The Civil Service: The Civil Service

A ‘Period Dignity Officer’ Seemed Like a Good Idea. Until a Man Was Named.

For years, the idea of a Dignity Officer — a person whose job is to make the lives of those under them better — has been the subject of national media obsession. What is she — and by extension, what is he — responsible for? What do he and they do? What does it mean to be “fully engaged,” to let go of “self-interest,” to have “empathy and understanding”? What makes you a good (or bad) person?

The most basic, if incomplete, question, it seems to me, is always “What is the difference between work and play?”

The difference can be found in a single word, defined as “a part of play or action by which actions outside the work are judged” — the “performative quality of the work.” The term, it turns out, is important to the concept of a civil servant and the idea of “job security.” I’ll get to that. I’ll even get into the idea of what makes a “good” civil servant, and what a “bad” one. But first, a period of play.


Most people don’t think about the position of the humanities on the public square. I’ll spare you. But it’s hard to miss.

There’s more than one reason why. It’s an idea that’s as old as civilization itself: The idea that humans are different from other animals. The notion that we should value what we do more than what we are — instead of the other way around.

“Civilized humanity” means to behave in accordance with norms. It means to behave as we do because of values, or virtues, or principles. This idea has its origins in history itself, in the idea that we can do better — that we haven’t done a good job, that there are better ways to achieve goals, that life is full of potential, that the world need not be like it is, that we need not be a society of drudgery and oppression.

This idea is a

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