Donna Hicks is a leading professional in the field of international conflict resolution. During her decades of work trying to reconcile warring parties around the world, she realised that conflict resolution negotiations were often marred by the presence of a powerful emotional undercurrent – a force which could erupt at any moment and destroy the negotiations. She eventually came to understand that destructive force as being rooted in violations of human dignity.
Mary Robinson has also written about dignity recently. She recalls how, as a child, she was profoundly influenced by the opening sentence of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” As a young girl, she wondered why the word “dignity” came before “rights”.
In her recent book Dignity, Donna Hicks provides an answer. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity no matter what they do, Hicks writes. Their inherent humanity needs to be honoured unconditionally. Doing otherwise, and violating a person’s dignity because of what they have done, demeans us all. But while dignity is unconditional, not every person deserves respect. This is because, Hicks writes, respect must earned in response to behaviour.
So why does Hicks believe that dignity lies at the heart of conflict and, ultimately, at the heart of conflict resolution? The reason is that we feel injuries to our dignity at the core of our being. Violations of our dignity are a threat to the very essence of who we are. We react to violations of our dignity with anger, shame, and a desire to retaliate. If the perpetrators of such violations get away with harming us and the injuries go unattended, the wounds created can readily form the basis for violent conflict.
So what exactly are dignity violations? Hicks outlines ten:
- Demeaning others on the basis of their identity – whether gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion,
- Excluding others– denying them voice, education or participation,
- Denying someone the right to feel safe physically, or safe from ridicule and humiliation,
- Refusing to acknowledge or belittling the hurt that someone has suffered,
- Refusing to recognise the value of others, and the value of what they have contributed,
- Treating others unfairly – exploiting the young and vulnerable, and leaving people in chronic poverty or neglect,
- Treating people as inherently untrustworthy, dishonest, or disloyal,
- Dismissing another person without any understanding of what they are experiencing –insisting instead they are wrong, sinful, or worthless,
- Dominating others and taking away their freedom to express themselves in speech or action, and
- Denying the role you may have played in committing injustices against another, and refusing to apologise.
Read this list again. And this time think about how people with dangerous personality disorders are psychologically programmed to mistreat others in exactly the ways that Hicks identifies. Psychopaths do not see other people as human beings, but as things to be exploited, injured and killed if the circumstances permit. People with narcissistic personality disorder are incapable of seeing others as their equal. They passionately believe that it is their right to dominate others, and they instinctively dismiss other people and the contributions they make as worthless. People with paranoid personality disorder are incapable of seeing others as anything but a threat. Their default in relationships is to treat others as potential enemies, and to dominate them in order to neutralise the danger.
People with dangerous personality disorders are dignity violators par excellence…
Their psychology is such that they continually treat others in ways that violate dignity. In doing so, they create resentment. They stifle human development, reduce creativity and drain the energy of those around them. They cause fundamental psychological damage. They cause suffering, and they demean and dehumanise others.
Human beings want to become what they are capable of being. People with dangerous personality disorders are incapable of allowing them to do so. The efforts of this dangerous minority to curtail other peoples’ freedoms violate the dignity of the normal majority and act as a powerfully destructive catalyst for conflict.
As Donna Hicks concludes, we will see more intractable conflicts all over the world until we understand and accept the truth about the destructive emotional power that is released when we experience threats to our dignity…and until we recognise the fact that people with dangerous personality disorders are society’s primary dignity violators.
 In Each Other’s Shadow, Mary Robinson, New Statesman, 7 June 2013