Dignity. Everybody wants it, craves it, seeks it.
Isn’t that what everybody really wants? You, me, your parents, your children, your friends, your colleagues at work.
The homeless person in the park, the elderly in nursing homes; students, teachers, principals; Christians, Jews, Muslims; taxi drivers, store clerks, waiters, police officers; prisoners and guards; immigrants; doctors, patients, nurses; the poor, the wealthy, the middle class; big nations, small nations, people without a homeland.
All of us want to be treated with dignity.
Dignity is a need so strong that people will give up their freedom to have it met; an inner drive so insistent that it can move people to shocking acts of revenge when the attempt to achieve it is thwarted; a human value so critical to happiness and well-being that people sometimes value it more than life itself.
It’s recognizing that you and everyone else have a right to be here, and that you belong. It means valuing your own and other’s presences and special qualities. It means honoring who you are and what you have to offer. It means creating a culture in which it is safe for everyone to contribute their own gifts and talents.
Yet this craving for dignity is so commonly overlooked that most of us accept undignified treatment as “just the way it is.” As victims, we may wince inwardly, but we bite our tongues (“Who am I to protest” “What good will it do?”) “He deserved it.” “I’m just evening the score.”) Or we ignore our nagging conscience, failing to acknowledge even to ourselves that we are violating another’s dignity.
“There are two things people want more than sex and money – recognition and praise.” ~ Mary Kay Ash
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Human beings love themselves — at least for the most part. It seems to be part of our innate constitution to have a natural concern or affection for our own well-being, to take a special interest in ourselves.
That, presumably, is a good thing. It is hard to imagine how we could survive without this self-directed sentiment and the forms of motivation that it enables. Nevertheless self-love can also go spectacularly wrong in a dizzying variety of ways.
The history of moral psychology is in part a catalog of its many disorders. Love of self can become the sin of pride; it can degenerate into (or fail to develop out of) an amoral egoism; it can balloon into narcissism. All too often it makes us callous to the needs of others or overly sensitive to their assessments of our worth — or both. It can disrupt relationships and become an organizing principle in degenerate configurations of culture.
An undiagnosed disorder is at large in the world.
Every day we witness dignity scored in our personal relationships, families, businesses, schools, healthcare facilities, religious institutions, and governmental bodies. Routinely, we fail to accord dignity to those we perceive to be the weaker among us. They may be the old, the young, the poor, the unknown, the infirm, the female, the darker colored, the jobless, the less skilled or the less attractive.
It afflicts individuals, groups, and nations. It distorts our personal relationships, erodes our will to learn, taxes our economic productivity, stokes ethnic hatred, and incites nations to war. It is the cause of dysfunctionality, and sometimes even violence, in families, schools, and the workplace.
Even the wealthy and the famous will attest to experiencing indignity.
So if every day so many of us are not treated with the health-giving, life-affirming dignity we crave, then why are we so shocked when an employee “goes postal”, a teenager goes on a violent rampage, a mild mannered woman explodes in anger at a seemingly small provocation, or global tensions escalate into international crises?
Why do we habitually fail to recognize, beneath the violent outbursts the powerful impulse to lash out when a fundamental birthright has been denied: the right to be treated with dignity.
Each one of us needs to feel appreciated. It is our human nature to appreciate being recognized for our accomplishments and achievements.
In the hurry of responsibilities and the pressure of getting things done, we often forget the importance of letting people know how much they are truly appreciated. It is so easy to take each other for granted.
Knowing that “someone cares” is a great motivator. Family members, group members, and leaders need to know that their contributions and efforts are appreciated and valued. A little appreciation goes a long way toward making people feel like they are part of the team and giving them an incentive to do their best work.
Dignity and recognition are inseparable. We can’t all be famous, but fortunately recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek dignity, or from whom it is otherwise withheld.
Once aware of the deleterious effects of “malrecognition,” we can act against it as we now take steps to prevent malnutrition.
We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek it or from whom it is otherwise withheld, and take steps to prevent malrecognition – that is too little or no recognition at all – as we now do to prevent malnutrition.
However, despite many attempts to eradicate the latter and assurances from experts that it is actually within our power to do so – hunger and malnutrition is no less daunting a challenge.
In contrast to malnutrition, malrecognition afflicts both rich and poor. Both maladies reduce the body’s resistance to disease and lower life expectancy. For most people, just the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world is enough to stifle the inclination to lash out. This means that mal recognition, like its physical counterpart is a preventable and treatable ailment.
