So one day when I was in South America I tried this, and I asked the parties to think about a time when their dignity had been violated. Well, you wouldn’t believe it, but the floodgates opened! Every single person had a story. And it wasn’t just their own personal stories, of which there were many. They would also bring in stories about their ancestors, and the suffering that their ancestors had endured. And I thought, I’ve done it, that maybe my small contribution is using the language of dignity to get at the emotionally wrenching issues that are at the heart of these conflicts.
Let’s talk a bit about what dignity actually is. One way we can do this is by exploring what it isn’t. You say a concern with dignity is not a matter of showing respect. How does that work?
If you were to ask me about the biggest misunderstanding that I have encountered in my travels, it’s this. Every time I speak I ask audiences: What do you think dignity is? What comes to mind? And the first person to respond always says “respect.” And if you listen closely when you hear people talking on TV or elsewhere, it’s always one word: dignityandrespect. No space in between. But I think the difference is huge.
I think dignity is something that each and everyone of us is born with. Hands down, every human being is born with dignity, a sense of value and worth. When I’m doing a PowerPoint I flash this beautiful image of an infant baby being held in its father’s arms: no clothes on, in its raw, beautiful, and vulnerable state. And I ask, “Looking at this child is there any doubt that he or she is born with inherent value and worth?” And I point out that not only is this child valuable and worthy, this child is invaluable, priceless, and irreplaceable. And then I ask the audience what we do with something possessing these qualities. And the response is that we give it our attention, our love, our caring. We protect it because it’s a treasure. So that’s dignity. We all come into the world the same way. We’re all precious like that and we all have that inherent sense of worth no matter where we are from on the planet.
Now, respect, on the other hand, in my mind is very different. You don’t have to do anything to be born worthy: You are just born worthy. Respect I think is earned. If I say, “Gee, Mitch I really respect you,” it’s because you have done something that’s really wonderful; you have earned my respect in some way because of the things you have done. One we earn, while the other is just part of our inherent human condition. With all of that said, not only are we inherently valuable, we are also equally vulnerable.
What do you mean by that?
Think about all the time we spend in our culture taking care of our physical needs. We have laws against people coming up and abusing us physically. We’re good at that. But guess what? Our dignity needs are equally as vulnerable as the needs of our physical selves. Yet half the time there is nowhere to go when someone has humiliated you, or you feel like there has been a violation of your dignity. Also, people don’t like talking about violations of their dignity because it’s shameful and embarrassing. But, no 911 calls, no emergency room to go to.
But the literature is really clear. There are neuroscientists at UCLA who have done brain-scanning that shows that when people feel their dignity is violated it appears in the same area of the brain as a physical wound. The brain doesn’t know the difference. So what we experience as a wound to our dignity is received and felt in the brain in the same way as a physical wound.
Toward the end of the book you said, “Vulnerability is where the power is.” Can you talk about that?
I mentioned that we are wired for connection. Well, we are also wired for self-preservation, and we often end up violating our own dignity because of it. Look at the case of Lance Armstrong. How he deceived himself! But it was a self-preservation exercise for him. He was worried that if he admitted to doping, that he would look bad and lose his status and all the rest. Well, it isn’t just Lance Armstrong. Look at the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, who covered up the Ray Rice video.
These examples show that we are susceptible to self-preservation instincts. But if we want to maintain our own dignity we have to get comfortable with vulnerability, because there’s nothing worse than lying and covering-up. Let’s say you did something that you would feel very ashamed of in your community, and instead of covering up, you say, “You know what folks, I really did make a mistake and I know I did wrong. And I want to apologize and I’m going to work so hard at not doing that again.” You know you have made yourself vulnerable, but you say to yourself, “I may end up looking bad in the eyes of other people, but that’s a risk I’m going to take.”
But vulnerability is where the strength lies, because people … I don’t know about you, but whenever somebody comes clean like that, especially public figures, I tend to feel more empathy for them, tend to feel compassion for them. They may look bad momentarily, but being vulnerable in this way also makes people think, “My God, he has such strength. I could never do that.” So it’s almost the opposite of what people are fearful of. It’s a paradox, but being vulnerable makes people look bigger—and actually be bigger, too.
Another distinction you make is that nurturing dignity in conflict situations doesn’t necessarily involve forgiveness. In the book you illustrate this with an experience of yours from the BBC television project Facing the Truth.
The point I was trying to make in that chapter, called “Reconciling with Dignity,” is that there are circumstances in which people are involved where forgiveness isn’t called for. Facing the Truth was a series of BBC programs that I did with Archbishop Tutu where we brought victims and perpetrators from the Northern Ireland conflict together for face-to-face dialogues. One of the pairs that we had sitting across the table from each other included an IRA (Irish Republican Army) volunteer and a British policeman he nearly killed during the conflict. We set the entire program up in the hope that we might restore dignity to this conversation and give viewers an opportunity to see what a healing process would look like.
