Donna Hicks

Dignity Is the Last Stop, Part 2

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. This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1: "A Shared Yearning." Photos by Marilyn Humphries.

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.

Donna Hicks

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.

How so?

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.

I see.

"A lot of the time our self-preservation instinct robs us of our own dignity."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.

At the end, dignity for me is about three things: It’s about connection, connection, and connection. Let me say what I mean by that. First, honoring our own dignity is key to connecting with ourselves. Next, we have to honor the dignity of other people to connect with them. And thirdly, we need to be connected with something much bigger than ourselves—something that defines us that’s way bigger than who we are. If we keep all three connections in our focus at all times, we’re going to live a dignified life. But the problem is, we get a little bit sidetracked. We get treated badly and we forget about the dignity of the other and all that. It’s a delicate balancing act for me: how to maintain those three connections and be cognizant of the fact that, boy, when we let even one of them go, we’re in trouble.

Can you apply the dignity model to one of our most intractable and difficult international situations, the Israel-Palestine conflict? I had the occasion to visit there nearly twenty years ago as part of a delegation of peace educators, and one of my take-aways was that if I lived there, I don’t know if I’d be able to do any better than anyone else already there, since the circumstances and history are so monumental and complex. Does dignity play a part in this?

Oh, my gosh, yes. For me, this is one of the most tragic situations, and all conflicts are tragic, but I’ve been so attached to this conflict for a long time. For fifteen years I worked on it, trying to bring parties together for conversations. However, the work I did with them was some of my earliest work, before I developed my emphasis on dignity, and I haven’t been back since. But I have found, looking back, that dignity issues are really fueling the conflict, and I think that without a long-lasting and enduring conversation about the role that dignity violations are playing, I don’t see how they will get a political settlement. There has been so much woundedness. Jewish Israelis have brought in so many wounds that were unhealed from the Holocaust, from the ghettoes, from wounds even going back to the Inquisition. Those wounds are so much a part of their consciousness, but there might not be a full recognition of how they are dominating their decision-making.

"In some ways their dignity violations are mirror images."And with the Palestinians it’s more recent, because it wasn’t until the ’48 war that they experienced crises of dignity directly in relation to the Israelis. But I think dignity is at the core of the intractability. I know many of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and we’re talking about brilliant minds. This doesn’t have anything to do with analytical problem solving. This has to do with addressing and healing wounds to dignity before engaging in problem solving and negotiations. I’ve had several people express interest in this and opening a dialogue on dignity, so let’s keep our fingers crossed. I do think, without addressing these dignity wounds, that any sense of security for either the Israelis or Palestinians will be unlikely. In some ways their dignity violations are mirror images.

Now that I hear you speak on this, I recall that on our first visit to the West Bank, members of the Palestinian Authority showed us maps and explained how the system of checkpoints worked. For example, they told us how if the Israelis ordered a lock-down, a person who worked in one town might not be able to return to their hometown that night to be with their family. I understood then that this was a problem, but I see now that this was a dignity violation.

In the book, I actually wrote about a young girl telling about what it was like being with her grandfather at the checkpoints, and how the young, eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers ended up humiliating her grandfather, who was a giant in their community. We do really, really bad things when we are focused only on self-preservation, right? And these young soldiers who are standing there at those checkpoints often are terrified themselves, and it brings out the worst in them. They’re not all bad, and possibly none of them are bad, but when you get to the point where you feel like there’s a threat that you have to defend against, well, it brings out the worst, or at least the fight in us, and we do things we normally would never do.

What is the biggest threat to dignity?

I would say safety. I’ve gone around and around and around on this issue and I think what it really boils down to is when people don’t feel safe, those self-preservation instincts get triggered. And, again, it’s not always pretty when we react in a survivalist sort of way. Although, boy, threats to our identity are also equally triggering for us. In the book I actually outline ten elements of dignity, all of which can be threatened. These are based on stories people have told me from all over the world. These same themes come up wherever I am, and, again, it speaks to the universality of the human experience. On the other hand, something that makes people frustrated and crazy and ready to fight is unfairness, injustice.

Sure. Yes.

These things are so interlinked. Even though I’ve identified ten separate aspects of dignity that can feel threatened, when I hear the worst stories of someone’s dignity being violated, they’re all involved. [Learn more about the ten aspects of dignity here.]

