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The desire for dignity is universal and powerful. It is a motivating force behind all human interaction—in families, in communities, in the business world, and in relationships at the international level. When dignity is violated, the response is likely to involve aggression, even violence, hatred, and vengeance. On the other hand, when people treat one another with dignity, they become more connected and are able to create more meaningful relationships. Surprisingly, most people have little understanding of dignity, observes Donna Hicks in this important book. She examines the reasons for this gap and offers a new set of strategies for becoming aware of dignity's vital role in our lives and learning to put dignity into practice in everyday life.
Drawing on her extensive experience in international conflict resolution and on insights from evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience, the author explains what the elements of dignity are, how to recognize dignity violations, how to respond when we are not treated with dignity, how dignity can restore a broken relationship, why leaders must understand the concept of dignity, and more. Hicks shows that by choosing dignity as a way of life, we open the way to greater peace within ourselves and to a safer and more humane world for all.
Runner-up in General Non-Fiction, 2011 New England Book Festival
"Donna Hicks does not dissappoint. . . . Dignity: so complex yet so simple. A thoroughly recommended read for all."—Ewa Kremplewska, The Psychologist
— Ewa Kremplewska
“A beautifully written and profoundly important book. . . . It should be read and studied by any leader who cares about followers and who wants to elicit his or her employees’ highest level of commitment and contribution.”— Ed Rehkopf, Club Resources International
— Ed Rehkopf
“I highly recommend the landmark and definitive book Dignity:The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks, Ph.D., to anyone seeking an alternative and fresh approach to rebuilding relationships through the mutual honoring of human dignity. This book will change forever your views of how people respond to others, and how that response will enhance and improve all conflict resolution situations.”— Wayne Hurlbert, Blog Business World
— Wayne Hurlbert
"This book offers readers insightful observations, vivid illustrations, and practical strategies for anyone who wants to live a life that upholds and promotes the dignity of all people."—Linda M. Hartling, Director, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies
Approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people's identities. Assume that others have integrity.
One beautiful October morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was at a colleague's house for a daylong meeting to discuss the future of a project that could make a significant contribution to improving the political situation in the Middle East. I was a newcomer to the project, invited by the organizers, along with five other people, to bring new ideas to the table. Those gathered that day were a diverse group: "peace entrepreneurs" with ties to philanthropy and the business world, area specialists from Latin America and the Middle East, a prominent member of the arts community, and a number of us from the international negotiation and conflict-resolution community.
One of the other visitors, an Egyptian American young man, had returned the night before from a business trip to the Middle East. When I was introduced to him, I said, "You've got to be jet-lagged. Are you going to make it through this meeting?"
He laughed and said, "I'm fine. This project energizes me, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
I took an instant liking to him, and I was looking forward to hearing his contributions to the discussion.
In 2008, when this gathering took place, we were just a month away from presidential elections in the United States. As with every other event that I had attended that year, the meeting started with a discussion about the candidates. The Egyptian American man (I will call him Rami) told us that he was inspired by and identified with Barack Obama and that he wished he could have worked on his campaign. At first I didn't understand what he was saying. He had been involved in politics in Washington, D.C., for some time and struck me as a likely leader in Obama's efforts to win the White House. Rami saw my confused expression and said, "Don't forget, I'm a Muslim. I couldn't go near Obama. If people thought he was associated with me, it would damage his image."
I was stunned. Of course he was right. In that political environment, not many years after the September 11, 2001, attack and while American soldiers were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the mention of the word Muslim elicited fear in some Americans and was used to justify all kinds of discriminatory and hurtful behaviors toward Muslims in the United States and the rest of the world.
At the end of our lunch break, I saw Rami in the hallway. I wanted to acknowledge how difficult it must have been not to be able to work for Obama and how dignified I thought his response was to the situation. "Rami," I said. "I just wanted to let you know that it makes me upset to hear you say that because you are Muslim, you are staying away from the Obama campaign."
