2015 Ikeda Forum: What is the Practice of Dignity?

| Mitch Bogen
Ikeda Forum speaker Gail Thomas engages in dialogue with participants

Ikeda Forum speaker Gail Thomas engages in dialogue with participants

For the first time in its twelve-year history, the Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue revisited a topic from a previous forum. Though the topic in question — dignity — was addressed just last year, it proved so rich and multivalent that there was little sense of repetition. To the extent that there was repetition, it only reinforced the truth that dignity is central to our efforts toward peace and well-being.  

Called “The Practice of Dignity: What It Means Today,” the forum featured three speakers: Meenakshi Chhabra, Associate Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Lesley University; Gail Thomas, Professor of Sociology, Soka University of America; and Peter Stearns, Professor of History and Provost Emeritus, George Mason University. Also for the second consecutive year, the event was live-streamed on the web, enabling global viewership.

The event, which took place on Saturday, October 24, was introduced by Taylor Holland, Northeastern University student intern for Fall 2015. She offered some focusing questions: How do we cultivate a continually reflective and engaged relationship with dignity, especially with regards to peace, global citizenship, and justice? What are some of the challenges that dignity presents, as well as its opportunities? How can we actively bring an awareness of dignity into our lives as individuals and communities, and how might we utilize an understanding of dignity as a tool for working towards peace?

Events manager Kevin Maher introduced the speakers and noted that  “by chance today also marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations,” adding that human dignity is central to the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This centrality is evident in the preamble to the declaration, said Maher, which asserts that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” With these words resounding, the exploration of “dignity in action” commenced.

Meenakshi Chhabra: Self and Other

2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Meenakshi Chhabra at the podium
Dr. Meenakshi Chhabra of Lesley University

First to speak, Meenakshi Chhabra organized her remarks around the relationship between self and other, sharing what she has learned from her own human journey as well as from her experience facilitating dialogue between individuals from estranged groups. She opened with some questions: What is active dignity? What does the process of manifesting it look like? And “most important,” what does “the other” have to do with these acts of dignity? Here, she quoted Daisaku Ikeda’s Buddhist perspective:

Self requires the existence of other. We cannot engage with others in an effective and productive manner if we lack the inner tension, the will and spiritual energy to guide and control our emotions. It is by recognizing that which is different from and external to ourselves, sensing the resistance it offers, that we are inspired to exercise the self-mastery that brings our humanity to fruition. To lose sight of the other is thus to undermine our full experience of self. (1)

Chhabra identified two forms of “the other” that we need to understand and harmonize in our quest for dignity. The first she calls the small ‘o’ other. Small ‘o’ others are people defined in opposition to the “I or we” that we invoke to promote group cohesion. We use our perceived differences with these others to strengthen our sense of belonging within our groups. The big or upper case ‘O’ represents the Other that is within each of us, the part of ourselves that is prone to belittle others and even ourselves. This upper case ‘Other,’ said Chhabra, is activated when we refuse to engage with, or maybe even seek to harm, those we have defined as the other. But if we seek dignity, said Chhabra, our choice is clear: We must engage with those we have defined as our opponents, and affirm that our identities and dignity and theirs are interdependent.

Next, Chhabra shared how her youth was shaped by the 1947 Partition of India, in which her parents had been forced to migrate from their home in what is present-day Pakistan. From their respective sides of the Partition, Hindus and Muslims alike described the other as the enemy and the source of their troubles, though they had once lived side-by-side in relative peace. When Chhabra came to Massachusetts in the 1990s for graduate work, a rare opportunity arose when she came face to face with the other of her youth. She met a Pakistani woman who was also doing graduate work here, and they soon began to bond over what united them as South Asians in the United States, including food and Bollywood movies.

But this was the easy part, said Chhabra. Their budding friendship was challenged when each found it difficult to accept the other’s narratives of how they and their groups had been victimized by the other. Each wanted to defend their country and convince the other that their version of history was correct. Chhabra realized that the big ‘O’ within was an obstacle to understanding her friend. But because of their shared commitment to peace and dignity, they remained in dialogue. Chhabra recalled that somehow she found the “courage” to challenge her “tacit assumptions” and transform “feelings of hatred and revenge” into a “willingness to perceive profound connections shared with the other.”  

