I can still remember the first time I learned about the concept of dignity. I was sitting on a bench in the Topiary Park of downtown Columbus, Ohio. I lived a short walk away and in those days–when I was a freelance writer bashing out 3,000+ words a day just to pay the bills–I’d take reading breaks there to escape my desk and get some much needed sunshine.
On this particular day I was reading a book called Good Without God. At the time I was still very much in the process of de-converting from Christianity. I knew I could no longer force myself to believe in that god or in the Bible, but when it came to defining what I did believe in and the underlying purpose of my new faithless life, I was floundering.
I lacked a vocabulary to express what was going on in my inner world. What I would have until recently called my “spiritual” wants and needs. It was maddening; like needing to google something extremely important but having no idea how to describe it, let alone what it was actually called. So I began my search broadly.
I figured, if I’m not a Christian any more then maybe I should read books by other folks who don’t believe in god?
I started with the famous new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitches, and Sam Harris–but after reading their books (and watching way too many YouTube debates about religion) I more or less just felt confirmed in my non-belief. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing to know that I was not alone, but on its own that wasn’t enough. I didn’t yet know what I stood for.
Was there some sort of “secular” standard I should be living by? How am I supposed to orient my morality in a cold and neutral universe?
Questions like these lead me to the book Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. With a subtitle of “What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” it sounded like exactly what I had been looking for. And it was!
With every page I began to build a new vocabulary for things I had previously only felt or experienced but could now–finally–articulate. The most profound one for me, by far, was the concept of dignity.
What is Dignity? A Definition
Dignity is notoriously tricky to pin down with a precise definition. Not least because it has meant different things at different times throughout history. Today I think most people associate it with a vague image of snobbish aristocrats and the things they’re too good for. However, the starting definition Epstein shared (which was actually something he learned from his friend and teacher Sherwin Wine) is this:
[Dignity is] equal parts love, friendship, reason, justice, and self-discipline, taken with a shot of optimism and a chaser of defiance.
It has four qualities:
The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one’s own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one’s identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others.
And it has three moral obligations:
First, “I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life.” Second, “I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy.” And third, “I have a moral obligation to be generous.”
And just like that, on a park bench in Columbus, I knew that if nothing else I stood for dignity. And of course, I wanted to know more about it. Which lead me to yet another life-changing book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
The Dignity Model, a New Approach
If anyone in the world could be said to be an expert on dignity, it’s Donna Hicks. In her role as an international conflict resolution specialist, who has spent decades attempting to facilitate helpful dialogue between communities split by the most bitter conflicts imaginable, she found that understanding and honoring dignity was essential to mending broken relationships.
Her definition is simpler on the surface than the one above, but as you’ll see below, more rigorous in supporting actions.
Dignity is an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things.
I’ve come to think of Wine’s definition as more of a personalized method of cultivating a sense of dignity in himself. One that he found effective and passed on to others, like Epstein. I know I certainly found it inspiring (and still do!). However, I can’t help but think of Hicks’ definition and accompanying “model” or approach to application as clearer and field-tested for a broader audience.
In her approach “dignity is a birthright.” Something inherent in all living things. And the goal of the Dignity Model is to:
Demonstrate the care and attention for yourself and others that anything of value deserves.
It implores us:
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 then outlines ten essential elements of dignity to help us recognize how best to honor our own and others’ inherent value and worth. She also provides ten of the most common behaviors that cause us to violate our own and other people’s dignity.
Donna Hicks’ Ten Essential Elements of Dignity
“Acceptance of Identity – Approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identities. Assume that others have integrity.
Inclusion – Make others feel that they belong, whatever the relationship–whether they are in your family, community, organization, or nation.
Safety – Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them to feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
Acknowledgment – Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating, and responding to their concerns, feelings, and experiences.
Recognition – Validate others for their talents, hard-work, thoughtfulness, and help. Be generous with praise, and show appreciation and gratitude to others for their contributions and ideas.
Fairness – Treat people justly, with equality, and in an even-handed way according to agreed-on laws and rules. People feel that you have honored their dignity when you treat them without discrimination or injustice.
Benefit of the Doubt – Treat people as trustworthy. Start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
Understanding – Believe that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain and express their points of view. Actively listen in order to understand them.
Independence – Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility.
Accountability– Take responsibility for your actions. If you have violated the dignity of another person, apologize. Make a commitment to change your hurtful behaviors.”
Donna Hicks’ Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity
“Taking the Bait – Don’t take the bait. Don’t let the bad behavior of others determine your own. Restraint is the better part of dignity. Don’t justify getting even. Do not do unto others as they do unto you if it will cause harm.
Saving Face – Don’t succumb to the temptation to save face. Don’t lie, cover up, or deceive yourself. Tell the truth about what you have done.
Shirking Responsibilities – Don’t shirk responsibility when you have violated the dignity of others. Admit it when you make a mistake, and apologize if you hurt someone.
Seeking False Dignity – Beware of the desire for external recognition in the form of approval and praise. If we depend on others alone for validation of our worth, we are seeking false dignity. Authentic dignity resides within us. Don’t be lured by false dignity.
Seeking False Security – Don’t let your need for connection compromise your dignity. If we remain in a relationship in which our dignity is routinely violated, our desire for connection has outweighed our own dignity. Resist the temptation to settle for false security.
Avoiding Conflict – Stand up for yourself. Don’t avoid confrontation when your dignity is violated. Take action. A violation is a signal that a relationship needs to change.
Being the Victim – Don’t assume that you are the innocent victim in a troubled relationship. Open yourself to the idea that you might be contributing to the problem. We need to look at ourselves as others see us.
Resisting Feedback – Don’t resist feedback from others. We often don’t know what we don’t know. We all have blind spots; we all unconsciously behave in undignified ways. We need to overcome our self-protective instincts and accept constructive criticism. Feedback gives us an opportunity to grow.
Blaming and Shaming Others to Deflect Your Own Guilt – Don’t blame and shame others to deflect your own guilt. Control the urge to defend yourself by making others look bad.
Engaging in False Intimacy and Demeaning Gossip – Beware of the tendency to connect by gossiping about others in a demeaning way. Being critical and judgmental about others when they are not present is harmful and undignified. If you want to create intimacy with another, speak the truth about yourself, about what is happening in your inner world, and invite the other person to do the same.“
Using the Dignity Model’s Elements and Temptations to Kickstart A Year of Dignity
There’s so much to reflect on and unpack in these elements and temptations. Which is why for the first twenty weeks of the series I’ll be dedicating a full week to each one and sharing the results here on the Humanist Handbook blog.
The goal is to see and feel the effects of a full year with dignity top of mind. Focusing on a better understanding of it, better internalization of it, and being better at honoring it in others. I’m not sure what the whole year will look like yet, but I’m excited to start this journey with you and I’m sure by the time we get to the twenty week mark we’ll know where to go from there.
Next Week in A Year of Dignity: Acceptance of Identity
I’ll be spending the next seven days reflecting on this element of dignity, putting it into practice, reading/watching supplemental materials, and writing down my thoughts and experiences. You’re invited to do the same! Come back next Wednesday to follow along and even share your own experiences in the comments.
In the meantime? Any thoughts on the concept of dignity? Tell me all about them in the comments section below!