Dignity of Life

The Heart of Human Rights and Peace Building

A Report from the Eleventh Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, September 2014

By Mitch Bogen

All the Ikeda Center’s work deals in some way with human dignity. But it wasn’t until this year’s Ikeda Forum, the eleventh annual, that we devoted an entire event to this timely—and timeless—topic. Called “Dignity of Life: The Heart of Human Rights and Peace Building,” the forum featured three leaders in the fields of international human rights and conflict resolution. On hand to share their experiences and perspectives were Andrea Bartoli of Seton Hall University, Charlie Clements of Harvard Kennedy School, and Mari Fitzduff of Brandeis University.

In his welcoming remarks, events manger Kevin Maher offered a quote from Center founder Daisaku Ikeda* that reveals the centrality of dignity in our efforts toward greater peace, harmony, and wellbeing.

If we picture a global society of peace and coexistence as an edifice, the ideals of human rights and human security are key pillars that hold it up, while the foundation on which these rest is respect for the dignity of life. If this foundation remains no more than an abstract conceptualization, the entire structure will be unstable and could collapse in the event of a severe challenge or crisis.

Dignity, suggests Mr. Ikeda, is realized in practice. During their remarks, the speakers confirmed that in all our relationships, ranging from those with friends and family all the way up to those among nations, we have the power to either nurture or violate dignity. The choice is ours.

Andrea Bartoli: Dignity Is An Invitation

Speaking first was Dr. Bartoli, who is dean of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall. He employed a variety of images, and a tone of deep feeling, to invoke dignity’s character. Dignity is “an invitation to our shared humanity,” he said. It is a “project” we carry out for others and on behalf of the future. It is a “call” for us to be human together.

He also pointed out that physical life is so very fragile—it really is not that hard for humans to take the lives of others—but dignity is something harder to destroy. Dignity can, however, be violated in any number of ways, as when we “use someone as a tool,” or when we insist they must be “this or that.” The violation is that we have denied them the freedom to act and respond freely out of their own integrity. But these hurtful acts present only “an illusion of power.” Why? Because, said Dr. Bartoli, we can’t take away from others what we didn’t give them in the first place. And to the extent dignity can be damaged, it can be restored when we say to each other, “What you went through is important to me; it is important to all, and it speaks to all.”

“Victims speak more strongly now than even two generations ago.”With evidence of suffering so visible and with victims of violence and even genocide well known to us now through global media, it is tempting to think that the value of human life and dignity is at a low point. The truth, said Dr. Bartoli, is that “victims speak more strongly now than even two generations ago.” He elaborated that “if there is a large shift in recent times it is a shift toward the victim imperative.” Because of the framework provided by our articulations of human rights, and because of our improved collective awareness, “the powerful don’t seem that powerful anymore,” he said.

Dr. Bartoli emphasized that it is also important for violators to learn to speak, for in a world defined by interdependence, in harming another’s life and dignity they “deprive themselves of their full humanity.” He illustrated with the staggering experience of Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath, whose entire family was killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. As portrayed in the documentary film “Enemies of the People,” Sambath tracked down the perpetrators and in an unexpected turn befriended them. “For years he was present to them in friendship,” said Bartoli, and “after years the perpetrators opened up.” They told of what they did, why they did it, and most of all “how they were thinking of themselves as not human anymore” as they slaughtered “people like goats.” Thet was with them, Bartoli said, “welcoming the words that could not have been said, if the friendship was not there.” In conclusion Professor Bartoli said it was “a beautiful transformation way beyond tribunals,… a testament of what the human spirit is capable of, even in the midst of great suffering.”

Bartoli at 2014 Ikeda Forum

After these remarks, attendees engaged in a whole-group dialogue with Dr. Bartoli. Among those posing questions were three of Dr. Bartoli’s students from Seton Hall who made the trip from New Jersey. One of their questions dealt with the matter of security forces and whether they actually are effective and contributive to peace in conflict situations, especially when forces are ignorant of local culture. Dr. Bartoli said that “security forces are indispensible when threats to human life are present,” but he warned of “overconfidence that violence can be positively controlled.” This is an “illusion,” he said. Much can and will go wrong, including disregard of local culture. Security forces are actually better “when they are never used,” clarified Bartoli, very much like the fire sprinklers overhead, which are activated only when there is a fire. Complicating matters is the fact that power and violence are addictive, he said.

Professor Anita Patterson of Boston University was in attendance and asked about the burden of history and the “legacy of hurt,” and how these can strain and challenge human dignity in the present. Bartoli responded that “it is never too late to recognize wrong and ask for forgiveness,” and then to address it. But no matter how much time passes, he added, some things will never be easy to talk about, a prime example being slavery. “It will never be enough to say how wrong it was.”

