At first glance the concept of human dignity seems straightforward, and the appropriate action doesn’t seem all that challenging. As with all human encounters, treating other people with dignity is easy while reading Donna Hicks’ valuable book, and difficult when facing a person very different from yourself.
Donna Hicks defines what she means by dignity early in the book. “…the message of the model is quite simple: Demonstrate the care and attention for yourself and others that anything of value deserves. That is the first and only imperative. Don’t miss an opportunity to exert the power you have to remind others of who they are: invaluable, priceless, and irreplaceable. Remind yourself, too.”
She also defines the difference between dignity and respect. You might think it’s impossible to respect a person who gambles with the grocery money. I believe Hicks would answer in this way – the gambling doesn’t deserve respect, but all people, whether or not they have achieved moral greatness, still deserve to be treated with dignity. While Hicks goes into the psychological roots of dignity and the inborn need to feel we are valued, the forward to the book by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu puts the concept of dignity in a Christian context when he defines it as an “…inalienable God-given right of all humankind.”
Hicks feels dignity is a quality every human being has from birth. Her list of the 10 essential elements of dignity is an excellent check list: Acceptance of Identity, Inclusion, Safety, Acknowledgment, Recognition, Fairness, Benefit of the Doubt, Understanding, Independence and Accountability. When the essential elements of dignity are present, meaningful friendships can happen. As I read the book, I found it useful to keep in mind Hicks’ primary job as a conflict resolution specialist who has worked as a “…third-party facilitator in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts….” It was humbling to realize Hicks treated torturers, extortionists, criminals and snipers with dignity, and that she suggests we learn to do the same. She also insists we must treat poor people, little children, those who have no power with the dignity that is their human birthright, or we will compromise our own dignity as we trample the dignity of others.
In the second large section of the book, we meet “Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity.” The first temptation sets the pattern. It is so easy to fall into these behaviors that shred our own dignity and the dignity of others. The first temptation, “Taking the Bait” is an excellent example of the power of these temptations. When another person behaves badly, assaulting the dignity of all the people within hearing, it’s so easy to say inwardly that such a person no longer deserves any consideration. Yet answering a stream of obscenity with a similar collection of obscenity violates the dignity of the person who answers in such a way. Still, aggression for aggression is easy to fall into. In fact, many people are proud of their ability to get even with others. Under “Saving Face,” Hicks admits it’s a human tendency to hide our hurtful words or actions, to even lie about what we have done. The problem with denying or covering up the many ways in which we have hurt the dignity of another human being, is that in doing so, we injure our own dignity. Because our own dignity has been compromised so often, violating the dignity of another person can become almost automatic, yet, the cycle of injury and revenge can be broken by compassionate listening and by hearing the stories other people have to share.
As The Rev. Stephen Huber says in A Journey With Luke, “What if we really took to heart our baptismal promises to respect the dignity of every human being – no exceptions, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons – no exceptions?” This is the world Leslie Hicks imagines as she encourages her readers to treat every human being with dignity. Even better, instead of stopping with an exhortation to right action, Hicks gives us the tools and insights to be more successful in this important task that so many of us have promised to perform.
Freelance writer Dawn McDuffie is a member of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit.