book “The Integration Lie. Answers in a Hysterical Debate”. We wanted to point out half-truths and errors which further reinforce and amplify the problems in a debate which is being conducted, both privately and publicly, in such a confusing and non-factual way: the confusing of relativism with tolerance, the politicising of identity and religious affiliation, the culturisation of socioeconomic questions and the ignorance with regard to the (social-status-related) humiliations and feelings of powerlessness of the general population. In selecting our subject-matter, we had consciously focused on those aspects which had not been discussed so much up to that time: ageing in a migrant situation, health, birth, care, the application of educational qualifications and the real world of work with its precarious jobs. We were in the maternity wards, with washers-up in restaurants, in the schools and on the road with “tough guys” and with newspaper sellers in the underground on a search for clues that led from Berlin, through Switzerland, to Austria.

On the value of basic and human rights in times when they are being relativised

Today, the debate is more hysterical than ever due to the waves of refugees from the Middle East. A “state of emergency” is announced, internet forums are overflowing with baiting and hatred, an authoritarian nationalism is increasingly supplanting a social, democratic Europe, and the political debate is once more entrenched at the front line of “identity”.

One contradiction is particularly evident: while human rights are being increasingly annulled in the context of asylum and the basic social rights of the poorest ten per cent of the population are coming under pressure, one hears much dogmatic insistence on “our values” in almost every speech, as well as in every other newspaper article. Ethical and moral attitudes are being discredited, yet at the same time “values” are demanded and put on a pedestal. One irritating tendency is that the more values are talked about, the less human rights play any role in the discussion. Our basic values, enshrined in constitutional law, also encompass the European Convention on Human Rights – such as the right to apply for asylum, the right to family life, the right to basic social and financial security and the right to be treated equally. Yet these human rights, which should apply to everyone, are being increasingly trampled underfoot in Europe as well.

Do we talk about values only to stay silent about human rights? Here, an interjection obtrudes. The term “values” comes not from the field of ethics, but from economics. Value expresses the degree of importance that we bestow on an object, how we evaluate it and the amount of money that we consider it to be worth. The usual yardstick of value is price. “In the realm of ends, everything has either a price or a dignity,” as Immanuel Kant put it. And Konrad Paul Liessmann enlarges on the point: “The search for values, the question as to where values are formed, the assertion that must be an education in values, the interpretation of human rights as values, the ideological talk of “communities of values” – all this indicates that we are no longer interested in the dignity of the human being, but are instead on the point of enforcing our preferences and the underlying ends-oriented yardsticks of value.” Liessmann asserts that the term “values” makes human dignity into an object of speculation.

Refugees coming into Europe from beyond its borders are being used and misused to create social disintegration inside Europe

The province of Lower Austria has passed a law to abolish the guaranteed minimum income for refugees, but concealed within that law is a cut to the housing benefit for people with disabilities. The word “refugees” is used, yet cuts will then be made to everyone’s housing benefit, including that of all Austrians. That’s how it works. Or, take the so-called “cap” on family allowances: the name “asylum-seeker” is called, but then the guaranteed minimum income for all children is abolished.

A concerted effort is being made to make Austria less attractive not only for refugees but also for recipients of the guaranteed minimum income, for the disabled and the chronically ill. Social problems are increasing even though, overall, society is becoming ever richer, particularly right at the top. But it’s always those right at the bottom who are blamed. “The unemployed”, “guaranteed minimum income claimants” and “the asylum-seekers”. This is a way of exclusively conducting the distribution and justice debate “right at the bottom”. The ten per cent of the population with the lowest income and least opportunities are left to fight over the crumbs.  For the past hundred years, these discourses have threatened to go on running in a continually repeating process in which the particular group that loses out due to a fundamental social change is blamed, reviled and vilified for its own worsened social situation.

How is one supposed to view a debate about values which ignores basic social rights and increases poverty? The European Parliament analyses the effects of austerity policies on basic rights in the European Union: In all seven countries, the number of teachers in schools have been cut back even though the number of schoolchildren has increased. In Greece, schools were no longer being heated and schools were closed, which made access to education more difficult for certain population groups. In Spain, the government is economising on school equipment, even schoolbooks. In Greece, severe cuts were additionally made to the health system.  Health care for the general population was thereby being put at risk to such an extent that even child mortality increased. In its report, the European Parliament touches painfully on one of the biggest sore points: the programmes lack any connection to basic European rights. Several of the Troika’s recommendations for reform are in clear conflict with European law, particularly the European Social Charter. These include the worsened medical care resulting from unbalanced austerity policies and the severe dismantling of the pay scale system caused by labour market reforms. But who still actually talks about this nowadays? The wave of refugees coming into Europe from beyond its borders is being used and misused in order to forget and repress questionable policies inside Europe.

Anyone who wants to defend “our values” is critical of identitarian thinking

Everything is “culture”. You are culture, everything you say is culture, everything that makes you what you are is culture and everything you do expresses culture. You have no other rationale. What concept of society underlies the over-emphasis on the term “culture” in the current debate? Economic Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen has called the pressure to assume an all-or-nothing identity “plural monoculturalism”. He thereby points to a new form of the old racism whose proponents also like to call themselves “identitarians”. This means that entire population groups are assigned to a single culture and a single identity, into which they must all fit. That culture can be defined by blood, origin or religion. Even in its most harmless form, this either-or definition of identity contains the seed of war. “One can know when the war begins”, as the Trojan princess and seer Cassandra says in Christa Wolf’s novel of the same name, “But when does the prewar begin?” “Plural monoculturalism” links folkish defenders of western culture to Islamic fundamentalists – for they are, so to speak, kindred enemies.

On the search for self-determination and respectability

To not be noticed means to be excluded. This is why the desire for a just society is so fundamentaly connected to the desire for recognition. The answer lies in the gap between “What do I have?” and “Who am I?” In conclusion, we focus on the feelings, the needs and the emotions, which are at work behind the current debate. This is not just about fear, but also about powerlessness, shame and envy.  We all share a fundamental need to be able to receive and create recognition. To quote network researcher Harald Katzmair: “Those who offer participation will resonate with the lonely. Those who say “You’re a valuable human being just the way you are” will strike a chord with those who never experience recognition. Those who are penned in hierarchies will see those who open up new possibilities as liberators.” Conversely, someone who no longer perceives these basic needs on their radar will put up no opposition to ideologies of social marginalization. We have, above all, lost sight of the need for esteem, dignity and integrity that is felt by all who are not able to daily bask in the sunshine of success. Where we are able to shape our own lives, receive recognition and experience social equality, trust grows and hatred diminishes.


Foreword in:  „Wert und Würde. Ein Zwischenruf.“ Von Eva Maria Bachinger und Martin Schenk,  HanserBox, 2016.


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