12/20/2011 01:36 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2012

Dignifying Health: Why Not Quite Everything Is Relative

This is an aspirational time of year. Peace on earth, good will toward man (and woman). Tidings of comfort and joy.

That we aspire annually to the goals of peace, understanding and a generosity of spirit says something about how well we did achieving them in years prior! Perhaps by its very nature, an aspiration is ever just out of reach. And hope springs eternal.

We are, at least, reminded by the rhythms and lyrical rhymes of this season to try. Beneath the veneer of crass commercialism, the holiday season has something genuine to say about the solace of solidarity and the promise of beginnings.

If our aspirations are the melody that permeates the parties, cards and carols, it is a tune that highlights all the more the discordant notes of our transgressions. If we can't hear them now, whenever will we?

The New York Times reported on Dec. 2 the heartrending tale of an Afghan woman imprisoned for adultery after she reported her rape. The story, however, was about her release rather than her incarceration. She could gain her freedom from jail by agreeing to marry her rapist, and thus expiate her "adultery." Her society would free her body at the price of her spirit.

One might allow that rules and norms vary by culture, and it is the right of no culture to pass judgment on another. But we have no need to blaze new trails here. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes, based on the consensus of humanity, that dignity is a human right. Cultural relativism has gone a step too far when it steps on dignity -- just as personal autonomy has gone too far if your right to swing a stick does not end where my nose begins.

Oppression based on sexual orientation also received recent attention in the NY Times, but girdled by a glimmer of hope in this instance. The Times reported on the widespread practice of criminalizing homosexuality, and efforts by the United States to oppose such policies in other countries and advance gay rights.

We needn't look to foreign shores for such subordination of human dignity and autonomy to the inclinations of those with the upper hand. A USA Today article this week highlights CDC statistics revealing that one in five women in the U.S. report being raped sometime in their life.

I don't know about you, but I found that statistic -- familiar though it is -- shocking enough to take my breath away. I have four daughters and a wife. Were my immediate family to conform to the national statistics, rape would be almost assured to violate the inner sanctum of my life. It has already invaded the larger circle of people I hold dear.

For rape, in all its forms, to be this common says something about a force far more pervasive than crime or violence. It tells us that out culture tacitly condones the exercise of might as the right to take what one wants -- even at the expense of another's dignity. It tells us that we raise far too many sons who don't appreciate in every fiber of their being a woman's right to tell them no -- and their obligation to honor that decision as both absolute, and sacred.

It tells us that here at home, we fail to sanctify respect for human dignity as the incontrovertible imperative it deserves to be. Perhaps not quite everything is relative, after all. Without dignity, there can be no health -- not in any sense that matters. Dignity might persevere, albeit at times with difficulty, despite assaults on health. But the converse is unlikely in the extreme.

The subordination of dignity to the whims of power is the global standard. All too often it is a personal standard as well. But if the universal human right to dignity trumps the relative imperatives of any given culture, how can it not trump the micro-culture of personal preference? We do not need to endorse one another's choices to acknowledge one another's right to make them.

This isn't about sexual practices, although that theme is undeniable, perhaps because intrusions into the intimacies of others are among the most brutal means of stripping dignity away. It's also about innumerable other instances where private preference, political orthodoxy, interpretations of the almighty's inclinations, preconceived notions and ideology invite the trampling of dignity.

Whenever and however this happens, we are at odds with the consensus of humanity about our ideals. We denigrate the aspirations of this season. And we turn a deaf ear to the better angels of our nature -- whose icons now decorate every neighborhood.

Each year, we warmly embrace this season of gently fervent hope, and soaring ideals. As we warble about tidings of comfort and joy, we have cause to consider if we are all doing enough to bring such lyrics to life. We are, I think, obligated to ask: do we mean this stuff, or are we just lip-syncing hypocrites?

We shudder at the treatment of women in Afghanistan, but what of all the ways our miscellaneous intolerances translate into variations on the theme of abuse of one another? What about the sons we are raising here at home, and the vulnerability of our daughters?

Dignity is the first assertion in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The dignity of self-determination, and self-respect. A dignity we defend when it conforms to our preferences, and routinely neglect when it does not.

Of course, your son is not the problem, nor is mine. Of course we can do nothing directly to help the oppressed women of Afghanistan. We can likely recall times, though, when we were dismissive about the rights -- and dignity -- of those with whom we adamantly disagreed about something -- religion, politics, practice or policy. I know I can. We can likely recall times we modeled that intolerance before the watchful eyes of our children. And we can wonder how far the mimicry of that pattern reverberates through the world, and at what cost.

Instead of just wondering, though, we might do something constructive -- and try to put an end to it. We're not the bad guys, of course -- but you know what they say: For evil to prevail in the world, it is enough for good people to do nothing. Let's all do something. Maybe it will catch on.

Perhaps this is the year our actions will follow our rhetoric toward a better future for us all. Perhaps this is the year we overcome the cultural relativism of person ideology, to acknowledge the universal human right, and common human claim, to dignity.

I am tempted to doubt it. After all, one is a fool not to learn from the follies of history. But there is something to be said for the triumph of hope over experience.

This would be an excellent year to begin creating the world, and future, we would like to predict for our children. And were it that, then next year at this time, we would have greater cause for celebration, and less reason for lament.

If not -- we can presumably try again next year. Or at least sing about it.


Dr. David L. Katz;