"You're kind," he said. "Thank you for saying that."
"Really, I'm not being kind. It's tragic that you feel that you have to distance yourself because of your identity. It feels dangerous. I have been concerned that no one is stepping up to the plate in this election to say that there is nothing wrong with being Muslim. I realize that Obama can't do that, but I'm not hearing it even from the political pundits. It's a blatant violation of the dignity of Muslim people, not just here in the United States but all over the world."
"I appreciate your sensitivity, but there's not much we can do about it now. We just need to get him elected; then we will work on trying to heal the wounds later. You are right that it feels like a violation of my dignity. I haven't really thought about it in that way. It is very painful for me, but I know I am doing the right thing by keeping my distance."
I said, "Not only is it an assault on your identity, and you are excluded because of it, but it feels so unfair."
One of the organizers approached us and said that it was time to restart the meeting. For a few seconds we just stood there. I didn't know what else to say. Rami put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Thank you."
* * *
We can think about violations of identity in terms of human development. Throughout our lives, our inner worlds are dominated by a struggle between the ontological drives to individuate, to become who we are, separate from all others, and to integrate, to remain connected, to belong, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Thus, it makes sense that an assault on one's identity and the exclusion that results from it can be emotionally devastating.
Our identities, especially those aspects of it that are out of our control—for example, that we were born a woman, a person of color, a person with a disability—are the unique expression of who we are. To be judged a lesser person because of an inherited characteristic inflicts a wound that is especially pernicious. Inherited characteristics are used to justify not only myriad harmful behaviors but the perpetrators' sense of superiority. Anything can be justified in the name of superiority, especially the moral exclusion of "inferior" beings from one's sphere of concern.
The socially constructed aspects of our identity, the product of choices we have made for ourselves that define who we are, include our professional identities (for instance, as doctors, lawyers, carpenters, businesspeople, and teachers). These aspects, added to the characteristics that we were born with, contribute to the process of individuation that makes us who we are. Either the immutable or the socially constructed aspects of our identity can be the target of dignity violations. Although violations aimed at the unchangeable aspects of our identity—our race, for example—are often more heinous, both kinds of violations have an impact. What makes the injuries all the more painful is the feeling of exclusion that victims of identity violations feel. It is next to impossible to experience a wound to one's identity and not feel a sense of being marginalized, of being excluded from the perpetrator's circle of care and concern. And the feeling of injury doesn't stop there.
Rami's case is a perfect illustration. Although the major violation he suffered was to his identity, the injury to his identity set off a cascade of other violations. In fact, I would say that all of the essential elements of dignity were violated. He was excluded from being able to participate on the basis of his Muslim identity. He was not acknowledged and recognized as a significant political player, although he had been active in Washington politics for many years. It was not safe for him to be involved in the campaign because of a possible backlash, and it was grossly unfair that he could not participate. Because of the negative stereotype of Muslims, he was not given the benefit of the doubt, making him misunderstood and disempowered. His freedom was restricted, his concerns could not be responded to—no one took the time to listen to him—and finally, there was no public attempt to right the wrong. No one took responsibility for the injuries that he and other Muslims were suffering from.
Although Rami's case provides a blatant example of a violation of one's identity, an example that was very much prevalent during the election, that type of violation occurs all the time in our everyday world. Just talk to any person who feels like an outsider. Whenever people feel that they cannot be themselves, when they feel that they don't fit in or aren't safe to be who they are without fear of being treated badly or judged as inferior to others, their dignity is wounded.
Rami's case is arguably complex—the fears and ignorance that generated the kind of xenophobic reaction that he experienced cannot be disentangled from the events of 9/11. But his story is important because it demonstrates how destructive our unfettered emotional reactions can be. Rami is an exceptional man in that he did not take the assault to his identity personally. That is not to say that he didn't feel the loss. Having one's identity trampled on in this way is hurtful and humiliating. As difficult as it was for him, he knew that if he wanted to maintain his own dignity, he could not respond in a vengeful way, even if revenge could be justified. He knew that taking such an action would help neither Obama nor himself.