From this beginning, Chhabra and her friend, Anila Asghar, went on to become leaders of exchange and dialogue between Indian and Pakistani youth and adults. As her career developed, Chhabra also became involved with the Seeds of Peace program, which brings teenagers from regions of sustained conflict to a camp in Maine each summer to learn the skills of leadership and making peace. These experiences instilled in Chhabra a profound sense of hope and a commitment to education as essential to cross-cultural understanding. These experiences also inspired her to develop a model of “dignity in action,” which she calls the WISE model. (2) These factors are essential to any work between self and other, said Chhabra.

  • W is for the willingness to engage in dialogue and learn from difference. This means openness and real desire to learn the other’s story.
  • I for the imagination to think of possibilities. This means the creativity to envision possibilities where none exist. This is not naïve idealism. It means the confidence that we can create value in any situation.
  • S for self-transformation. This is the core of dignity-in-action. It means the courage to challenge those insidious voices within us that insist that “they” will never change.
  • E for engagement through action. Action has the power to affirm or deny human dignity. Here Chhabra shared stories of how students from the Seeds of Peace program have gone on to create their own amazingly creative initiatives for dialogue and peace building.

She concluded with a list of questions for regular self-checking in pursuit of dignity and peace: What is guiding my action? What is the consequence of my action? Is my action creating value for peace? Is this action based on affirming the dignity of life?

Chhabra Q & A: Divides and Dialogues

2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Meenakshi Chhabra engages with audience during Q&A
Dr. Chhabra in dialogue with the audience

During a 30 minute Q & A session Chhabra had the opportunity to reinforce some earlier points and to add some new insights. Of the several questions asked, most related in some way to the challenge of dialoguing and truly connecting with people across differences. Naturally, the question of dialogue in the context of recent racial injustices in the US was raised. Professor Chhabra said that it is “sad that we had to have these crises” to trigger discussion. Nevertheless, she is encouraged by the conversations relating to the Black Lives Matter initiative that she has participated in and observed both on her campus and around the city of Cambridge.

Dialogues across race require trust, which can be elusive. Or, as another attendee phrased it: How we can “get past square one,” when “square one is trust.” Chhabra replied by discussing how her relationship with her Pakistani friend and collaborator developed. Sure, in the “third space” of the US, the two came together over cultural similarities from their region. But, reiterated Chhabra, they really did disagree strongly “about their histories.” If that casual friendship that developed in the third space was not intentional, moving forward was. Looking together at the shared and explicit goal of peace, rather than just at each other, was the key to success.

Another divide that needs bridging is that of the generations. When asked about how adults can connect better with youth around the kind of topics being discussed today, Chhabra said that is not so much our words that matter — rather “it is in how we behave that they will learn.” Also critical: “how we listen to them” and “how we listen to each other.” With generations older than ours, efforts to change long-standing or entrenched conflicts can be met with skepticism. Dr. Chhabra recalled how when she first showed her mother her research exploring Partition from the perspective of three generations of Pakistanis, her mother just said, “you don’t get it.” But, in fact, as time went on Chhabra created opportunities for her mother to meet Pakistanis of her own generation, and though she hasn’t said anything, Chhabra senses there has been “a change of heart.”

Rounding out the Q & A were questions on the roles of self-esteem and anger in developing dignity. Chhabra said that self-esteem is one side of the dignity equation; it relates closely to the notion of the inherent dignity that resides within us all. But self-esteem in isolation can be selfish, especially when it’s “my esteem at the cost of the other.” Re-emphasizing the core point of her talk, she said that “affirming my esteem means affirming the other.” As for anger, Chhabra said that in the quest for social justice anger is essential, “a great motivator.” Certainly anger over Partition and how it had been communicated motivated her. Yet anger can never be just a matter of lashing out. “The other must be included” in solutions, she said.

