Defining Dignity

Dignity refers to a person’s fundamental right to have rights. Dignity recognizes the innate value of every human; recognizing that each individual embodies profound potential and experiences the full range of human emotions and needs. 

Perhaps the most important component of the dignity curriculum is the definition of dignity itself. This definition points squarely to human rights theory, and is best understood when presented alongside the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

This definition also acknowledges the complexity of everyone in the room and recognizes that we are all continually adapting to a wide array of social forces, some empowering, some destructive. It asks us to accept that every person carries an enormous history and an unwritten future.

This definition establishes two things: 1. Every person is valuable, and 2. We rarely, if ever, know the whole story behind a person’s actions. As the year progresses in the classroom and we dissect conflicts in history, literature, and our everyday lives, this concept of dignity guides us to investigate the complexity of motivation and to avoid violating the dignity of anyone, especially by acting on our initial, knee-jerk judgments.

Dignity is universal and all-inclusive. No individual is beyond dignity no matter how incomprehensible or damaging his or her actions may be. We may not respect everyone, we can feel shocked and hurt by violence and cruelty, and we may duly intervene to assure that everyone is safe, but there’s little reason to think we have access to the full range of forces operating within the conflict. We may seek to change the bad behaviors of others, but we do so with the assumption that their actions reflect past attempts to stay safe in dangerous environments or follow the dictates of cultural poisons like racism and sexism. It offers space for us to forgive our missteps and mistakes and to address the various forces that lead to dehumanization.

Dignity vs. Respect
The distinction between dignity and respect is very important. Respect is culturally anchored, which means that the currency of respect is subject to the many biases and prejudices of the community. When I was a kid, I respected baseball players far more than doctors. Now I respect doctors more than baseball players. The respect I have to offer has shifted as my values have changed, but both doctors and baseball players are equal in dignity. Members of each group deserve to be recognized as complex individuals with complex histories. They deserve a voice in public life and the space to live freely. Also, by separating dignity from respect, we can explain why we are disgusted by the perpetrators of terrible crimes and why we would never torture them. They have done nothing to earn our respect, but their basic dignity as humans offers them a basic level of protection.

We follow Donna Hicks on this key point:
“I make the distinction between a person, who deserves respect, and a person’s actions, which may or may not deserve respect. Claiming that everyone automatically deserves to be treated with respect is complicated by [this distinction], but claiming that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity is not complicated at all. We all deserve it no matter what we do. Treating people badly because they have done something wrong only perpetuates the cycle of indignity. What is worse, we violate our own dignity in the process. Other’s bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return. Their inherent value and worth need to be honored no matter what they do. But we don’t have to respect them. They have to earn respect through their behavior and actions. Earning respect means doing something that goes above and beyond the baseline right to be treated well. If we have earned respect, we have extended ourselves to others in an admirable way.” – Donna Hicks, Dignity pg. 5.

Let’s say we’re in a heated argument. Our claims escalate from the issue at hand to the usual name-calling and character attacks. If I tell you that you are disrespecting me, you’re likely to respond with at least a little exasperation. Why should you be showing me respect? What have I done worth respecting? However, if I cut in and and tell you that I feel like my dignity is being violated, I’m making a much grander claim. I’m telling you that I feel devalued, that I seem to be worthless and expendable in your eyes, that I’m not being recognized as a full person. We rarely intend to cut so deep, but the impact of our attacks and counter-attacks often inflict damage far beyond what we initially intended. By keeping the concept of dignity close at hand in our conflicts, we can keep them from escalating out of control.

Dignity vs. The ‘-isms”
Our complex communities are laden with labels and categories that let us simplify the world around us. Among other things, stereotypes about ethnicity, race, age, and gender are perpetuated almost everywhere a young person looks, and they do incalculable damage as we make unfair assumptions about one another. As teachers, we can fashion various anti-racist, anti-sexist, (etc.) curricula to fight these stereotypes, and we can make a reasonable impact. But these -isms are powerful and resilient forces in our society, and in order for them to be truly displaced, we need to offer students a more powerful and more resilient conceptual framework.

For years I taught units highlighting the evils of racism and sexism. The students wrote everything I hoped they’d write and said everything I’d hoped they’d say. Soon after, I’d inevitably overhear a sexist joke in the cafeteria, or a Mexican joke on the soccer field, or a gay joke in the hallway. However, once the definition of dignity is established, it is relatively easy to compare the shallowness of these “-isms” against the depth of individual complexity. After all, they recognize this complexity in themselves and in their close circles of friends and family, so it is not a particularly challenging task to extend it outward.

The redirection is simple: Whenever you find yourself relying on a stereotype, remind yourself that the person in question feels the full range of human emotions, that he or she has the full range of human needs, including safety, autonomy, connection to others, and a sense of purpose, and that he or she contains profound potential. Because people really are individuals, because everyone really does feel fully and need fully, because people really are capable of extraordinary things, the truth of individual complexity and the concept of dignity can override and displace long-entrenched assumptions.

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