Dignity and Right Speech

EagleWhat comes to mind when you hear the word “dignity?”

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts off, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Dignity relates to protection not against physical suffering but rather emotional suffering, especially humiliation. There are certainly situations that violate people’s send of basic human dignity, such as the photos taken of prisoners in humilating positions in the Abu Ghraib abuse case. But when you move from basic human dignity to demands for respect for sacred values, things become more complicated.

Donna Hicks has written a worthwhile book, Dignity, about how being aware of people’s sense of honor and shame in important in conflict resolution, including the international political arena.

If you look at international affairs from a distance, it often seems that there are obvious, rational solutions to disputes that could enhance peace and prosperity for both sides(e.g. split the difference) that don’t get done because they don’t satisfy people’s yearnings (what Scott Atran refers to as sacred values).

The idea that an understanding of emotions is valuable in international relations is often overlooked. Here is an anecdote from Hicks’ book. The author explains she was at an international conference on conflict resolution in which an organizer was soliciting ideas for further discussion.

When the chair acknowledged me, I said, “I think one of the critical issues we need to look at is the role dignity plays in international relations. In fact, it’s really ‘indignity’ that I want to discuss. My experience tells me that the way we treat one another matters, and when people feel their dignity has been violated, they will go to war, if necessary, to regain it.”

The chair thanked me and proceeded to gather other comments from the audience. Then he started a discussion about each issue. When it came to my issue of dignity, he looked up from his list and said to the audience, “I think we’ll pass on this one,” and moved on to the next issue.

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe my ears. I felt utterly humiliated.

I’m now reading Joseph Anton, Salman Rushie’s memoir of living under a death sentence for having violated the Ayatollah Khomenei’s sense of sacred values. (Rushdie used the name as his alias while in hiding).

In examining this from a Secular Buddhist lens, especially with regard to the Four Noble Truths and Right Speech, a few things come to mind.

1. The secular side of me has little patience for sacred values that are typically based not on what is happening in the present or what could happen in the future, but an attachment to a certain interpretation of events that have happened in the past.

2. The Buddhist side of me recognizes that, although attachment to how things were, and a desire to cling to or recreate those conditions, is a major source of suffering, learning to let go of these attachments is very difficult. You can’t just pressure people to let go of attachments. That can become a stressor that makes people defensive and more attached to their fundamental beliefs.

3. Ultimately, I see the right approach is to have a thick skin, but to accept that others may have a thin skin, without demanding that they thicken it (though you might ask them to “take a breath”).

Mindfulness practice teaches us how to deal with emotional challenges. Through the practice of mindfulness, we should be able to bear insults with grace. Even if others intend to humiliate us, we need not feel humiliated.

But those who have not had the benefit of this practice may indeed react to insults with automaticity and experience genuine and lasting suffering as a result. And when people are in the midst of emotional suffering, they have little bandwidth to learn skillful means of dealing with that suffering. (That’s why it’s best to practice these skills before you need them).

Thus, I think it’s right to cater to another person’s sense of dignity (even if inflated) as long as you don’t have to lower your own sense of dignity in doing so. I think it’s easier to do this when it’s possible to leave things unsaid that might be hurtful when said, even if true. But in situations where one is forced to speak, or has already spoken, it might be undignified to recant a true statement even if hurtful.

Under pressure from his British protectors to try to defuse the situation, Rushie apologized not for writing The Satanic Verses, but for causing distress. He felt is was undignified for him, the writer, to be apologizing to the people who wanted to kill him. Nor did it succeed in defusing the threat, though it has lessened as time has passed.

No Comments

  1. Dana Nourie on June 1, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Rick, thanks for bringing up this great subject. It’s easy to forget when disagreeing with people that their emotions may be on the table as well as our own. This recently has been the topic of discussion with my local atheist group. The mission of this particular group is to open awareness about atheists, and to try to overcome some of the negative feelings believers have. We are doing this through discussion and philanthropy, doing things for the community, etc. And we remind one another to not step on other people’s emotions even if their beliefs seem silly is really important. You are more likely to be heard if you aren’t tromping on one’s dignity and losing your own in the process.

    BTW, we also had someone from the Stanford Mindfulness group join us, and we will be sharing some of their events, and vice versa.

  2. Mark Knickelbine on June 2, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Rick, thanks for this! I think if we are cultivating compassion, we will want to be aware of what causes any suffering for other people, even if we might see their concerns as illusory. We all have to deal with our own delusions, for one thing, which is a good reason to forgive other people for having them too. Beyond that, we have this belief in universal justice, which helps us feel safe or at least makes us feel justified, so our sense of wounded dignity is a way of trying to adjust to a world that is so unpredictable and unsafe. As with so many of our emotions, this is rooted in our human desire to feel safe and cared for. If we can listen for that in the aggrieved voices, it can ease our urge to react and help us respond effectively.

  3. mufi on June 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

    +1, Rick.

  4. David Chou on August 2, 2013 at 11:41 am

    This is a sore point for me as a writer, as someone who’s naturally given to free expression. I realize that many a weaklings and coward take up the pen because they can wield nothing more devastating, but on the other hand there’s no end to catering to people’s ignorance, either, no end to accounting for every emotional nuance possible.

    Rushdie was in a jam all right, and his apology sounds like the typical passive-aggressive non-apology which does nothing whatsoever but sacrifice his dignity, insofar as it makes look him disingenuous, too, for no gain at all. What’s the solution?

    I say we make an enemy out of the ego, all instances of egotism. This is a lot more intellectually honest than holding ourselves accountable for every damned fool who’s got piss and vinegar for blood. Because I don’t think anyone believes an apology anyway if they’re in such a state of sheer ignorance, so what happens in effect when we acquiesce in the interests of good order is that we wind up pandering to infantile fantasies of imagined hurts and prolong myth and superstition, a kind of myth and a kind of superstition in our social interactions (I say “a kind of” not in reference to religious beliefs but those misapplications of “right speech” which would only further enable the rule of egoism).

    Noblesse oblige only perpetuates a world of masters and slaves.

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