A man mourns over the bodies of those killed in a suspected chemical weapon attack in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. CREDIT: CNN. CNN

In the Face of Violence, a Call for Dignity

“We have run out of words to fully explain the brutality, violence and callous disregard for human life, which is a hallmark of this crisis.”

That’s the United Nations’ Valerie Amos earlier this month describing the situation in Syria. But sadly, Amos’ words describe so many crises today, whether the recent school massacre in Pakistan, the café siege in Sydney or ongoing conflicts across the globe.All this violence makes us wonder if there is a common root to the discord. It’s dignity, or a lack of it, according to Donna Hicks, an associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Hicks has spent nearly 25 years trying to resolve conflicts worldwide. She has brought enemies to the table in places like the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Columbia and the United States.

Hicks tells us that conflict always emerges because someone’s – or some group’s – dignity has been violated. In her book Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, Hicks writes, “We have created an epidemic of indignity worldwide – species-wide – and we need to do something about it if we are ever going to get at this root cause of human conflict.”


Hicks says those who perpetrate crimes and violence have often suffered some form of indignity. “Dignity is such a profound human yearning,” she tells us. “I don’t care if whether you’re from Pakistan or Asia or Ferguson, Missouri – every human being has a desire to be treated with dignity.”

Hicks has developed a “dignity model” that she uses in diverse settings, from post-conflict situations worldwide to American corporate boardrooms to ordinary families in crisis.

Hicks says no matter the setting or circumstance, conflict can be surmounted if the parties are willing to keep their egos in check. “Self-righteousness has the power to take over our best selves, compromising our ability to see how we justify harming others,” she writes in her book. Hicks says it can be difficult to not lash out when we feel threatened. “The better part of dignity is restraint,” she says.

Hicks’ Declaration of Dignity sets out her specific approach to conflict resolution. “We may not be able to change the world,” Hicks says in the following video, “but we can create a more respectful way of being in it together.”

Hicks says we can apply her dignity model beyond conflict situations, toward initiatives that aim to “do good” around the world. Namely, she says we must never underestimate the power of those we perceive as victims. “Poverty, even though it sucks the dignity out of you, there is a residue of wisdom that comes from having to endure life in a way that doesn’t have all the creature comforts,” she says. Those of us who come from places of relative abundance, therefore, need to remain humble when working with those who have less.

You can learn more about Hicks’ dignity model here.

TOP PHOTO: Man mourns over the bodies of those killed in a suspected chemical weapon attack in a suburb of Damascus, Syria; August, 2013. CREDIT: CNN.

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