What is so dangerous about violations to identity is that most of us, unlike Rami, do not show such restraint. Righteous indignation can sweep over us like a tidal wave when our identity has been compromised. "How dare you treat me this way?" is often the understandable, default response. Any number of destructive behaviors can stem from it.
John Burton wrote that when the identity needs in a group of people are not being met, the people will resort to violence, if necessary, to have those needs fulfilled— that is how powerful our desire to be seen and recognized as human beings is. The violence fuse is short; it can be set off with a demeaning look as readily as with an overt racist remark. We are wired to protect our identity. With those who have been repeatedly violated, the fuse is even shorter.
James Gilligan, author of Violence, interviewed twenty-five hundred inmates of a maximum-security prison, most of whom were incarcerated for murder. When asked why they felt compelled to kill, the majority of the inmates responded, "Because I was disrespected." Violations of our identity are like gunshot wounds to the heart.
Unless we are secure in our sense of worth, we will take these assaults to our identity personally and resort to our default reaction. If we don't flee, we may seek revenge. Since we are all human and vulnerable, we can easily become perpetrators ourselves.
* * *
What happens to us on the inside when we experience an assault to our dignity? A look at our way of thinking about aspects of our identity could help us understand.
In the nineteenth century, the philosopher and psychologist William James proposed that there are two parts to ourselves. He named them the "I" and the "Me." He thought of the I as the continuous presence within us that has the capacity to know the other part, the Me, which is in constant engagement with the world. The Me is the feeling, experiencing, in-the-moment part of us that interfaces with others. I have adapted his distinction of the I and the Me for the dignity model to show the important role they both play in understanding what happens when we experience an assault on the core of our being. The following story illustrates the two parts in action.
The other day at a restaurant, while waiting for friends to join me, I went up to the bar and asked for an iced tea, which I paid for as soon as the bartender supplied it. When my friends arrived, they ordered drinks, too. When we were ready to leave, I looked over our check, noticed that the bartender had charged me twice for my iced tea, and pointed the error out to him. He looked at me, rolled his eyes, snatched the check and my credit card from my hand, and huffed and puffed back to the cash register to recalculate the bill. I said to myself, "That didn't feel good, nor did I deserve it ... just another one of those everyday dignity violations." I was tempted to snap back at him, to tell him the mistake was his, not mine. It was all I could do to restrain myself. Instead, when he returned, I took the new bill, signed it, thanked him, and walked away.
It was a close call—I could easily have lashed back. My fight reaction was powerful, especially because I felt that his demeaning reaction was undeserved. "He was the one who made the mistake! He should be apologizing to me. Instead, he's acting like a jerk."—that was one part of my internal dialogue. The other part (the part that wanted to maintain my dignity) calmed the outraged me down, pointing out that by losing my cool, I would be jeopardizing my own dignity. I was caught in a struggle between two parts of myself, both equally true to who I am. My Me wanted to lash out, but my I won, saving me from violating not only the dignity of the bartender but my own.
* * *
Now let's see how I have adapted James's framework to identify and name the internal battles we all fight when our dignity is hurt.
I think of the Me as the part of ourselves that can function outside our awareness. Driven by the need to be accepted by others (thanks to our evolutionary legacy), the Me seeks external validation of its worthiness. It cannot feel good about itself unless it wins praise or approval. It is vulnerable to others' judgments and criticisms and reacts to threats to its dignity by defending and protecting itself.
The Me is often distrustful of others, cognizant of their potential to do harm. When we are situated in the Me part of ourselves, our inner world is dominated by concerns about the self: "Am I good enough? How do I compare to others? Am I acceptable?" In assessing others, the Me is often judgmental and critical; it constantly looks for ways to diminish others so that it can look good itself. When someone gives us a compliment, or acknowledges that we have done a good job, Me feels good. Either way, whether we are praised or criticized, Me responds—it longs for one and dreads the other.
