Have you ever walked through the city and seen those people holding signs advertising something? They can be found on busy street corners or open air shopping malls. Their signs point the way to a restaurant lunch deal, the nearest bottle shop or cheap parking. You might have similarly seen someone outside a pizza shop waving a sign to passing traffic highlighting cheap lunchtime meals.
I have a problem with this; in fact we should all have a problem with this. It is not a problem with advertising; it is a problem with the fact that people are being used simply as sign posts. Sometimes the people are handing out advertising material as well and this lessens (a little) the problem because at least there is interaction with people as part of the job. However to simply strap a sign to a human person and have them stand in one place or even walk around effectively treats them as an object; it is below our dignity as people.
I am sure they get paid for this task, although of course it would not be much, but even so, payment does not make an unjust action just. I might decide to hire a person to lie across the threshold of my door so that I can wipe my shoes on them as I enter the house. I may pay them, and pay them well for being my doormat, but, is it right to use a person as a doormat? If someone freely chooses to sell their human dignity to me, am I able to buy it? I would say the answer is no.
Each of us is a personal subject, a being that thinks, perceives and intends. We belong to no one else. A subject directs what actions will take place. An object on the other hand, has actions directed to it, I am using a chair to sit on, I am using a mug to drink coffee. An object is always just that, an object, if my mug cracks, I will just get another one, it is dispensable. We begin to encounter problems when we lose the distinction between subjects and objects. If I turn a person into my doormat, I have made that person into an object, similarly, if I pay a person to act as a signpost.
The thing with human dignity is that it is innate; it is naturally within each of us. Dignity is not something that society bestows for passing certain milestones. It is not like acquiring a driving licence and it is not like graduating from university. It cannot be sold and it cannot be lost. That is why the life of the migrant, the intellectually disabled adult, the brilliant scientist, and the drug addicted gangster are all of equal worth. Christian tradition would say that every human person is sacred because they are created in the image of God but belief in the dignity of human life certainly extends beyond Christianity.
Early in his Pontificate, Pope John Paul II, wrote an encyclical titled, Laborem Exercens, which was on the subject of human work. The Pope wrote at length about the value of human work and that determining its value is not primarily in “the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person”. Whether one is employed to govern the nation or sweep the streets of that nation, John Paul writes that work must enable a person to become “more a human being and not be degraded by it”. A person who is working should never experience a lowering of their dignity.
It is not to say that difficult work or boring work is below a person, but when the person doing the task is seen as only an impersonal force and not as an individual then we begin to move into problems. Even though we all need to work to survive, the essential distinction is that work is for ‘the person’ and not the person ‘for work’.
If employers wish to erect signs advertising their products and services then they should seek permission from the council for a sign post, and not offer a “job” where the person is given no more value than a metal pole. Offering jobs that are below human dignity does not benefit society; they only serve to make all of us a little bit poorer because we begin to perceive things that are not normal as a part of normal life.