Conference Summary 2014
Why Dignity Matters: Considering Its Influence in Thorny Dilemmas
Valerie Craigwell White
Lewis & Clark College
All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.
United Nations Charter of Human Rights Preamble, 1948
Throughout my years as an ombudsperson in higher education and before that as a vice president in financial services, I had noticed there were some complicated dilemmas that remained unsettling for at least one of the parties involved. From time to time this even was the circumstance after the challenges appeared to have been resolved. There were my own cases on which I had reflected back, and there had been ones I had listened to in peer consultation sessions with other ombudspersons. Recurring questions we had asked ourselves were ones such as, “What happened? What did we miss? Was there an element we could have amplified for more satisfactory resolution?”
When an ombuds colleague from the University of Colorado mentioned attending a workshop about dignity with Donna Hicks, author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays In Resolving Conflict (2011), something felt as though it had clicked into place about a few of those previous cases. Maybe dignity was one of the missing ingredients that could have used explicit attention. I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to engage with others to explore dignity more deeply. A funny thing happened after I decided to focus on dignity: it was in the news routinely, as Spanish workers demonstrated, Greeks tried to figure out how to grapple with austerity measures, and South Carolinian families spoke about forgiveness for church murders. And work colleagues even mentioned it from time to time.
I had three learning objectives for this session:
· To explore some key concepts about dignity maintenance, violations, and restoration as they apply to ombuds work;
· To engage actively with central concepts related to dignity;
· To reflect on our personal role in dignity violations to develop self-awareness, and a few strategies to address our challenges.
So what is dignity? 193 United Nations members are bound by the United Nations Charter that includes the words with which this article opens. In her memoir Many a Good Crusade, US American pre-UN Charter conference delegate Virginia Gildersleeve (1954) says she was the one to insert “dignity” into the draft preamble. It’s not a stretch to imagine some of the countries might differ in exactly what dignity means in them.
Hicks defines dignity as “…an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things.” When I taught a subsequent course on dignity, I used a definition that is almost ubiquitous: it is one’s innate worth or value. It is an inherent condition, something with which a person is born, and as such cannot be removed. Later I learned that despite what’s said in documents by which member countries have agreed to abide in the United Nations, agreement about dignity is not universally regarded as defined here. Indeed, some theorists present a case for dignity, honor, and saving-face cultures that organize people’s values and beliefs about what constitutes dignity and who “has” it, or is entitled to it (Leung).
The Hicks definition of dignity cited above goes a step further to note it isn’t enough that one naturally has dignity, this quality she believes is universal. Rather, they must feel it. In personal correspondence with her, I asked what she had noticed about dignity beliefs in other countries and she noted that her experience has shown that while almost people believe in a basic construct of dignity, they have different ideas about how it can be violated and restored.
Fairness, justice, and respect are concepts that relate to dignity and we spent a few minutes considering them. Indeed they sometimes are considered the same thing, or close to each other. As ombuds, it’s helpful to understand the differences in an abstract sense, but equally it is important to grasp how these ideas are being used by office visitors. There isn’t the space here to do an in-depth analysis of what these terms mean, but a short summary may suffice. Justice often is thought about in three ways: distributive (based variously on need, equity, and equality), procedural, and interactional (Colquitt et. al.). Most ombuds offices are structured around the central notion of ensuring fairness to the extent that is possible. Indeed, as Hicks (2011) and others note, even animals such as dogs, monkeys, and crows have demonstrated they respond poorly to unjust or unfair treatment. We are hard-wired to want fair treatment. The concepts of justice and fairness are closely related.
While cultures across nations almost universally value respect, indicators of person-to-person respect may vary across cultures. Similarly, responses to perceived respect violations can matter in varying levels of importance, and be shown in vastly different ways. I’ve noticed “dignity” and “respect” are quite often used together in the United States, particularly when employers and educators discuss how they want students, faculty, to be treated. For example, it’s no longer unusual to hear organizations state they want all constituents “…to be treated with dignity and respect,” generally without saying much about what that may mean.
Hicks identifies ten elements she notes are essential components of dignity (2011). They are acceptance of identity, inclusion, safety, acknowledgement, recognition, fairness, benefit of the doubt, understanding, independence, and accountability. In teaching about dignity in the workplace and in other parts of our lives, I have grouped those by talking about identity acceptance, belonging, and safety together; understanding and integrity; fair treatment; and a sense of agency.
For those countries and cultures to whom dignity matters, and if one agrees that it is inherent, theorists such as Hicks maintain that it can’t be destroyed, but can be violated or seriously damaged. Indeed, individuals may be prone to violate the dignity of others according to Hicks, and this can take several forms she identifies. Self-awareness is crucial in learning more about one’s role in intentional and inadvertent harmful behavior.
So what can a person actually do to address dignity violations? I combined Hicks’ (2011) ideas with a few of my own and they follow:
· Recognize that people matter, that they are vulnerable, and sometimes even fragile.
· Understand the effects dignity violations may have on other people.
· Notice how strong a person’s sense of self-preservation may be, as we often strike from that place.
· Develop self-awareness about one’s own sense of vulnerability.
· See the humanity in each visitor, and point out when you think they’ve encountered it in each other (checking out your assumptions, of course).
· Bring the visitors together (with their permission) and help them hear each other without interrupting or challenging the other’s story, while they listen for understanding.
· Help them acknowledge—in front of each other--what the other has been through (Hicks has some very powerful examples of this).
· Use your most effective attending and facilitation skills to help create a container in which they may feel safe enough to be vulnerable. (Hicks, 2011)
When asked what I do as an ombudsperson, my first two sentences are about fairness and dignity. At work, I’ve declared my office a Dignity Zone and I tell visitors what that means for how I’d like to work with them. I try to keep Hicks’ Ten Essentials (2011) in my head or close by, to help me listen for how dignity is being maintained or injured. Everything is not about dignity violations, but it has proven a useful construct to have in my array of helpful constructs and strategies in my ombuds life.
Bolton, S.C. (2010). Dignity of labor as the foundation of spirit-work connection. Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion Vol. 7, No. 2, 157-172.
Colquitt, J.A., Greenberg, J., & Zapata-Phelan, C.P. (2005). What is organizational justice? A historical overview. In J. Greenberg, & J. Colquitt, (Eds.), Handbook of organizational justice. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Greenberg, M. (2014). The neuroscience of fairness and injustice: How our brains are wired to resist unfair treatment. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201408/the-neuroscience-fairness-and-injustice.
Guildersleeve, V. (1954). Many a Good Crusade. New York: Macmillan.
Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Leung, A.K-Y. & Cohen, D. (2011). Within- and between-culture variation: Individual differences and the cultural logics of honor, face, and dignity cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 100(3), Mar, 507-526.