But great beauty can emerge when the past is faced head on. As a powerful complement to the story of Thet Sambath, Dr. Bartoli told of how the Aboriginals of Australia responded when the Australian prime minister and parliament formally apologized for historic and ongoing mistreatment of these “first peoples.” They responded with a welcome dance, a dance that officially welcomed, after so many centuries, these “newcomers” to their home. “Deep in all of us is a current that is very strong,” Bartoli concluded. It is the same current that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi tapped into, he said, one capable of transforming the lives of those who suffer.

Charlie Clements: Restoring Dignity

Next to speak** was Charlie Clements, who is executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. A medical doctor, Clements worked for ten years as a physician in the midst of the civil war in El Salvador, publishing his account of that experience, Witness to War, in 1984. He also served as a pilot in Viet Nam. In addition to deploring the stark indignities of war, the cruelest indignities of all, Dr. Clements shared stories of how dignity can either be nurtured or damaged in the more humble or less dramatic settings of life. He believes that “we have the ability in our interaction with people, virtually any time, to restore dignity when it has been denied.”

Charlie Clements at 2014 Ikeda Forum

Among the most affecting stories was that of his father, who had been suffering from a viral disease and had at one point even attempted suicide because of it. Dr. Clements and his fiancé were in the house at the time of this attempt, and they drove him to the hospital. Once in the ER, his wrists were quickly wrapped and he was promptly left to lie unattended on a gurney for six hours. When care continued to be unacceptable, Dr. Clements took him to the VA Hospice. Once there, a woman came and held his arm and said, “Colonel, we’re going to put you back in charge.” And two big tears ran down his cheeks, recalled Clements. “Clearly, she restored his dignity with that little gesture,” he said.

He also told of a twelve-year-old girl living along the Rio Grande River near the border in Texas, where, during the ‘90s, Dr. Clements had been working for public health improvements. Without running water or even sewers in their community, her father had to drive to a water dispensary each day, with limits on how much water each family could take. The result was that the girl could only bathe if there was water left over after cooking for the extended family and washing the babies. Testifying at a hearing that Dr. Clements had arranged in Austin, the girl said, “I have never been embarrassed about being poor, but I have been very embarrassed when I have to go to school for six days without being able to wash my hair.” Here, in this girl’s humble experience, Dr. Clements said, is “the nexus between human dignity and the right to water.” It was not until years later that the access to clean water was identified as a human right.

Sachs said to let the achievement of democracy “be my soft vengeance.”We all have the power to restore dignity, said Clements as he closed his formal remarks. To illustrate, he zoomed back out to the dramatic and transformative struggle for freedom and equality in South Africa, sharing the story of Albie Sachs, a lawyer working with the African National Congress (ANC).*** During the struggle, the South African government feared him enough to try to assassinate him with a car bomb. He survived, but lost an eye and an arm. While recovering in London, an ANC comrade came to see him, assuring him that they would seek vengeance, even if it meant “an eye for an eye, and an arm for an arm.” Sachs said no, let the achievement of democracy “be my soft vengeance.” And so the cycle of violent indignities was broken. And dignity was personally restored later when Sachs encountered the man who had planted the bomb. The two reconciled, not because forgiveness was offered by Sachs—it wasn’t—but rather because of the assassin’s deep remorse and the acknowledgement from both of their common humanity.

During the dialogue session, questioners gave Dr. Clements the chance to reflect on the changes he has witnessed, in himself and in his communities, during his decades long journey from the military to the medical profession to human rights leadership and advocacy. Topics included:

Dignity and the military
A graduate of the Air Force Academy, Clements was subjected to and witnessed hazing in many forms while there. Hazing, he said, proceeds from the “misguided belief” that cohesion is best created by breaking people down and stripping them of their dignity, followed by a rebuilding into a new person, one more “obedient” or “responsive” to the needs or mission of the group. On a larger and more tragic level, Clements came to realize, while serving as a non-combat pilot in Viet Nam (he volunteered), that, as in all wars, it is the poor and powerless who suffer the most. In his words, “the scales were lifted” from his eyes, and he refused to continue flying. For this, he was discharged from the Air Force, based on the diagnosis of medical authorities that he was “ten percent mentally deficient.” This was “humiliating at the time,” since he graduated second in his class from the Air Force Academy, but it was a big part of his self-described “journey of conscience.”

