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Opinion When dignity of office is compromised, an incumbent no longer deserves our respect

Paul Gooch is professor of philosophy and president emeritus, Victoria University, Toronto

In the cacophony of voices criticizing and defending the conduct of office-holders these days, the word "dignity" gets pressed into service from all sides.

That's not surprising, given the willingness of this little concept to work all sides of the room. Its basic meaning is simply "worthiness," the fundamental value that something enjoys in its own right, not because it can be bent to some other purpose. But even when we agree that something has value in itself, there can be wide differences about what that means. For instance, phrases like "dignity of life" or "dying with dignity" express something of great importance about human life and the respect it deserves, but they don't themselves resolve issues about when human life begins or when it properly ends.

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What about dignity of office? More particularly, dignity of those "high" offices with wide responsibilities for human welfare?

We need to pause in the game of word-slinging to note three things about this kind of dignity.

First, there's a difference between the office and the person who holds it. Second, there's a difference between acting in a dignified or decorous manner and respecting the dignity of the office. Third, our respect for an incumbent is conditional: it depends on the office-holder's attitude to the inherent dignity of the office.

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It's obvious that the office was there before the person who now inhabits it. And it will persist afterward. The office-holder is a temporary resident in this place of dignity. It was not created to serve personal ambition; quite the contrary. High office is defined by high responsibilities for the protection, welfare and flourishing of society. Depending upon a country's constitution, the office-holder may veto measures deemed not in the wider interest of society, or send the country to war. Even without such power, in democratic societies, holders of high office represent the fundamental values of their states. The office has dignity not because of its power (power can generate fear, not respect) but because it represents and instantiates what's valuable, worthy of preserving and defending for the sake of the well-being of the society. It's not about them.

Second: High office comes with certain trappings and ceremonies, expressing national history and identity. That's as it should be. The robes of office aren't bespoke for the new incumbent, for they don't express personal taste. Their meaning is determined by history. Although ceremonial aspects of office seek, according to their culture, to be dignified and decorous, there's a difference between the dignity of office and the daily behaviour of its incumbent. Not all office-holders need to be dignified at all times; in fact we need our leaders to be, not protocolled mannequins, but human beings whose personalities slip out, or flash out, from time to time. But not always, and certainly not where the dignity of the office itself is compromised. It's not about their self-expression, their whims or tempers. It's not about them.

Speaking of self-expression, high office requires on certain occasions a kind of high rhetoric, or at least rhetoric that rises above the trite and commonplace. Not every leader is a powerful speaker; and powerful speakers can be dangerously destructive leaders. Nevertheless, the language of the holders of high office should be trustworthy and sometimes inspire citizens to act and think with common purpose, determination and hope. Divisive speech contradicts the very meaning of high office itself.

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Third: Who should respect the dignity of office? Primarily, it's the responsibility of the office-holder to respect the office. The office itself has inherent dignity, conferred by a society's values and history. When an incumbent uses the office to advance personal or partisan interests, to express personal attitudes, to draw attention to the self – the dignity of office is compromised.

And when the incumbent compromises the dignity of office, there are no grounds on which respect for that incumbent can continue to stand. We have no duty to respect this kind of office-holder just because of "the dignity of the office." Indeed, an incumbent who undermines, not decorousness but the fundamental dignity of the office, is no longer worthy of respect – or indeed of the office itself.

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