“No one will get on top of us if we don’t bend our backs”, said Martin Luther King. However, life’s circumstances end up often crushing us under their weight undermining our personal dignity. At that point, we are likely to lose the respect and allow other people to violate our rights, even the most basic. Then we could fall into a destructive spiral.
What is personal dignity?
The word dignity comes from the Latin dignitas, which means excellence, nobility or value. Therefore, the definition of personal dignity refers to the value and respect for oneself as a human being. On the one hand, it means treating each other with respect, seriousness, responsibility and kindness, on the other, it implies asserting ourselves as people so that the others do not violate our rights.
Therefore, personal dignity is an indicator of how we value ourselves, the level of esteem we profess for ourselves, and the extent to which we are willing to go to defend ourselves and prevent being trampled on, humiliated or degraded.
Defending our dignity
In the past the psychologists divided dignity. They believed that there is an inner dignity, understood as a gift that no one can take away from us, a kind of immutable intrinsic worth and protected. But they also recognized the existence of an external dignity, which is more malleable and depends on the circumstances in which we live.
From this perspective, we could allow that external dignity to be violated because the internal dignity would remain intact. Therefore, insults and humiliations would not affect the value we give ourselves. It is true. But only up to a certain point.
The image we have of ourselves, the value we give ourselves and the respect we profess for ourselves are constantly reflected and validated in the relationships we establish with the world. If we allow the others to continuously violate our rights, we do not respond to the humiliations and we let them humiliate us, sooner or later our inner dignity will be damaged.
In fact, the psychologist Christine R. Kovach pointed out that “The experience of dignity, understood as the feeling of worth, requires that there be someone who understands and recognizes those values and shows respect for them.”
When we do not assert our dignity and the people around us do not recognize it either, we run the risk of falling into a downward spiral marked by humiliation, manipulation, abuse and excessive demands that will make us become smaller, insignificant and lacking in value.
The image we have of ourselves will change, our self-esteem will suffer and we will end up assuming the role of the victim who stoically supports the excesses of the others, convinced that it is what we deserve in this life.
We actually lose a bit of dignity every time we:
• Allow ourselves to be systematically humiliated and mistreated by the others
• Become conformists and accept much less than we deserve
• Allow ourselves to be manipulated and boycotted by those around us
• Lose respect and stop loving each other
The more conformism grows, the smaller dignity becomes
Kant believed that dignity pushes us to defend ourselves, to prevent the others from trampling on our rights with impunity. It is a dimension that reminds us that no one can or should use us. We are free and valuable people, responsible for our actions and deserving of respect. Therefore, we must not settle for less.
Writer Irving Wallace said that “To be one’s self, and unafraid whether right or wrong, is more admirable than the easy cowardice of surrender to conformity.” Assuming a conformist attitude usually implies giving in to the pressure exerted by the others – be it a person, group or society.
Conformism arises from resignation and surrender. It implies that we downplay our ideas and values, silencing our feelings, giving more credit to the ideas, values and feelings of the others, letting them prevail dangerously over our own, many times to the point of overwhelming us.
Therefore, we lose dignity every time we settle for:
• Having by our side people who do not respect or love us for who we are
• Receiving an unfair treatment that violates our basic rights, either by individuals or institutions
• Not developing our potential to the maximum, limiting ourselves to living in a narrow comfort zone
Conformism may be a familiar land where we feel relatively safe, but we must be aware that it is not a land where dignity can flourish. Every time we settle for less, we deny part of our individuality and worth. For this reason, Kant believed that a person with dignity is someone with a conscience, will and autonomy to decide his or her own path.
Excessive dignity does not make us more worthy
Interestingly, we can also lose dignity when we exceed the limits. Then dignity becomes despotism because we abuse our superiority, power or strength to force other people to give us a special treatment.
Demanding privileges in the name of dignity actually makes us lose it. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, wether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”
This implies recognizing our existence and those of others as the ultimate goal, never as a means to achieve certain goals. It implies recognizing that “No matter how much a man is worth, he will never have a higher value than that of being a man”, as Antonio Machado wrote.
Personal dignity does not consist in believing ourselves superior, but implies recognizing that other people also deserve respect and consideration. Dignity is a two-way road. We need to claim it for ourselves, but we must also offer it to the others.
Castel, R. (1996) Work and usefulness to the world. Int. Lab. Rev; 135: 615–622.
Kovach, C. R. (1995) Evolving images of human dignity. J. Gerontol. Nurs; 21(7): 5–6.
Meyer, M. J. (1989) Dignity, Rights, and Self-Control. Ethics; 99(3): 520-534.