Dignity and the medical profession
When he entered medical school in the 1970s, recalled Clements, there was “no course in medical ethics, no course in death and dying, no course in human sexuality, no course in occupational health.” He and his classmates succeeded in having these subjects added as electives, but it remains a startling fact, given our current, increased sensitivity to the human and subjective elements of medical practice. Further, human rights were not addressed in medical schools until 1992, when Physicians for Human Rights introduced one of the first curriculums.

Mari Fitzduff: Fundamentalism Is a Team Sport

Last to speak, Mari Fitzduff took a different tack, focusing her remarks less on the nature of dignity than on ways our neurological and other evolutionary inheritances encourage us to deny dignity and harm others.

Dr. Fitzduff, who is Professor and founding Director of the International Masters of Arts Program in Coexistence and Conflict at Brandeis, began by reflecting on her experience living in rural Northern Ireland, where she and her husband moved to in the 1970s, and where she first began her work in conflict resolution and mediation. This was a community in which she and her family felt safe, a community full of athletic fields and young men who might be described as “model neighbors.” It wasn’t until years later that she discovered that these same young men were out at night killing those they perceived as enemies, “laying bombs, blowing up pubs.”

Determined to learn how this could be, she pursued a doctorate that focused on why paramilitary members on both sides of that and other conflicts would kill and die for ideology. Her thinking took its current direction when she came across a study in which passionate, “true believers” were hooked up for MRI imaging and then confronted with information that challenged their beliefs. The scans showed that the participants’ brains “froze up,” rendering these individuals incapable of taking in new information. This inspired her to look further into what neuroscience could tell us about group conflict. She shared four points in particular.

Fitzduff described how easily the reasonable side could be overcome in tense situations such as riots.First, we should understand that two regions of our brains are in conflict. One is located in the amygdala and might be described as the emotional or instinctual side. The other is located in the pre-frontal cortex, and is the reasoning or perspective-taking side. The former, at a very fundamental level, Fitzduff said, is the “prime mover” and devoted to self-preservation, while the latter can properly “contextualize” phenomena and threats. Fitzduff described how easily the reasonable side could be overcome in tense situations such as riots. People who have experienced this disorientation say, “I don’t know what came over me. I became a different person.” It’s best to understand anger and violence as a function of fear, she said.

Next is the finding that people possess “different kinds of brains,” which establish certain predispositions for each of us. Thus, said Dr. Fitzduff, some might be born with a preference to take risks while others might be born with a preference for daily routine and ritual. These brain orientations play out politically. So even the best arguments of partisans come up short, since beneath everything (to cite one scenario), conservatives and liberals simply don’t see the world the same way; where a liberal might see xenophobia, a conservative might see a desire to keep society together.

Mari Fitzduff at 2014 Ikeda Forum

Another reason we can fail to convince others of our perspective is because of our strong evolutionary need for belonging within a group. Most of us know, Fitzduff said, that you won’t get far with a fundamentalist using facts. To illustrate, Dr. Fitzduff explained that some Northern Ireland Protestants believe that the Battle of the Boyne, in which their side won a decisive victory over Catholics, was in the Bible, though it happened in 1690. These particular Protestants needed their own “facts” to maintain unity and justify their presence there. Another wrinkle is evident in the way members of a diaspora group can be more ardent and extreme about politics happening “back home” than those living there. It’s an unconscious way of trying to prove they still “belong.” There are many reasons, said Fitzduff, why fundamentalism has been described as “a team sport.”

Finally, we are inclined toward group allegiance because the very powerful chemical oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone,” rises when we are with people with whom we feel “at one.” This is because we have evolved for cooperation—within our groups, that is. The more oxytocin we get within a group, said Fitzduff, the more difficult it can be to connect outside of the group. The question at the heart of this problem then is, “Who is my neighbor?” How we choose to answer is critical.

Ultimately, said Fitzduff, our focuses on dialogue or negotiations will fall short if we haven’t created equitable and secure social conditions. This is why ceasefires during armed conflict are so important. Solutions per se are secondary, she said, to the task of creating contexts in which we will be more inclined, indeed more able, to be expansive and inclusive in our allegiances. And, above all, we must be compassionate and understand that our genetic tendencies, not malice, are behind and beneath so many of our conflicts and differences.

Following Fitzduff’s presentation, attendees raised points that allowed her to dig deeper into some of her main ideas. On the matter of raising oxytocin levels, one young man cited the late Edward Said’s contention that coming together over music can help us get past differences. To that end, Said hosted an annual concert in Andalucía that brought Israelis and Palestinians together.

