The dignity of those involved in our conflicts is often left out of the equation. My article in the City Press of 26 September 2021
The article itself for non-subscribers -
Our country has seen conflict of a nature and intensity that would have destroyed a lot of other nations, and of course, it may do so yet. As politicians, law enforcement, public officials, employers and conflict resolution practitioners try to reverse the damage done by ages and conflicts past, we so often bring our well-intentioned, technically sound and modern conflict concepts to these trenches where they fail repeatedly because of the one thing that we have seemingly forgotten to add to our strategies …. the dignity of all involved in those conflicts.
Make no mistake, we talk about dignity, we mention it in our constitution and in our legal judgments. We nod sagely when the topic comes up, everyone knows this, don’t we? But how much of an animating force is this crucial element in our real, everyday conflicts? Until all too recently our conflicts made absolutely no provision for the recognition of the dignity of the majority of South Africans. These conflicts were brute force machines where the dignity of the victims were regarded, if at all, as mere distractions, and where the very humanity of such victims were often not acknowledged. This past is recent enough to live on in the realities of a large number of South Africans, certainly in the memories and scars of our political and community leaders. Why then do we seem to have transferred some of those brutal, dignity-denying methods into our current conflicts, why have we, who have seen the harm this does, not developed a stronger and more protective understanding of the role of the dignity of those that we may enter into conflict with? Why do we see, like a thread running through our scandalous GBV figures, the way that our police and politicians at times treat citizens, how we treat each other in the streets and on social media, that utter lack of the recognition of the basis dignity of the other?
What would a practical definition of this dignity look like – not some political term that makes us feel good about our efforts but a tool that we can actually take into the streets with us? Recognizing the dignity of the other simply means that we acknowledge them as fully human beings, of people in their own right, and that as much as we may disagree with them and what they may have done, they are still in possession of that intrinsic human value called dignity. We do this easily with those we love, with family and friends. We recognize the dignity of a grandmother, of a baby, regardless of whether we agree with all that they do. Dignity then, as a practical tool, is simply demonstrating, living, the care and attention for yourself and others that anything of value deserves. We learn, and slowly improve, our recognition of that human value that lives in everyone.
In my conflict work I often at this stage get a surprised reaction from people, when we start talking about dignity in conflict. It is easy to treat with dignity those who we agree with, but others – them – even those who are different from us, even those who live like this and vote like that? And there lies the heart of what we see around us.
We equate conflict with the stripping of dignity. Because you vote for this party, because you live like that, because you look, act, speak, think differently from what I do, you do not deserve to be treated with dignity. Our conflict has become methods of dehumanizing the other, once the opponent’s dignity is stripped away it feels far easier to treat them badly. We have lost the ability to be rightfully angry, to reject certain actions, to deliver the consequences of harmful conduct to wrongdoers, and to have vigorous, dynamic debates while still recognizing the dignity of the other. If you are different, we argue, then you deserve to be sneered at, ridiculed, embarrassed, “cancelled”. We see that around us, we have given such conduct the stamp of societal approval. We do not see the ongoing role that this death of dignity has in acting as a trigger to new conflicts, how that absence of dignity plays a direct role in creating cyclical conflicts, generational conflicts, how our best efforts at resolving these conflicts have no realistic chance of succeeding because we do not add the one simple thing that these efforts lack – the human dignity of the other.
In our distorted view of conflict we often confuse dignity with respect. If a person is wrong in some view, has acted in a harmful or illegal or irresponsible manner we need not respect that conduct, but the dignity of that person remains. We need not, and should not, agree with such conduct, we should not condone harmful behaviour, but even then, that person’s dignity should be recognized. We never have the right to deny the dignity of another human being. Dignity is a person’s birth-right, it remains whatever happened that caused the conflict.
This denial of dignity has direct, immediate consequences. Employers treating their employees like numbers, marriage partners and neighbours, friends and colleagues, politicians and voters all trying to achieve their own goals without using the one simple, powerful tool that lies at the heart of most conflicts – recognizing and reacting to the dignity of the other.
Therein lies a wonderful first step that we can all take today. While modern conflict resolution techniques often require training, skill and experience, this change of heart, this recognition of the dignity of the other can be used right away, as you put this article down. This has nothing to do with being weak, with being soft, quite the contrary. Someone who can deal with the merits of the conflict, who can see the disagreement for what it is without the emotional complications that come from that loss of dignity has several strategic advantages. All it takes, as a first step, is the simple recognition, a reminder really, that we are all humans, that we all have this inherent dignity, and that we can have our battles without losing that dignity. Once we realize this we also see how often, in denying the so-called other their dignity, we end up denying or harming our own dignity. Our other problems and their solutions – dealing with the unemployed and the homeless, getting our economy going, our GBV problem, learning to derive benefit from conflict – all rests on this one magic word: dignity.