The hoards of ill prepared young people dropping out of our schools today testify to the fact that we are still forcing many to choose between the short term gratification of flouting the system and the long-term security that can be had by knuckling under to its routine humiliations.
As things stand now, when it comes to recognition, it’s either feast or famine. A few individuals get the lion’s share while a great many others must settle for crumbs. But unlike the supply of food, the supply of recognition is unlimited.
Children learn it early in life. They learn, for example to treat classmates who live in “less desirable” area of town or who don’t wear the latest fashions as if they are inferior.
Snobbish behavior is often displayed by cliques. Most people know the indignity of being ignored, snubbed, insulted, banished, or barred from inclusion because they weren’t part of “the right group” or power elite; or did not have the right occupation, education, point of view, financial status, clothes or family history.
Snobbery treats individuals and groups of people as if they are not as worthy valued or valuable because they lack certain characteristics which a self-identified “elite” group has deemed important.
Back in the 1940s, the ‘Maslow hierarchy of needs’ revolutionized our understanding on what drives and motivates human behavior. It stated that once we satisfy our basic physical needs, our mental aspirations are awaken, including personal ambitions, sense of achievement, and need for recognition by our surroundings. Yet, the way in which we strive for society’s respect and approval has drastically changed over the centuries.
It was much easier to gain one’s place in society at a time when families lived together for generations, working places rarely changed, and friends were for life – none of which is still the case. How do we seek the same kind of recognition at a time when family bonds are weaker, jobs and colleagues change regularly, and social lives transform as we travel, re-locate, and re-settle around the world? To make things worse, our societies have grown more competitive, thus less generous in offering recognition, and demanding that we (re)prove our skill and talent on a regular basis. Our human need for respect and recognition has thus remained, while attaining this goal has become all more difficult.
For Maslow, needs are hierarchical in nature. That is, each need has a specific ranking or order of obtainment. Maslow’s needs pyramid starts with the basic items of food, water, and shelter. These are followed by the need for safety and security, then belonging or love, self-esteem, and finally, personal fulfillment.
Other needs theorists who have adopted Maslow’s ideas to conflict theory, however, perceive human needs in a different way.
Human needs theorists offer a new dimension to conflict theory. Their approach provides an important conceptual tool that not only connects and addresses human needs on all levels it recognizes the existence of negotiable and nonnegotiable issues.
That is, needs theorists understand that needs, unlike interests, cannot be traded, suppressed, or bargained for. Thus, the human needs approach makes a case for turning away from traditional negotiation models that do not take into account nonnegotiable issues.
Rewards and recognition backfire when they become expected, trivialized, or deemed arbitrary or unfair. Research clearly shows that tournament programs, those that reward only a select, pre-determined number of people, underperform so-called open-ended programs that provide recognition to everyone who achieves a goal.
For years, businesses thought that money was the prime motivator in employees’ lives. Numerous studies have shown this to be false. Repeatedly, employees have stated that a simple acknowledgment of their work means more to them than a financial reward. Volunteers are not paid – not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.
It’s easy to generalize that what one person holds as important is true of others; but in fact, we are motivated in different ways. One person may enjoy public recognition at a meeting or event; others may prefer a simple “thank you” note delivered privately. The challenge in providing recognition effectively is matching the recognition to the person, so that it has the proper effect.
We know that people feel better when they believe they are appreciated.
Probably the number one characteristic of good recognition is sincerity. Most people will be able to tell when you really mean what you say and when you’re just “going through the motions.”
Dignity as recognition reflects a new political demand, not for freedom or liberty or a minimum standard of living, but rather for respect, sometimes referred to as third-generation “solidarity rights ” (in contrast to first-generation civil liberties and second-generation social-welfare rights). Such rights are frequently protected by modern human rights documents and some national constitutions. The demand for recognition, for the dignity of recognition, requires protection against the symbolic, expressive harms of policies that fail to respect the worth of each individual and group.
Consider, for example, hate speech regulation. Most western democracies prohibit speech or publications that vilify or significantly disrespect groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.
As the Canadian Supreme Court explained in R. v. Keegstra, “A person’s sense of human dignity and belonging to the community at large is closely linked to the concern and respect accorded the groups to which he or she belongs. The derision, hostility and abuse encouraged by hate propaganda therefore have a severely negative impact on the individual’s sense of self-worth and acceptance.”
By contrast, in the United States, hate speech is generally protected by the First Amendment, which is concerned primarily with the dignity of the speaker, a dignity protected by allowing the maximum degree of freedom of speech. The dignity recognized by hate speech regulation runs headlong into the inherent dignity of each person to express his views, however hateful they may be.