In response, Fitzduff recalled an occasion years ago when she was in South Africa with lawyers from both the Nationalist and Unionist sides in Northern Ireland. The groups were so antagonistic they refused to even meet together with Nelson Mandela. One evening, as they were eating in separate, adjoining rooms, the wine started to flow and the Nationalist group launched into some of their songs. When they started singing Unionist songs as a joke, some of the Unionists came over and joined them. It was these people who sang together that ended up coming to agreement when negotiations continued.

She also shared a story of how a session she was mediating between Israelis and Palestinians was going nowhere at all until participants shared photos of their grandchildren. Fitzduff emphasized again that our overreliance on reason as the path to resolution is sorely misguided.

Next, a participant raised difficult questions about the heavy cost paid by civilians in Gaza during this summer’s violent Israel-Palestinian conflict, costs she saw as unjust and criminal. This violence persists despite dialogue she said. Fitzduff said that a weakness in Israel-Palestine is that dialogues mostly happen at the community level, but rarely at a “powerful leadership level.” She said that she has seen success when children of leaders engage in dialogue and then challenge their parents.

She then recalled a mediation in which a Protestant man, a member of the ruling group in Northern Ireland, said at the start: “I don’t know what we’re doing here. What you want is for us to leave, but after 300 years we have nowhere to go.” And then he broke down and cried, Fitzduff said. Over and over Dr. Fitzduff has seen that even those identified as powerful are afraid, and that too often their fear can blind them to the plight of others—the same result of fear we all exhibit. She added that mediation and dialogue are one essential part of the peacemaking puzzle, and human rights activism is another.

Concluding Dialogue: A Greater "We"

To conclude the four-hour forum, all three speakers took the stage for a whole-group dialogue. Two questions in particular offered the opportunity to engage in an overview of the day’s themes, with each speaker adding a distinct emphasis.

Panel - 2014 Ikeda Forum

First: Is restoring dignity something that can be taught? And how can we learn to forgive others and ourselves in the service of our dignity? Dr. Clements said that it’s not so much that we teach dignity-enhancing behavior, but rather catalyze it in others. As an example, he told of another incident from South Africa’s reconciliation process, as portrayed in the film “Long Night’s Journey Into Day.” In this case, a group of mothers came face to face with a policeman who had murdered their children (who were young men at the time). He apologized to them, but the mothers were not inclined to forgive this person who was nearly evil in their eyes. One mother said that she would never forgive. Many tense minutes passed, when suddenly one of the mothers said, “ I will forgive you, because nothing will bring my son back, and I cannot carry this anger the rest of my life.” And gradually the other mothers realized their burden of hatred and anger could be lifted as well, so they forgave, too.

Echoing some of Dr. Clements earlier remarks, Dr. Fitzduff stressed that it’s vital to understand that forgiveness is often not the right path to healing, with some people even feeling guilty when forgiveness doesn’t feel right to them. Instead of the slogan “forgive and forget,” said Fitzduff, she prefers “remember and change.” Professor Bartoli offered a “meta” response, reflecting on the act of questioning, and the hopes invested in it by the questioner.

“Have we begun to have peace in the world?”Another questioner observed how fleeting hope can be, and asked, quite simply, “Have we begun to have peace in the world?” Mari Fitzduff said that “it can be hard to believe with what’s happening at the moment, but the answer is actually that we are increasingly creating societies that are more peaceful.” They are better able to deal with violent and retributive urges through laws and within the structure of civil society. In support, she cited the work of Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein.****

Dr. Clements suggested that to understand our progress we should look at the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was certainly “not predicted at the time,” he said, that binding agreements among nations would have emerged from this idealistic document, but they have. And over the last 65 years we have experienced an evolution of norms in which the imperative of human rights is seen as sufficiently strong to justify in some cases intervention within the boundaries of a sovereign state. Bartoli agreed, saying that for most of human history, the “we” that we speak of has been restricted to our narrow groups and tribes. Now, the “we” that we speak of is much broader and more inclusive. This recognition of common humanity, Bartoli concluded, “is an enormous leap in our capacity for peace.”

Notes

* These words are from Daisaku Ikeda’s 2013 peace proposal to the United Nations, called “Compassion, Wisdom, and Courage: Building a Global Society of Peace and Creative Coexistence.”

** Before Charlie Clements spoke, there was a showing of a ten-minute clip from the documentary film “A Path to Dignity: The Power of Human Rights Education,” which examined the impact of human rights education on village schoolchildren and their families in India. The film was a joint production of Human Rights Education Associates, Soka Gakkai International, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. View the full video here.

*** After the establishment of the constitutional democracy in South Africa in the 1990s, Sachs served for 15 years on the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court.

**** In 2011, Steven Pinker published the much-discussed Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Also in 2011, Joshua Goldstein published Winning the War On War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.

Print Friendly and PDF