Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Illocutionary Force of Dignity in Practice



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Rupaleem Bhuyan. Rupaleem is currently an Associate Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, an affiliate of the Women and Gender Studies Institute and Fellow with the Centre for Critical Qualitative Research, University of Toronto. This is the final installment of Border Criminologies’ themed week on Dignity and immigration, organised by Vanessa Barker

Despite its ubiquity in human rights discourse (see Benhabib, 2013; Nacimento & Bachman, 2018; Waldren 2013, among others), dignity is not something I studied nor paid much attention to before joining a panel on Dignity and Immigration at the 2019 Law & Society Annual Meeting. Over the past decade, my research has focused on the practice of citizenship through exploring how undocumented immigrants and nonpermanent residents negotiate identity, belonging, and rights in their everyday interactions with social and health service providers. Thus, in this post, I provide a novice perspective of what happens when a feminist, interpretive migration scholar ‘follows dignity around’ as Sara Ahmed has described her work on diversity discourse in higher education.

Defining Dignity

A quick scan of online dictionaries suggests that dignity is more than the measure of respect. Google’s dictionary defines dignity as a ’state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect’ which could come through either ’a composed or serious manner’ or ’a sense of pride in oneself.’ I found it fitting that the Cambridge online dictionary went further to describe the behaviors associated with dignity as ’calm, serious, and controlled.’ (Here I confess, that as the daughter of former British Indian subjects, I find it impossible to remain composed when encountering colonial tropes of civility, which I suppose make me less dignified to some).

The dictionary definitions and their epistemological underpinnings, however, provide some insights into the function of dignity as earned, performative, and requiring an audience. Dignity carries an ’evaluative accent’. While some may express dignity through a sense of pride, dignity typically signifies value and worth that another individual, group, or even a state assign onto someone. In most cases, dignity is anthropocentric in its application. ’We,’ referring to English dictionary authors and their readers, do not talk about the dignity of non-human animals or elements such as a body of water, a watershed, or the plant and animal life that contribute to our ecosystems. The World Youth Alliance (n.d.), for example, states that ’a safe, clean, and sustainable environment’ is necessary for human beings to express their dignity. Could we imagine that safe, clean, and sustainable humans are necessary for the Earth’s dignity?

Moving into academic discourse, in her writing on capabilities, Martha Nussbaum suggests that dignity, when taken in isolation, is ’capricious and inconsistent’. The equivocal nature of this view of dignity reminded me of Himani Bannerji, who argues that concepts like ’post-colonial,’ and perhaps ’dignity,’ are empty signifiers without historical specificity of the material conditions and social relations from which we construct meaning.

Locating Dignity in Migration Studies

Though it was not my intention to study dignity, during the past year I have become attuned to how ’lack of dignity’ is central in my research and advocacy with migrant caregivers who have precarious immigration status. Under Canadian immigration policy, migrant caregivers, the majority of whom are women from the Global South, are dehumanized through unpaid wages, lack of privacy, inadequate nutrition, lack of leisure time, or being deprived of providing emotional labor to their own families as they care for strangers (Bhuyan, Valmadrid, Panlaqui, Pendon, & Juan). Migrant caregivers in Canada, whose former education, work experience, and labour do not qualify them to arrive in Canada with permanent residence, must endure conditions that strip them of dignity: a modern-day ’head tax’ for the better life they seek for themselves and their children.

Centuries of imperialist and capitalist exploitation undergird Canada’s ability to designate some migrants as inherently less worthy of dignity than others. This calculus of dignity is currently expressed through contractual relationships between Canada and temporary foreign workers who must demonstrate neoliberal benchmarks for self-sufficiency and mobility in the labor market as a precursor to being granted (the dignity of) more rights and protection.

Through understanding the material conditions and social relations through which migrant caregivers’ demand dignity, we can trace the contours of its value. In May 2019, I joined migrant advocates how were calling on the City of Toronto to ensure the labour rights, health, safety and well-being of workers subject to the City’s regulations for body rub parlors and holistic centers. The City was reviewing its bylaws under the guise of reducing the threat of human trafficking. Anti-trafficking measures in Canada currently require sex workers to identify as a ’victim’ to receive services, and many workspaces have been subject to police raids where women are criminalized and threatened with deportation. At the hearings, migrant sex workers called for the City to preserve the ’dignity’ of working-class workers who are contributing to the economy and supporting their families. Among their demands, sex workers called for the right to lock their doors at work (currently prohibited under the City’s bylaws). In the face of systemic inequities, dignity is far from capricious.

Tracing the Illocutionary Force of Dignity as a Fundamental Human Right

In evaluating ’the sense of worth’ that dignity conveys, it is helpful to consider the linguist practices through which dignity is assigned. As Sociologist Philip Hodgkiss writes, ’dignity is a dynamic dialectical transference of worth and intrinsic regard.’ For us to understand ’the intrinsic dignity’ of all human rights as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must trace its illocutionary force (Austin). Who are the subjects (whether an individual, group, or state) who are authorized to recognize dignity? What is their intent? What are the consequences for those whose dignity is recognized (or not)? As with the discourse of human rights, social justice, or equality, I suggest we explore dignity as a practice, without presuming that those assigning dignity are inherently worthy.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bhuyan, R. (2019) The Illocutionary Force of Dignity in Practice. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/09/illocutionary (Accessed [date]) 

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