Americans have always taken pride in the image of promoting happiness for all, promising unprecedented wealth enshrined in the enthusiastically idealistic “American Dream.”
But, why is the United States called “the head of the snake” by Bin Laden (National Commission, 2004, p. 2)? And why is this a view harbored not only by one individual, but one inspiring hundreds of active followers, and thousands, or even millions of sympathizers?
How can so many people hold on to such gloomy outlooks as martyr death? Money does not seem to motivate them, at least not the leaders. Bin Laden and his supporters have enough money. Mohammed Atta had nothing standing between him and a comfortable western life. So, what does motivate these people? Envy? Humiliation?
Would it not be wise to tackle such questions in a comprehensive way in order to avoid descending into nuclear, chemical, and/or biological destruction?
Humiliation-for-humiliation may represent the only real Weapons of Mass Destruction we face.
To be humiliated is to be placed, against your will (or in some cases with your consent as in cases of religious self-humiliation or in sado-masochism) and often in a deeply hurtful way, in a situation that is greatly inferior to what you feel you should expect. Humiliation entails demeaning treatment that transgresses established expectations. It may involve acts of force, including violent force.
At its heart is the idea of pinning down, putting down, or holding to the ground. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of humiliation as a process is that the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, and made helpless.
People react in different ways when they feel that they are unduly humiliated. Some people feeling humiliation may experience rage; this may be turned inwards, as in the case of depression and apathy. However, rage may also turn outwards and express itself in violence, even in mass violence when leaders are available to forge narratives of group humiliation. Some people hide their anger and carefully plan revenge. The person who plans for “cold” revenge may become the leader of a particularly dangerous movement.
The new global in group ethics, or human rights ideals, however, aim at a new combination, not maintenance of social cohesion embedded within hierarchical rankings of human value, but maintenance of social cohesion linked to attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that promote equal dignity for all.
I believe that this transition—enshrined as the Geneva Conventions’ central human rights call for equal dignity for everyone (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)—is gaining mainstream acceptance mainly because of the rise of a vision and reality of one single in group of humanity.
Human rights stipulate that every human being is equal in dignity. Yet, this ideal is attained nowhere. On the contrary, we find many social settings where human worthiness and value are ranked (men are regarded to possess more worthiness than women, colored people face discrimination), and it is this ranking of human worthiness that human rights declare to be illegitimate. We have to overcome what experts call rankism.
Rankism has humiliating effects as soon as we take human rights ideals seriously.
Rankism encompasses racism, sexism and the other similar forms of injustice. It is behavior that diminishes human dignity–black or white, female or male, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, poor or rich, etc.
Rankism is the abuse of power attached to rank. A difference of rank alone does not cause indignity, but abuse of rank invariably does. Put simply, rankism is what somebodies may do to nobodies. But just as not all whites were racists, so too not everyone of high rank is a rankist.
The real and imagined threat of rank abuse pervades all our educational institutions – from kindergarten through graduate school. Finding and holding one’s position in a hierarchy takes priority over all else. In any institution with gradations of rank, protecting one’s dignity from insult and injury siphons attention and energy away from learning.
No child – no human being – is expendable. Everyone has something to contribute, and when that contribution is made and acknowledged, he or she feels like a somebody. Helping individuals locate that something and contribute it is the proper business of education.
Once you have a name for it, you see rankism at the heart of many infringements of human rights, far away or close to home. Rankism is the root cause of indignity, injustice, and unfairness. Choosing the term rankism, places the goal of universal human dignity in the context of contemporary movements for civil rights. Reexamining racism, sexism, and ageism as examples of rankism breathes new life into the movements opposing them.
People’s whole lives change when they’re treated with dignity – and when they are not.
Dignity is to the identity what food is to the body–indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, respect and recognition provide assurance that our place in the group is secure. Without regular validation, our survival feels at risk. Without proper recognition, individuals may sink into self-doubt.
Our passions are unique and personal. They grow out of our questions, out of the contradictions we feel with other people, with others’ work, or with society. Initially we wonder Who’s right? What’s beautiful? What’s fair? What’s true? We’re not sure. Our questions generate our individuality. Through our response to them, we define ourselves, we become someone in particular. Rank, social and otherwise, still keeps
Identifying rankism in all its guises and overcoming it is democracy’s next step.
People’s whole lives change when they’re treated with dignity – and when they are not. Fundamentally dignity is about respect and value. It means treating yourself and others with respect just because you are alive on the planet.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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