‘A Matter of Dignity’ 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.
It underlies every human interaction, at all levels, all of the time. It is the unspoken and often unconscious message that we send to one another regardless of the nature of the relationship. No one wants to be treated badly or to feel inferior.
Yet, it is not uncommon to experience a violation of our dignity on a daily basis. It happens everywhere humans come in contact with one another: with our intimate partners and families, in our communities, in the business world, and in our relationships at the international level. Dignity violations abound.
And what is the cost of treating each other in undignified ways? It is the paradoxical loss of our own dignity and the deeply satisfying experience of human connection.
We can no longer afford to ignore the consequence of the alienation and separation that dignity violations create. They give rise to the worst of what humans are capable of: violence, hatred, revenge and the righteous justification of the use of aggression to solve the problems that arise between us.
On the other hand, treating each other with dignity has the power to connect us in a way that brings out the best in us, creating meaningful relationships of equals and the opportunity for both personal and mutual growth and development.
The above is an extract from a paper titled ‘A Matter of Dignity: Building Human Relationships’ developed by Dr. Donna Hicks and reviewed with a select local audience via a video conference, as a part of the Pathfinder-Harvard Seminar Series initiated by Milinda Moragoda with the facilitation of the US Embassy.
Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, Harvard University. She was the Deputy Director of the Programme on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) for nine years.
Dr. Hicks has worked extensively for the past 20 years as an international conflict resolution professional. Conflicts she worked extensively on over the years include Israeli/Palestinian, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cambodia, the Balkans, US/Cuba, Northern Ireland, among others. Dr. Hicks founded and co-directed a 10-year project in Sri Lanka, which brought the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities together for dialogue.
In the paper, Dr. Hicks identifies the following as forming the essential elements of dignity:
nAcceptance of identity — Approach people as 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 how race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. are at the core of their identities. Assume they have integrity.
nInclusion — Make others feel that they belong at all levels of relationship (family, community, organisation, nation).
nSafety — Put people at ease at two levels: physically, where they feel free of bodily harm; and psychologically, where they feel free of concern about being shamed or humiliated, that they feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
nAcknowledgment — Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns and what they have been through.
nRecognition — Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help; be generous with praise; show thanks and gratitude toward others for their contributions, ideas and experience.
nFairness — Treat people justly, with equality, and in an even-handed way, according to agreed upon laws and rules.
nBenefit of the doubt — Treat people as trustworthy; start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
nUnderstanding — Believe that what others think matters; give them the chance to explain their perspectives, express their points of view; actively listen in order to understand them.
nIndependence — Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility. Use your power to empower rather than to dis-empower others.
nAccountability — Take responsibility for your actions; if you have violated the dignity of another, apologise; make a commitment to change hurtful behaviours.
The research findings leading to the development of ‘A Matter of Dignity’ leads Dr. Hicks to conclude, that:
nBy helping individuals and communities understand the power of dignity and to learn how to make it a way of life will lead to peace, harmony, growth, development and prosperity.
nEvidence from evolutionary biology theory explains how our desire for dignity is rooted in our genes and is a part of our evolutionary legacy.
nEveryone desires dignity: along with survival instincts, it is the single most powerful human force motivating behaviour. In some cases, it is even stronger than the desire for survival. People risk their lives to protect the honour and dignity of their people all the time. You violate people’s dignity and you get an instinctive reaction — people feel humiliated and get upset and angry. You violate people’s dignity repeatedly and you’ll get a divorce or a war or a revolution.
nThe experience of humiliation, resentment, and anger that these dignity violations instinctively create do not go away on their own.
nOur cultures are filled with distorted beliefs about the superiority of some peoples and groups over others. Whether it is racism, classism, sexism, or any number of other harmful “isms”, their effects are the source of so much self-doubt and human suffering. It appears that we are better equipped to harm others than to love them.
nOne of the reasons why we do not know how to be in relationship with one another in a dignified way, apart from the obstacles set up by our evolutionary legacy, is that we have never been exposed to any formal education in how to be in a healthy relationship; we need education in building dignified relationships just as we need to learn to read and write.
nMost perceived threat to well being are not physical and life endangering at all. But threats to dignity are.
nThe leadership challenge is at all levels — for those in the world of politics, business, education, religion, to everyday leadership in our personal lives. Peace will not flourish anywhere without dignity. There is no such thing as democracy without dignity, or can there be authentic peace if people are suffering indignities.
nThere is no greater need than to learn how to treat each other and ourselves with dignity. It is the glue that could holds us all together. And it doesn’t stop there. Not only does dignity make for good human relationships, it does something perhaps far more important — it creates the conditions for our mutual growth and development.