Gail Thomas: Getting Personal

2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Gail Thomas at the podium
Dr. Gail Thomas of Soka University of America

Gail Thomas’s talk was called “Human Dignity: Bringing It Home.” In it, she explored what dignity looks like at the personal level, considering two domains where dignity is regularly hindered or helped, and concluding with her own “personal call to action” to honor the dignity of others. Her reasoning was that “we have given less attention to this level as opposed to the macro level where we continue to grapple with global issues of armed conflicts and their residuals — poverty, world hunger, violence, rape and human trafficking.”

Dr. Thomas began by discussing the power of language to affect human dignity, especially in the realm of naming. “How individuals are labeled creates expectations and predictions” about them, she said, and can impact their self-identity and limit their potential. To substantiate this point, she cited Pygmalion in the Classroom, the “classic study” of 1968 that showed that when teachers were given information about students, even false information, their expectations about the future academic success of the students were greatly impacted. For example, false information about a student’s socio-economic status negatively influenced teacher expectations. So teachers should be aware of what they are communicating, even with their body language, she said.

This issue of naming hits home for Thomas. A child of unmarried parents, she was labeled as “illegitimate.” That term, which was common in the not too distant past, “wounded like a weapon,” she said. “But it was also an impetus to achieve.” She went on to explain that she was able to achieve what she has because of “mentors and role models.” Today, said Dr. Thomas, language of the type that wounded her finds unfortunate resonance with today’s easy labeling of “undocumented aliens,” a phrase callously applied to “precious human beings.” So language can both encourage and destroy, she concluded, and we must be very conscious of teaching the language of dignity.

Shifting topics, but maintaining her focus on the personal, Dr. Thomas explored the relationship between dignity and substance abuse, a problem of crisis proportions in the US, across race and class and age. Substance abuse, said Thomas, which robs the victim of dignity, is fundamentally an assault on human life. She cited a report of the UN Commission on Narcotics and Drugs, which stressed that substance abuse impacts myriad measures of dignity, including an individual’s ability to tell right from wrong and their ability to make a living and maintain their health. In the view of the UN, substance abuse constitutes a violation of human rights, not distinct from other forms of human rights violations.

Language also plays an important role in our understanding and treatment of substance abuse. She shared that Dr. Mimi Silbert, who is a criminologist, psychologist, and CEO of the celebrated treatment and recovery program Delancey Street, has observed that upon entry into their treatment facilities, “most of the residents describe themselves as ‘human garbage.’” In order to counter such negative self-perception, explained Thomas, the Delancey Street model centers on dignity and employs a “recipe for success” that includes ingredients such as discipline, vision, responsibility, compassion, and “the milk of human kindness.” (3)

Thomas then shared her “Personal Call To Action” in the cause of human dignity:

  • First, she pledged greater effort to suspend judgment. We are all socialized to judge those we perceive as not like ourselves. Thomas vowed to become more aware of her own biases, and illustrated with two quotes: “Judging a person does not define who they are; it defines who I am”; and from The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
  • Next, she said she would bring into her teaching and research “more balance between the qualitative and quantitative, and to incorporate more of the narrative and the human experience.” She added that she would also seek a greater balance between the head and the heart.
  • Last, she vowed to “invest more in practicing and enhancing human dignity in my own home” with her young adult son. The first part of this is to reject the labeling of Millennial kids as “entitled brats,” choosing instead to affirm them as “noble and courageous” with a passion for a better world. She also disavowed “parentocracy,” in which by mere virtue of being parents we have “a divine right to rule.” Sometimes parental attitudes can harm the dignity of youth. There’s a lot of “unlearning” involved with ending this, said Thomas.

Professor Thomas said we all must “do what we can, wherever we are,” in the cause of dignity. And to conclude she quoted Emily Dickinson: “We never know how high we are; Till we are called to rise; and then, if we are true to plan, Our Statures touch the skies.”

