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Outrage over India gang rape shows the power of human dignity

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The world has recently witnessed how reactions to humiliation can spur movements for political and social change. The self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia following humiliation by a policewoman last year generated demonstrations that launched the Arab Spring. In Egypt, incidents of police brutality were part of the provocation for initial protests that grew into a national movement. More recently, protests erupted in Tunisia after it was reported that police raped a woman and then accused her of public indecency.

A troubling common thread in these events is the role of police as perpetrator rather than protector. In India, police are often seen to be triply guilty as apathetic enforcers who fail to protect, as corrupt bribe-takers who assist culprits rather than victims, and as perpetrators themselves of sexual harassment and violence. The police use of tear gas, water cannons, and baton charges against protesters recently has only exacerbated anti-police sentiment, though some of the protesters have also been responsible for initiating violence.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the persistence of police brutality and harassment raises the question of the extent to which the Arab Spring’s political change has led to social change.

Active recognition of others’ inherent value as fellow human beings – the opposite of dehumanization – underlies some of the most heroic responses to war (for example, Paul Rusesabagina’s saving Rwandans from genocide depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda”) and some of the most powerful efforts to mitigate poverty’s impacts (for example, Mother Theresa’s treatment of the destitute and dying with dignity).

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