To make a very long story short, we enabled both parties to tell their side of the story: what it looked like; what the experience was like for them. The British police officer talked about how he almost died and how upset he was for his children. It was very moving. The IRA man told his story about what it was like growing up in a country where they felt like second-class citizens. And we were sitting there for quite some time listening to these stories, and by the end of the conversation, one of us who was facilitating—I think it might have been the archbishop—said to the British police officer: “Look, you’ve heard Ronnie’s story, you’ve heard about his life and what happened to him and why he joined the IRA. What are you feeling now that you’ve heard this?” And he took a look at us and he said, “Now that I’ve heard his story I realized that if I had grown up under the same circumstances as he, I probably would have made exactly the same choices that he made.” It was such a restoration of empathy. For this man, who almost was killed by this other man, for him to say, “There but for the grace of God go I”—it was astounding.
So he identified with him, he connected with him as a fellow human being at a human level. No one said, “I forgive you.” Nobody asked for forgiveness. It was part of the process of restoring the dignity to this relationship, restoring that natural empathy where you have an opportunity to sit and listen to what’s going on in this other person’s life. And the word forgiveness was never uttered. However, they did reconcile. And as you know from reading the story, these two men ended up going out to dinner with one another after the end of the episode. And they went on to work together, giving talks about their experience. Their peace work was to go around and tell people about their process of reconciliation.
I love forgiveness. Believe me, I’m not saying forgiveness is not an option. There are times when horrible things happen and people do need to forgive or be forgiven. But I am saying, let’s give people another option. In our literature, forgiveness is pretty much the dominant paradigm. Even my beloved archbishop says there is no future without forgiveness. But our experience with that program showed that sometimes that conversation doesn’t need to take place. It was more about these two men identifying with each other and seeing themselves in the eyes of the other. That is what restored the empathy and the connection for them.
PART TWO: The Practice of Dignity
Tell us about your friend Desmond Tutu.
He’s a delightful paradox, this man, because on the one hand, he is one of the greatest moral giants of our time—he, Nelson Mandela, and all the people who worked for peace and reconciliation in South Africa. He has been given the highest honors, given the Nobel Peace Prize. A giant by any measure. And then, knowing him now in an intimate sort of way—we’ve spent so much time together, we’ve worked so closely together, and we’ve stayed in touch through all these years (in fact I just spent the weekend with him in London for one of our yearly Facing the Truth reunions)—knowing him now as a human being, I can tell you, he is the most humble person I have ever met. He calls himself a street urchin from Johannesburg. He thinks of himself as sort of a “nobody” who came from a really poor family who suffered and struggled. He has never let go of the humble aspects of his beginnings, and this makes his stature as a moral giant all the more endearing. He could be tooting his horn all over the place, but it’s just the opposite. He makes himself vulnerable all the time, all the time, all the time.
Desmond Tutu, of course, is a Christian, so I would think that from his point of view dignity might reflect his faith that we are all made in the image of God. Here at the Ikeda Center, our foundation is Buddhist, and we conceive of dignity as a reflection of our inherent Buddha nature. Dignity is a theme that is consistently and uniquely expressed in different faith traditions.
I think that’s an essential point. Different faith communities express it in different ways. Even within Christianity there are different manifestations of why and how dignity is important, though the key is probably that idea of being made in the image of God. And in Islam it is also that way. I’ve done a lot of work in Arabic Muslim countries, Libya is my latest project, and the imams were very quick to tell me when I did a leadership training there that the Koran is all about honoring dignity, and that it is part of our inherent godliness. I think it’s wonderful that we have different ways of expressing this in our worldviews. Buddha nature is something I’ve considered often. It depends on what day it is, but on my good days, I like to think of myself as exhibiting Buddha nature when I manage to get this dignity work right! I think it makes it so rich to know that we have so many ways of labeling that inherent worth.
You’re approaching this work more from a secular point of view, with psychological and evolutionary grounding. But you also suggest in the book that this work has taken on something of a spiritual meaning for you.
Without a doubt.
I can share a story with you. For years I was on the faculty of a leadership project working with Episcopal clergy – it originated with Trinity Church down on Wall Street. Toward the end of one of my very first sessions leading a dignity conversation with them —we had spent a couple days and everyone enjoyed the work and considered it an asset to their ministry—one priest said to me, “You know, Donna, I think Jesus would really love the dignity model.” It was his precious way of telling me that, in his eyes, this is God’s work. I remember thinking about that afterward, and, you know, I’ve studied all the world’s major religions, and I feel like I have an affinity in some ways with every one of them, and I realized that the thing that unifies my understanding of different approaches to faith is that practicing dignity on a daily basis is my spiritual practice.
Because the way that I think about it and, more importantly how I feel about it, is that if I can honor people’s dignity on a daily basis, whether it’s with my husband, or with my family, or with colleagues and clients, that’s something real. And it’s hard work, Mitch. I’m not saying this stuff is easy. It’s not. In many ways that’s because, as I mentioned earlier, we’re wired for self-preservation. And a lot of the time our self-preservation instinct robs us of our own dignity, not to mention the dignity of other people. It’s hard work. I tell people all the time that I’m a “recovering dignity violator” myself! I’m not standing on a pulpit. I feel like I have to work at this every day. It’s my way of thinking about what spiritual practice is.