« Children are not, qua children, innocent. We all have been children and know –unless we prefer to forget- how little innocent we were, what determined efforts of indoctrination it took to make us into innocents, how often we tried to escape from the staging-camp of childhood and how implacably we were herded back. Nor do we inherently posses dignity. We are certainly born without dignity, and we spend enough time by ourselves, hidden from the eyes of others, doing the things that we do when we are by ourselves, to know how little of it we can honestly lay claim to. We also see enough of animals concerned for their dignity (cats, for instance) to know how comical pretensions to dignity can be.
Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children ;dignity is a state we claim for ourselves. Affronts to the innocence of our children or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being but upon constructs –constructs by which we live, but constructs nevertheless. This is not to say that affronts to our innocence or dignity are not real affronts, but that the outrage with which we respond to them is not real, in a sense of not being sincerely felt. The infringements are real ; what is infringed, however, is not our essence, but a foundational fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects them from being treated like animals. (it is even possible that we may look forward to a day when animals will have theit own dignity ascribed to them, and the ban will be reformulated as a ban on treating a living creature like a thing,.)
The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand for our rigghts and demand redress, we would do well to remember how unsubstancial the dignity is on which those rights are based. Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as comical as that of the irate censor..
Life, says Erasmus’s Folly is theater : we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that is is in a play, will go on playing nervertheless ; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in a illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life we can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.
We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of of respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innoccence worthy of of respect is an innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the theater of life it may turn to be indispensable. True respect is a variety of love and may be subsumed under love ; to respect someone means, inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater, would be false, a dignity that would be risible ».