Thomas Q & A: Walking the Talk

2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Gail Thomas engages with audience during Q&A
Dr. Thomas responds to questions from the audience during Q & A

A significant portion of the Q & A with Dr. Thomas dealt with the purposes and methods of education. How, asked the first attendee to speak, can we spread education for dignity and compassion, which we know is happening at the grassroots, to the political elite and other leaders, who often seem more motivated by ego than by concern for general well-being? First of all, said Thomas, we must “never give up, because this is a crucial time” for people and the planet. Secondly, we must always engage in dialogue, even with politicians, who after all, “are human beings.” Finally, said Thomas, we must always ask ourselves about the main purpose of education, which, in her view is to “reduce human suffering.”

A closely related question came in via text from a woman watching via the live-stream. How can we deal with the current trends in education that value the head over the heart? Again, the key is to dialogue with teachers and parents and administrators about purposes, about “what it means to be successful.” Also, said Thomas, since most parents cannot afford to find alternative schools, we must maintain our focus on public schools.

Steering the conversation toward higher education, specifically graduate and doctoral studies, the next questioner wondered how we can address the conundrum that much of what a student of color needs to master as part of their research can actually constitute insults to their dignity. The first thing, said Thomas, herself an African American scholar, is to maintain a strong commitment to critical thinking. “The days of dumping down knowledge are over,” Thomas stressed. We constantly look at the context and intent of authors. But the “struggle isn’t over,” since students can still “get penalized for speaking up and questioning.” This means that “fortifying the human dignity of ourselves and our young people” remains key. Finally, scholars can summon the strength to do the research and write the new narratives that question received learning and conclusions.

The other main theme had to do with “walking the talk” of dignity and peace building in various settings. A few examples addressed during the Q & A: Those of us working in socially oriented nonprofits need to remember that buzzwords alone aren’t enough. People are always the point, and dignity is affirmed in action. For those working with racial issues, care must be taken to create safe spaces that don’t unwittingly perpetuate or mirror the segregation that mars society. Also, Dr. Thomas clarified, these safe spaces needn’t just be formal spaces, but anywhere we get together harmoniously. Finally, all of us partake in popular culture, which is so often defined by language of violence and cruelty. One thing we can do is to just “take the message everywhere,” and defy the conventional wisdom that “peace doesn’t sell.”

Peter Stearns: Dignity, Human Rights, and Utilitarianism

After a musical interlude featuring violinist Kun Shao, pianist Yoon-Wha Roo, and oboist Sachiko Murata, Peter Stearns looked at dignity from his perspective as a scholar par excellence of world history. He emphasized attitudes Americans would do well to change in order to better honor the dignity of persons worldwide, thus increasing the effectiveness of US actions and policies aimed at peaceful global development. Throughout, he championed what he calls a “utilitarian” approach to the promotion of human rights and dignity abroad.

2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Peter Stearns speaking at the podium
Dr. Peter Stearns of George Mason University

To begin, Dr. Stearns said that his recent focus as a historian is to “use world history education to advance greater understanding” of other societies. And he explained that while the focus of his talk would be on dignity as an element of policy, especially American foreign policy, he would be employing only one of two possible approaches to this undertaking. The path not taken would be “to provide moving examples” of statements and incidents throughout world history that would illustrate how dignity could inform and improve society. One might, for example, share how Emperor Akbar of the Mughal Dynasty in 16th century India embraced policies of peace and religious tolerance.

Stearns chose the “different tack” of examining core challenges hindering the creation of an American foreign policy capable of promoting dignity. The first challenge is that all societies have deeply ingrained traditions of identifying foreigners “with strangeness and with inferiority,” and to regard them with fear. After all, the ancient Greeks, whom we mostly admire, introduced the notion of the barbarian, observed Dr. Stearns. Now, at this point in history, we are “at best emerging from two centuries in which the West has downgraded and degraded every other society in the world.” This trend was triggered by a sense of Western military and technological superiority in the 18th century, and was fueled by racism and misguided Social Darwinism in the 19th and 20th centuries, said Stearns.