The Me is also the part of us that gets into conflict with others. It wants to get even when someone hurts us; it seeks revenge. The need for revenge gets us into trouble because by lashing out or getting even, we end up violating the other person's dignity as well our own—and tumbling downward into constant conflict.
The other part of the self is as true a part of us as the Me. The I knows that its significance and worth are not negotiable. It doesn't need validation from outside sources. It is the enduring aspect of who we are; its dignity is unconditional.
When we are situated in the I, there is no such thing as a good self and a bad self. The I owes its significance and worth to our being part of the human family, part of life itself. It does not need acknowledgment of its right to hold itself in esteem. The I just is. Some would say that the I is the spiritual aspect of the self, connected to everything else in the universe, that it is part of the miracle of nature and human existence.
When we are centered on the I, the world is a wonder. We are curious about everything—from ourselves and others to the multitude of mysteries around us. We are joyful, creative, expansive, and at peace. We are aware that being connected to others is our natural state. Once we are fully anchored in our I, we care about how others feel about us because we care about others, not because we need them to make us feel good.
When we are centered on the I, we do not seek praise and approval; instead, we seek to expand and to make our lives meaningful. We are unencumbered by self-doubt and free to explore ways to put our talents to good use.
The I keeps us steady when our Me is threatened or hurt. It is the part of us that we can always retreat to when our dignity has been violated. It stops our Me from wanting to get even with the person who offends us. The I is stronger than the Me. It has the power to resist the temptation to seek revenge and the power to maintain our dignity no matter how badly someone treats us. It knows, or can learn, that we do not want to let the bad behavior of others determine how we act, and it knows that by extending dignity to others, we strengthen our own.
The dignity model seeks to reconcile the I and the Me. Reconciling them is our first order of business. Because we are human, we cannot expect to eliminate our need for praise and approval. Admiration feels good, and we all enjoy it. Nor can we expect not to feel pain when we are hurt. We need to develop a pathway between the I and the Me so when the Me gets injured, the I can come to its rescue, protecting us from the Me's instinctive, often self-destructive impulses, even if they are in the service of self-preservation.
Excerpted from DIGNITY by DONNA HICKS Copyright © 2011 by Donna Hicks. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 15, 2012
Dignity presents Dr. Hicks’ “Dignity Model”, a model she developed after years of research and practical experience in conflict-resolution. The main purpose of the model is to develop a way of understanding why dignity feels important to us, why we react strongly when it is violated, and how dignity can be employed as a tool in conflict resolution.
This was a quick and enjoyable read and should be read by those who wish to take up a management or HR role. The Dignity Model in post-MBA carriers is a tool to use while moderating through understanding and to effectively manage people in the work environment. There are many good examples within the book about how to handle everyday conflict in the office, although one might need to work hard to translate global conflict examples into practical work place scenarios.
The most important value I learned was not all dignity violations are external – the ten temptations are self inflicted violations. This section is a very good primer to use to get to know one’s self. As a manager it is important to know our evolutionary instincts.
One section I would suggest Dr. Hicks elaborate on is Fairness. Life at times is not fair. We may feel deserving of a promotion but are passed over for someone we feel less qualified, one person may be more gifted at athletics then another, or one was born into wealth while another was born into poverty. I comprehend this section to relate to a situation where one directly affects the unfairness on another, i.e. a mother giving two children candy but gives one child more candy than the other. Dr. Hicks acknowledges that fairness is an issue all through life and it knows no bounds, but is it unfairness that hurts our dignity or how we handle a perceived unfairness? Is it unfair the children got unequal amounts of candy or is it fair that each child got candy and the child with less candy felt entitled to an equal amount and hence perceived the situation as unfair? Essential, is "equal" the only true measure of "fairness"?