Sri Lankan heritage, history and socio-religious-cultural experiences are fully supportive of the core concept of dignity as the foundation way of life for human relationships. This core concept resolves conflict; ensure peace and harmony and makes way for the prosperity of rulers and the ruled.
The teaching of the Buddha clearly brings out the core concept s embodied in ‘A Matter of Dignity’. It is so seen in Sapta Aparihaniya Dharma (seven factors of non-degeneration), teachings of Maha Mangala Suttra (the way of life conducive to progress and happiness), Parabhava Suttra (the causes of downfall), and Vyaggha Pajja Suttra (the socio-economic principles of good governance), etc.
Sri Lankan history dealing with the battle between King Dutugemunu and King Elara epitomises ancient rulers upholding dignity i.e. King Dutugemunu going to battle himself against his opponent instead of his warrior chiefs to ensure the dignity of his opponent in death and thereafter declaring the tomb of his fallen opponent as an area of respect and silence.
The leaders in politics and governance should develop a set of strategies for effective good governance, leveraging the ‘Dignity Model,’ adapted to the requirements of the Sri Lankan heritage, history and socio-religious and cultural values. They should develop strategies to respond to the following key national and societal needs and expectations:
nAgree on a ‘dignity’ bench mark check list for national policy development and effective good governance.
nBuilding dignity embedded human relationships assuring national reconciliation and integration.
nBuilding dignity embedded human relationships assuring peace, harmony and democracy.
nSatisfying dignity needs and expectations of minority groups including ethnic/religious minorities.
nDignity needs and expectations of marginalised communities including plantation workers, Veddhas, low caste segments, etc.
nDignity needs and expectations of women, children, youth and other disadvantaged segments of society.
nDignity needs and expectations of poor and economically dependent segments of society.
nDignity needs and expectations of families without access to basic needs (housing, water, sanitation, electricity and communications, etc.).
nDignity needs and expectations prisoners, persons in detention, juvenile delinquents, children in care homes and detention centres.
nDignity needs and expectations of citizens accessing public infrastructure and public services including commuters of public transport, health services, education, etc.
nDignity needs and expectations employed (including migrant labour) and self employed.
nDignity needs and expectations of citizens accessing law enforcement officials for protection and just and equitable application of the rule of law and justice systems.
nDignity needs and expectations of citizens accessing fair and equitable share of national resources whilst assuring sustainability, ecological protection and preservation of the heritage.
nEducation reforms and curriculum development (secondary and tertiary) towards promoting dignity embedded healthy human relationships.
nMedia and communication strategies towards building a society committed to healthy human relationships with dignity as the glue that holds citizens together assuring mutual growth and development.
Dr. Hicks has successfully used the ‘Dignity Model’ in enhancing the growth, productivity and profitability of global multinational business entities, including the American Airlines.
Recognising that the private sector has specific accountability to protect and promote the dignity of its wider stakeholders, especially its customers, employees, suppliers and society at large, the business sector, led by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the Employers Federation of Ceylon and the Bankers Association, should collectively:
nCommence an initiative towards developing strategies for the private sector to serve its wider stakeholders by embedding a culture in business that commits to seeks to enhance the dignity of all stakeholders of business?
nEnhance the dignity of employees at the work place – the private sector should form strategic alliances with trade unions and employee associations.
nRecognise the impact on business from the developments in the external environment and the market place and be a partner with government in developing the strategic response action, especially connected to the strategies 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11 noted above?
In the context of Sri Lanka now moving forward after a long economically and socially debilitating war, recognising the essential nature and importance of promoting and building dignity embedded human relationships amongst all members of the Sri Lankan society, it is incumbent on the leaders in politics, governance, business and civil society to take the necessary initiatives to remove any barriers and promote growth and development leveraging the ‘Dignity Model’.
Dr. Hicks quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Treat people as they want to be and you help them become what they are capable of being”. And this quote sums up the accountability of leaders.
(The writer is a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.)