The important point today, said Stearns, is that Americans still don’t understand how this history has impacted the dignity of others around the world, and that “others are understandably quite sensitive to claims of our superiority.” We can certainly still disagree with other countries, and there is no need “to abase ourselves,” clarified Dr. Stearns. But if we don’t acknowledge this sensitivity, even our best-intentioned efforts to promote dignity abroad will end in failure, with our ideals seen as masked condescension. Today, said Stearns, in the US we most often express our notions of cultural superiority with the frame of American Exceptionalism. But in all fairness, said Stearns, we must acknowledge that in trying to promote human rights and overcome our tendencies toward stances of superiority, we are attempting something that has not yet been achieved in recorded history.

The second challenge revolves around Stearns’ contention that we should understand and champion dignity both in idealistic and utilitarian terms. We are more familiar with the former, in which we acknowledge the equal intrinsic worth of all human beings, regardless of class, race, religion, country of origin or any other factor that might distinguish them. The latter, however, should receive a lot more attention, said Stearns, if we wish our foreign policy actions to succeed. To explain, he shared a statement from Zbigniew Brzezinski, from 2003, which Stearns said had had “a profound influence on me.” Recall that in 2003 the US was preparing to invade Iraq in order “to rid the world of WMD and provide freedom.” In the face of this public relations campaign, Brzezinski said that probably people of the world are more interested in dignity than liberty. “This is something to address rather carefully,” said Stearns, especially considering how Iraq has turned out. To ensure better outcomes, we must consider “re-casting our approaches and developing greater sensitivity” to the needs of those we want to help.

The third challenge cited by Stearns also placed certain ideals in tension with the realities of human dignity. Specifically we need to combine interest in human dignity with interest in human rights. As an example, Stearns cited the “recent tendency to exploit the right to freedom of expression” in the service of “needlessly discourteous and insulting symbolic statements about other societies.” For example, do incendiary cartoons relating to Islam “actually advance substantive discussions about Islam, including possible problems?” wondered Stearns. Yes, free expression is absolutely vital, said Stearns, admitting he saw no clear “way out” of this dilemma.

Another dimension of this third challenge resides in the fact that our human rights ideals, which are significantly shaped by Western ideas, can strike some members of global societies as excessively individualistic, a subtle form of “neo-Colonialism.” Furthermore, said Stearns, our “lectures” to other countries about their human rights problems can be counterproductive. Recent studies have shown, said Stearns, that our reprimands of China have produced no human rights improvements. The lesson is that we must be “more open to collaboration with other societies about how human rights are best defined.” And we might need to acknowledge some of our own shortcomings. For example, it’s not lost on others, said Stearns, that the US has the largest incarcerated population per capita in the world.

To conclude, Professor Stearns said that while he is in agreement that personal responsibility and self transformation are essential to the cause of dignity, we should also consider this cause as at least “partly a political issue,” both in terms of our foreign policy and our efforts to improve civil society at home and globally.

Stearns Q & A: Foreign Policy and Smart Humility

2015 Ikeda Forum participant asks a question during the Q&A
Participant asks a question during the Q & A with Dr. Stearns

Questions raised during the Q & A gave Dr. Stearns the opportunity to explore dimensions of foreign policy in greater depth. First up was the matter of how the US can employ foreign aid to successfully help countries develop their civil societies, as opposed to simply imposing our will. In reply, Stearns stated flatly that it should “be transcendently clear by now that American efforts to change others are more likely to fail than succeed.” He agreed that aid is important but that it should be offered “independent of our demands on their politics,” focusing instead on infrastructure. There is a “gray area” though. If, say, a functioning or improving democracy like Tunisia wanted politically-oriented help, then yes, said Stearns.

Closely related is the matter of how to promote women’s rights globally, an urgent issue since, as the next questioner put it, it’s not just that many women are oppressed, but that they suffer direct harm and injury. This is “a huge issue,” said Stearns. But, again, there are not many ways that the US can be truly effective. Part of the answer, he said, is to support the work of strong NGOs, such as Amnesty International. This is not a perfect solution, but better than direct US intervention, in Stearns’ view.

One place where we might be getting the balance right is in Cuba, where President Obama has decided to proceed with “normalizing” relations without a set of specific demands. Key here is a sense of humility. As much as the US condemns the Cuban system, it is nevertheless possible, suggested Professor Stearns, reinforcing his earlier remarks, “that they might be able to teach us a thing or two.” Speaking frankly, Stearns said that “our explicit reluctance to learn from others must end.”

