Taking Dignity Digital

By Taylor Holland

During her Fall 2015 Northeastern University co-op placement at the Ikeda Center, Taylor Holland helped us to improve our social media presence. We thought it only natural, then, to ask her to reflect on "the practice of dignity," our main focus in 2015, and how that might play out online. Holland graduates from Northeastern in 2016 with degrees in International Affairs and History.

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At the Ikeda Center, one of our core convictions is that respect for human dignity provides a baseline ethical standard for our thoughts and actions. When I consider how to bring an awareness of dignity into my life, there is no doubt that such awareness must also extend to social media. While social media is in some ways different from offline interaction in how it affirms and violates dignity, there are dignity-building ideas that scholars and mediators have developed offline that we can also apply—productively, I believe—to online interaction.

Marc Prensky has designated those of us who have grown up learning and using the digital language of computers and the Internet as “digital natives.” (1) Our parents—those who have adopted digital technology later in life—are digital immigrants." For digital natives, there is no dichotomy between social media and “real life”: Social media is less a break from our reality, than a central part of it. At age twenty-two I use social media on a daily basis to connect with friends and family around the world, to stay up to date on global and local news, and to engage in discussion and voice my opinions on social and political issues. The challenges to dignity that social media presents do not discourage me from using social media; rather, they prompt me to evaluate my digital citizenship in the same way that I am conscious of how I support dignity as a citizen in offline communities.

"It is much easier to write a snarky post or reply when you won’t be faced with the reaction it will provoke."Donna Hicks, associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and author of the bestselling Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, argues that dignity is inherent, something we are all born with. However, this truth is balanced by the reality that this dignity is vulnerable. On social media, that vulnerability is heightened. It is much easier to write a snarky post or reply when you won’t be faced with the reaction it will provoke, not unlike a digital version of road rage. When we are distanced from the reactions our words and images generate, we lose the opportunity to understand our communicative impact. In particular, we miss the nonverbal visual cues that enable us to quickly and instinctively make sense of what we are hearing. We also miss the direct, active listening component of in-person dialogue. On social media, we usually don’t know exactly who is paying attention—a Snapchat may be opened without viewing, a friend of a friend may see a Facebook post, and anyone can follow public Twitter and Instagram accounts. A like or retweet is a reductive substitute for the full attention of an in-person dialogue partner. With less direct listening and nonverbal reaction, social media communication lacks significant dimensions of human connection.

So how do we increase the presence of dignity in our social media communication? In her January 2015 talk at the Ikeda Center, Dr. Hicks presented three elements of dignity, which she describes as “qualities we extend to others and would like for ourselves.” The first element of dignity is acknowledgement of another party’s viewpoint, which creates grounds for healing and connection. As we acclimate to social media, we should consider how we communicate acknowledgement online: is a like or retweet sufficient, or would a direct message be more appropriate? Perhaps a picture conveys more than a comment? Maybe, as Oxford Dictionaries has recently suggested, an emoji would best express our thoughts? Ikeda Center Advisor Masao Yokota has written, “in a dialogue, we have a responsibility to be present and enrich each other.” We must ask ourselves how our new forms of acknowledgement are communicating our presence and our commitment to building shared understanding.

The second element is safety, particularly the safety to speak up about problems or injustices. Such safety is essential in order to bring all voices to the table, said Hicks, since people are too often “terrified” to speak the truth of their lived experience. On social media, there are pros and cons regarding safety. We are physically distanced from those who hear our voices, which can provide a measure of security. However, our increased publicity invites the engagement of complete strangers who care more about the content of a tweet then its author and its context. Public shaming on the Internet often leads to people losing their jobs and/or having their address leaked to the mob that would see their downfall, not to mention the psychological impact of trending on Twitter as the target of a cruel callout. Journalist Jon Ronson discusses the impact of shame culture in his TED Talk titled “When Online Shaming Spirals Out of Control,” where he details how tweeting a single joke cost Justine Sacco her career and her reputation for years.

One of the reasons public shaming happens so easily online is that social media does not lend itself well to giving users the benefit of the doubt—the third element emphasized by Dr. Hicks. A lack of context increases chances for misunderstanding, and often that misunderstanding gets hashed out publicly in the comments section, each response cheered by onlookers through likes or additional replies. Records of past posts are widely available, and not all social media channels allow editing of posted content. Screenshots forever preserve even the most hastily deleted posts, holding people accountable for everything they’ve ever published. A recent example: Comedian and soon-to-be Daily Show host Trevor Noah came under fire this past summer for jokes perceived by many as anti-Semitic and sexist that he tweeted in 2012. Fortunately, many voices took a dignity-affirming position and gave Noah the benefit of the doubt, pointing to the significant growth of character a young person experiences in three years. Noah took over the Daily Show as planned, and in my opinion now walks the line of satire and offense with significantly more grace.

"Social media carries an immense potential for self-reflection and growth."While social media, like all communication, has the potential to violate dignity, it also carries an immense potential for self-reflection and growth. Dr. Hicks asserts that the dignity model is “an educational model”: Through practicing dignity, we are “educating ourselves about what it means to be a human being.” When we interrogate and critique our practices on social media, we are learning new ways of being human in a context that naturally supports grassroots exchange, elevates marginalized voices, and requires increased transparency from political and corporate bodies. Additionally, the Internet provides a wealth of free information, and social media facilitates our ability to produce, share, and access it—the education process itself is more accessible with social media.

As I continue to communicate online, I want to ask myself how I am upholding the dignity of those whom I engage there. To do this, I turn to the questions that 2015 Ikeda Forum speaker Meenakshi Chhabra offered as aids to self-reflection in pursuit of dignity: 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? These questions can help us think critically about the motivations driving our social media usage and the resulting impact. Social media hosts a powerful and rapidly evolving realm of discourse. When we participate, we must ensure that in doing so we are honoring the dignity of our fellow digital citizens.


1. Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001.

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