Donna Hicks

Dignity Is the Last Stop, Part 1

Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has two decades’ experience in the field of international conflict resolution and is author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (Yale University Press, 2011). Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who worked with Dr. Hicks to foster reconciliation in the aftermath of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, says of his friend: “Donna Hicks has a gift of opening to our sight a world where those most basic of human needs—appreciation, recognition, and the feeling of inherent worth—may be attained by all.” In this interview, conducted in the fall of 2014 by the Ikeda Center’s Mitch Bogen, Dr. Hicks shares how she came to her work with dignity and why attention to this essential quality can transform our understanding of conflict and how it can best be resolved. The interview is published in two parts. Read Part 2: "The Practice of Dignity." Photos by Marilyn Humphries.

A Shared Yearning

I’m curious about your journey, which took you from university studies in peaceful Madison, Wisconsin, to here in Cambridge, and on to the heart of some of the most acrimonious conflicts in the world. If you had one word to sum up that journey, what would it be?

Unpredictable. On one level, looking back, it all makes sense. It didn’t seem so obvious when I arrived here at Harvard in 1991, but now I can see how everything built on everything else. Isn’t that always the way it works?

How did it build?

What drew me to conflict resolution work, and especially international conflict resolution, was a real curiosity about why we get into these conflicts to begin with. And quite honestly, I grew up in a fairly conflict-ridden family and there were a lot of issues that I actually think no young person should be exposed to, with a lot of wrangling between my parents. And being a sensitive little girl, I felt that “there’s got to be a better way here."

And this goes way back. Even as far as my earliest recollections I remember thinking, “there’s something not right here.” So I was drawn like a magnet to conflict. Not so much because I thought I had any answers about resolving it, but more from a curiosity about what goes on between people. Why do people, in this case, my family, who should be loving each other—what is it that gets them to the point where they lose that connection and decide to be aggressive with one another? That was basically the question that I was pursuing all these years.

The principles of dignity seem to apply everywhere from a family to a business to the worst of our international conflicts.

This is true, Mitch, and one of the things I discovered—fairly recently, within the past ten or fifteen years—was the fact that we rarely look at ourselves, even in the academic world, as all just members of the human species. In other words, we tend to look at ourselves in terms of our cultural or ethnic background, our race or our religion. And what I’ve discovered by studying evolutionary psychology is that we have some common denominators; that as human beings, and not as these different cultural groups, we have some very common attributes that we share. And the main thing that we all share is this profound desire to be treated well, to be treated with dignity. We have a yearning to be treated with dignity.

Donna Hicks

And it doesn’t matter where human beings gather, whether the conflicts are between nations or in the workplace, in the family or in churches, or in the medical and school settings that I’m working in now as well. I find that if you drill down deep enough, dignity is the last stop. There’s nowhere else you can go. Dignity is at the heart of our soul. It’s part of the shared human condition. Nobody wants to be mistreated and everybody wants to be treated as if they matter. Forgive me if it seems I’m simplifying too much, but that’s what I’ve discovered being out on the road for the last three years talking about this. It doesn’t matter where I go or what the context is. Everybody wants the same thing.

The good news about all this is that we now have language—and I hope this is my own small contribution—we now have the vocabulary to understand and express those dignity-related issues that normally remain inside us, especially when we’ve had our dignity violated. In my work I’m giving people an opportunity to talk about this, and, again, I find it’s the same conversation no matter the setting.

What you’re saying rings true. For example, I’ve participated in peace and justice work for just over two decades now, and I’ve found that when social change conversations are framed using the power and privilege model people can get defensive. And I think that might have something to do with dignity not always being part of the discussion. Would you say that dignity gives us another way in?