Another key theme during Q & A related to the reluctance, or inability, of the US media to construct narratives that are positive about other countries, and foreign affairs in general. In regard to the latter, Stearns said that while the UN has problems, it “has been more successful” than we in the US know or give it credit for. At this time of the UN’s 70th anniversary, “we need to make that known.” Another great example is China, said Stearns, where “the main story” is actually “the incredible progress” being made there over the last couple of decades. Our denial of this does little for the cause of human rights there.

To close, Dr. Stearns reiterated that there is “a long record of societies other than ours” also promoting their superiority. This “historically unusual” attempt on the part of many of us to fully respect the rights and worth of other societies is a tough one. But if we learn to see dignity through both idealistic and utilitarian lenses, insisted Stearns, we do in fact have a good chance “to beat history.”

Concluding Discussion: New Narratives

2015 Ikeda Forum panelists speak on stage
Drs. Chhabra, Thomas, and Stearns gather for a wrap-up discussion

After the Stearns presentation, all three speakers gathered for a wrap-up discussion. During the 30-minute session, a couple of topics in particular added texture and richness to ideas introduced earlier.

Regarding the impact on human rights of American Exceptionalism, which stands in most frequently for pure expressions of US superiority, Dr. Stearns said we would “have a lot more credibility around human rights” if we spent more time addressing pressing issues such as global poverty. Finding areas of “common ground” such as this could be effective. Further, we must understand that the Western conception of rights is mostly one of protecting the individual from government. This is undeniably important, said Stearns, but other societies might see it a bit differently. Here, he added, is a classic instance of dialogue’s importance.

Dr. Chhabra expanded on these points by drawing on her own experience with the Seeds of Peace program. For many of the participating youth, being told to speak up and express themselves “was odd.” For them, “being quiet and listening” was preferable to the American virtue of “taking initiative.” This caused Seeds of Peace to really “re-think what leadership is,” offering a lesson for us all.

Next, Dr. Thomas had the opportunity to talk more about the impact on dignity of the language and discourse around people of color in the US, especially in the media. We don’t have to look far, said Thomas, to encounter stereotypical descriptions of people of color, including African Americans. A case in point was when the Rutgers women’s basketball team was ridiculed in racist terms on talk-radio a few years ago. These comments “are ridiculous and uneducated,” said Thomas. But in a deeper sense, Thomas added, we really need to look at how media narratives are constructed around communities of color — and poor communities, too. We are far too ignorant of the strengths of these communities, insisted Dr. Thomas. Dignity would also be enhanced, she concluded, by a reconsideration of the ways we describe beauty.

In his closing remarks, Center president Richard Yoshimachi thanked the staff, volunteers, and speakers for their great contributions, and expressed gratitude to all who attended in person or watched online. He concluded with Daisaku Ikeda’s three guidelines for actions in the pursuit of human dignity: first, the determination to share the joys and sufferings of others; second, faith in the limitless possibilities of life; and third, the vow to defend and celebrate diversity. Taken together, said Ikeda, these represent the “deeply willed commitment” needed to resist “negative currents of society” and to build instead “enduring bastions of peace and harmonious coexistence.” (4)


1. See Daisaku Ikeda’s 2004 peace proposal to the United Nations, “Inner Transformation: Creating a Global Groundswell for Peace.”

2. The WISE model is based in part of Daisaku Ikeda’s three components of global citizenship as expressed in his Teachers College lecture of 1996: 1) the wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living; 2) the courage not to fear or deny difference; but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them; and 3) the compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

3. Compassion and the humanization of our perceptions should be extended to all who suffer, said Thomas. To illustrate she shared a story of how she took students to South Africa to study HIV/AIDs outreach and education.

4. See Daisaku Ikeda’s 2013 peace proposal to the United Nations, “Compassion, Wisdom, and Courage: Building a Global Society of Peace and Creative Coexistence”


Photos by Marilyn Humphries