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The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict


By Donna Hicks


The Montréal Review, October 2011


"Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict" by Donna Hicks (Yale University Press, 2011) 


"This book is a must read for those who want to experience peace in their everyday lives and peace in the world around them.  Without an understanding of dignity, there is no hope for such change.  If you want to find the weak links in a democracy, look for where people are suffering.  You will most likely see a variety of violations.  If you want peace, be sure everyone's dignity is intact."

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict reveals a hidden force within us so powerful that it can affect the way we feel about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. That force is our common human yearning to be seen and treated as worthy of dignity. While we all have a deep and abiding desire to be treated well and to be recognized as worthy, our lack of awareness and understanding of the many ways we routinely violate each other's dignity is wreaking havoc on our lives and our relationships. These indignities have become an acceptable way of life in the workplace, marriages, families, and communities as well as in our relations at the international level. Continued neglect of the damaging impact of everyday indignities keeps us trapped in a survival mode of being together in the world, where we are consciously or unconsciously protecting ourselves from the possibility of being harmed. A little knowledge about dignity-how to achieve it for ourselves and honor it in others-could go a long way in helping us live more consciously, more aware of the affect we have on one another.

After extensive research, and nearly twenty years of experience as a third party facilitator of conflicts all over the world (Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Colombia, US/Cuba, the Balkans), I can say that dignity plays a significant role in these conflicts. When the political issues are stripped away, and the human experience of conflict is laid bare, what remains is a common yearning for dignity-to be treated as if they mattered.

Human beings have powerful emotional reactions to having their dignity violated. The reactions are as common in the boardroom as the bedroom, in international politics, as in all of our daily interactions with people with whom we come in contact. Our emotional responses to the way people treat us are hardwired within us and define our shared humanity. When we're treated badly, we get angry, feel humiliated, want to get even, maybe seek revenge; often without being aware of how much these primal reactions are driving our behavior.

We also have a knee-jerk reaction to withdraw from those who does us harm, even if we physically remain together. Fearing another assault is reason enough to shut down healthy lines of communication and trust. But often people feel that they cannot afford to leave a relationship because they are dependent on it; this happens all the time in the workplace, in marriages, and in families. Even though the relationship doesn't end, there is a cost: openness is replaced by resentment, and it loses one of the most satisfying aspects of the human experience-the freedom to be together without fear of being harmed or humiliated.

The injuries we endure by being treated badly are psychological, not physical. Unlike a physical assault, where bones are broken or blood appears, there are no visible signs of a wound. It is an internal matter, where the harm is felt on the inside. But what exactly gets injured? It's our dignity. We feel the injuries at the core of our being. They are a threat to the very essence of who we are. What is worse is that people get away with it. And these injuries usually go unattended. There is no 911 call for when we feel we have been judged as inferior, humiliated, excluded, dismissed, treated unfairly, or belittled. Recent research in neuroscience has shown that a psychological injury stimulates the same part of the brain as a physical wound. There is nothing imaginary about the painful effects of assaults to our dignity. They linger inside, often stockpiling, one on top of the other, until one day, we can't take it anymore and we erupt into a rage or a depression, or we quit our job, get a divorce, or foment a revolution. What is our ignorance of all things related to dignity costing us?

What is at stake is no small matter; it is our capacity to evolve and flourish together as human beings. In spite of the fact that we have developed our intellect to astonishing heights, emotionally speaking, we are stuck in a survival mode of existence because we have not learned how to manage our primal emotional responses to violations to our dignity, nor have we learned how to explicitly honor the dignity of others. If we continue to ignore the truth and consequences of these violations, we will remain in an arrested state of emotional development, enslaved by the most primitive aspect of who we are as human beings. We will see more broken hearts, broken families, and more intractable conflicts all over the world. Until we accept the truth about the toxic emotional power that gets released when we experience threats to our dignity-we will continue to miss this powerful contributor to human conflict and suffering.

On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that we are capable of overcoming this critical human challenge to our development. I have seen miracles take place when people decide to educate themselves about the power of dignity. I have witnessed remarkable reconciliations between those who had endured years of mutual distrust, their relationships characterized by treating each other in the most undignified ways.

Dignity is a human phenomenon. Our desire for it is our highest common denominator. We all want it, seek it, and respond in the same way when others violate it. No one wants to be harmed and we have powerful, self-preservation reactions to these violations. The problem is, they come at a great cost; our need for self-preservation comes at the expense of human connection. We end up alienated from one another, going about our business as if our relationships didn't matter. But the point is they do matter. Recent findings in neuroscience tells us that we are biologically predisposed to connected to one another. It is a false state of alienation we are living in. The quality of our lives and relationships could be vastly improved if we learned how to master the art and science of maintaining and honoring dignity.

Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, presents the Dignity Model and its three part agenda: learning the ten ways of honoring dignity; the ten ways we violate our own dignity; and learning how to use dignity skills to mend broken relationships and to promote reconciliation.

The model offers an empowering strategy for finding the dignity we all yearn for. By helping individuals and groups understand the power of dignity and to learn how to make it a way of life, this book serves as a field guide to the peace we want: peace within us, peace in our relationships, and peace in the safer and more humane world we all wish for.


Donna Hicks, is an Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. During nearly two decades in the field of international conflict resolution, she has facilitated dialogue between communities in conflict all over the world and has worked as a consultant to corporations and organizations, applying the dignity model. She lives in Watertown, MA. Website: drdonnahicks.com.




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