Framing conflict in dignity terms takes us out of the specific conflict and looks at an aspect of our shared humanity that we all want. Yes, I think so, and that’s a really nice way of setting it up. I think framing conflict in dignity terms does a couple things. Number one, as I said, it takes us out of the specific conflict and looks at an aspect of our shared humanity, dignity, that we all want. In a sense, it’s immediately transcendent: It goes above all those cultural issues we’re concerned about, as well as racism and all the other “‘isms.” I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life—and I’m sure you’ve done this too—focusing on how we can honor diversity in our lives. We want to understand each other and our cultures, and so many of us in the peace and justice communities have emphasized this, and rightly so. But the point is that that’s not the end of the road.

What we need to do now is bring ourselves to the point where we can find unity, where we can gather around a shared—well, I call it a yearning, some people might call it a value—a shared yearning to be treated well. Every single one of us, no matter what our race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation—no matter what, we all want this. If we frame conflicts this way, with acknowledgement of our shared dignity, good things can happen.

And, you know, these are some of the most tender conversations I’ve ever had when working with people, because when people start talking about the ways in which they feel their dignity is or has been violated, there’s a certain legitimacy they feel. They don’t feel small or powerless or like they have to shrink. There’s some kind of an empowering aspect about recognizing that the reason they’re feeling so bad is because they’ve had their dignity violated, right?


They understand that they aren’t “bad people.” It’s just that something bad has happened to them. Framing that conversation this way, getting to the heart of what the matter is in this way, really helps. I do think power and privilege have a role to play, but I don’t think it’s the central role, but rather one of the secondary roles. I would never say to eliminate those conversations. But I would say start with the dignity piece.

And I said that two things happen. One is that people feel validated. But the other thing it does is this: It opens the door for a healing process to begin—because everybody wants to be treated well. And if you give people a chance to talk about how they haven’t been treated well . . . I don’t know, it’s such a tender conversation. It’s so moving and, more than anything else, and this is really the second point, it restores the kind of empathy that we all know is lost when people are treated with indignity. So our goal is, one, to open the door to conversation and then, number two, to try to restore that primal empathy. Every single one of us is born with a propensity for connection—our brains are wired for connection. So at the end of the of the day, we need to find a way to reconnect after all of the harm and hurt that so many of us have suffered.

Was there an event, or series of events, along the way that really got you thinking about the centrality of dignity?

These other unspoken conversations that were running under the table were strongly emotional. Yes. I often tell this story during my talks. After so many years of sitting at those negotiating tables trying to bring parties together in fruitful conversation—I’ve worked in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka and South America, facilitated US-Cuba dialogue—the thing is, we would sit at those tables, and we would be prepared to have parties talk about political issues that divided them. So if we were in the Middle East we would talk about sharing the land, and trying to figure out where the capitals would be if there were to be a two-state solution; in other words, objective issues. But because I’m trained as a psychologist, I was also experiencing that there was another conversation that was taking place in the room, at these tables. But it was never on top of the table. It was like an undercurrent running under the table. And these other unspoken conversations that were running under the table were strongly emotional. And this emotional aspect could derail a really productive conversation that was actually moving in the right direction.

If I were to put words to that nonverbal conversation, it would go something like this: How dare you treat us this way? Don’t you see we’re human beings? Can’t you see that my community is suffering from the way you are treating us? It’s that conversation that was unsaid. And I realized that if I were to ask these parties to talk about those things —you know if I were to say to them, “Gee, tell me about a time when you were emotionally wounded by the other side,” well, nobody would say anything!


So I was really struggling trying to figure out how to have this other conversation that was actually running the show. So, one day, I don’t know what it was, but one day I said to myself, I know what this is about, I know how we can do this: These other conversations are about their dignity. It’s about, How dare you treat me this way? From that moment on I realized, yes, it really is about their dignity, and maybe if I frame the question in dignity terms, then people will respond.

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.

You don’t have to do anything to be born worthy: You are just born worthy. Respect I think is earned. 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.

If we want to maintain our own dignity we have to get comfortable with vulnerability. 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.

Read Part 2 of the Hicks interview, "The Practice of Dignity"

Visit the Donna Hicks website to learn about the book and her Declare Dignity project.

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