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Donna Hicks Ph.D.

Why Dignity Matters

The Important Role Dignity Plays in Our Lives and Relationships

Why Dignity Matters

When I tell people that I have written a book about dignity, the response is always the same: They pause for a moment and say "that is so important." When I ask them to tell me why they think it's important, the most common response is that "we all want that feeling of self-worth." While it is true, my experience is that in spite of its universal appeal, it's a topic that rarely gets discussed. We may not have words to describe it, but we all have an internal experience of it.

We know how great it is to be seen, heard, and acknowledged for who we are and treated as if we mattered. Who doesn't enjoy the praise of being recognized for doing a good job or being honored for going beyond the call of duty? We also know what it feels like to be treated as inferior, discriminated against, ignored, misunderstood, criticized and excluded. There is little worse than being in a situation where you are treated unfairly and can do nothing about it, or being excluded from something that means a lot to you. We are all too well aware of the feelings that accompany these violations of our dignity. What is not common is to bring them up for discussion. It is often too embarrassing to admit that we have been treated so badly. It is why I decided to focus my attention on matters of dignity and to give us a language to bring these issues to the surface so that we can legitimize the suffering that accompanies these painful human experiences and do something about them. We don't have to just live with them. The dignity model has ways to address them.

Matters of dignity are at the heart of every interaction we have on a daily basis and the time has come for us to pay attention to them and to give them voice. They show up in the workplace, in schools, at home, in intimate relationships-everywhere human beings come into contact with one another. Although most of my career has been spent working on repairing relationships at the international level-between warring parties all over the world where dignity violations abound-I have been spending a lot of time recently in the corporate world where there is also no shortage of indignity. One of the major issues I have uncovered in the workplace is that employees often feel that they are not treated well, but have no way to "speak-up" for fear of retribution. They tell me it would be career suicide to go to their bosses and tell them that they have violated their dignity. The end result is that there is a lot of resentment on the part of employees and little desire to extend themselves beyond what their job requires. It is infuriating to them that they are being mistreated and that there is no way to give voice to it. Conflicts over dignity are an everyday experience but very few people feel skilled in handling them. They reach the core of our humanity-injuring that part of us that wants nothing more than to be valued and seen as significant.

This is why I have focused my attention on matters of dignity. The time has come to shed light on something that we may not have either the courage or language to discuss. The shame that accompanies being treated badly prevents us from doing the very thing we need to do to recover from violations of our dignity: bring them out into the open, validate them, and give them the attention they deserve. We wouldn't think twice about getting help when we have a physical injury. When we have a wound to our dignity-there is nowhere to go; no 911 call, no emergency room. Bringing the issue to light can help us all heal from the many subtle and not so subtle ways that indignity has found its way into our lives. Everyday I remind myself that "we can do better and we can do it with dignity."


About the Author

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is the author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict and an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.