Is there anything else important that we haven’t gotten to?

There is one important thing I want to emphasize, because it comes up in every talk that I give. What I hear is that people think that other people have the power to take away their dignity. They say, I’ve lost my dignity in this conflict. This person treated me so badly that he stripped me of my dignity. Well, I used to think that too, before I started researching my book. And I had a conversation with the archbishop about it, and he said to read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. You’re going to change your mind, he said, about whether someone else has the power to take your dignity away. So I said, OK, I’ll do that. So I read Mandela’s book—and in it he says so many wonderful things.

"Nobody is in charge of my dignity but me."On this particular point he explained that when he went into Robben Island, from the moment he got there he realized that his task was to figure out what the guards were up to. He and his fellow prisoners thought, well, if we can figure out what the guards are up to then we’ll be able to survive. He said it didn’t take him even twenty minutes to figure out that what the guards were up to was trying to strip them of their dignity. And Mandela said, “I was so relieved. Because they will never win at that.” And I didn’t know what he meant by that. And he went on to explain: Nobody is in charge of my dignity but me. They can assault my dignity and they can trample on it. But at the end of the day it’s always in my hands. And he added that it’s really important to heal from those wounds, and the prisoners really helped each other; they banded together to heal from those wounds. And, I thought, of course!

Do you remember the poem “Invictus” he loved so much? “I am the master of my fate, / I am the master of my soul.” That is what drove him to realize that “nobody is in charge of my dignity but me.” What the archbishop shared with me was that this is what got them through 27 years: the belief that they were worthy no matter how badly they were being treated. And, believe me, they were being treated badly. If you believe your dignity is anchored deeply inside of you, you can endure just about anything. This is a true source of resilience. Young people—I’m working a lot in schools now—young people are very vulnerable to feeling powerless and ashamed and overtaken with humiliation, especially with kids being bullied so much now. It’s important to help them see that someone can make you feel bad, but that doesn’t mean that you are bad. It means someone has violated your dignity and you need to take care of it, just like you would a physical wound.

Anther thing I wanted to tell you is this. I teach a three-day class down at Columbia University each semester, and there was a woman, an older woman, a continuing student, maybe in her 40s, and she came to my class, and we were talking about what dignity is and what it isn’t, and she said that she believes dignity is something that is given to us as a sacred trust. We have been given this gift—and from her perspective as a Christian I believe she meant this gift is God-given—but we have been given this gift of being born worthy, and it is our job to be the steward of this dignity; we have to be responsible for own dignity and take care of it.

And if you think about this, it’s a really profound statement, because so much of the time we are not good to our own dignity. We can engage in self-doubt, maybe think that we are stupid, which was my big one growing up. In our private worlds we can see ourselves as not good enough, we can needlessly compare ourselves to other people. And she was saying that this is so much of a mistake, because we are a treasure, each and every one of us on the planet, and we need to treat ourselves that way. I love that. Not only are we the masters of our dignity, we also are the ones who must nurture it and care for it, and we can do the same when we see it in other people.

That seems like a really great place to end.

Yes. No, wait! One other thing!

Go for it.

I just thought of something powerful that somebody else taught me. I was in Dublin last year, and I met with the police commissioner there, who was very concerned about the way the migrant workers were being treated in Ireland. So he developed an entire program to make sure that his fellow officers understood how to treat these migrant workers, and also how to uphold that practice in the community so citizens didn’t treat them badly either. And he had this magnificent program, and honestly it brought tears to my eyes because it was so sensitive to dignity issues. And I said this to the commissioner, his name is Jack Nolan, and I said, “Jack, this is such a beautiful program.” And he asked if there was anything I would add to it, you know, you the dignity expert. And I said, “No, Jack, it’s terrific.”

And then he said, “Donna, you know, at the end of the day, if we ask ourselves just one question, we will truly be on this path of dignity.” And I’m thinking, what is the one question? What is he going to say? And he said, “At the end of the day, we should ask ourselves the question: How do we want to make people feel?” We have the power to make people feel great—we can honor their dignity and make them feel wonderful. But we also have the power to just level people, to make them feel humiliated and horrible. So that’s the question—and I think we could ask it at the beginning of the day, too. This is my guiding question, and I learned it from Jack Nolan.

Read Part 1 of the Donna Hicks interview: "A Shared Yearning."

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

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