Mainstreaming human dignity as a core societal value


How can we mainstream human dignity as a core societal value?

Our current political debates tend to center around economics and rights. Both are important. Societies need economic systems that allow us to create, distribute, share, buy, and sell. We also need legal systems that establish, maintain, and protect rights.

But broader moral values must be present to drive and shape these economic and legal systems. I can think of no better starting place than human dignity.

UN Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, provides rich ground for us to anchor this value. Its 30 major provisions, or “Articles,” are worth reading in their entirety, but these are especially relevant to topics discussed on this blog:

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

A challenge to the dignitarian movement

To my American readers, especially, a question: How often has human dignity come up during any of the presidential candidate debates hosted on behalf of either major party? The answer to that question raises more questions, and one of them is how to make human dignity a centerpiece value for our society.

This coming week I’ll be traveling to New York City to participate in the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global, multidisciplinary network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. I have served on the HumanDHS global advisory board for several years, and recently I agreed to join its board of directors.

During my opportunities to share ideas with the group, I’ll be raising this question of mainstreaming human dignity. Among my points will be the critical importance of spreading this message beyond our friendlier constituencies. How do you reach people whose first reactions may be dismissive, or even derisive? If the tone of conventional public rhetoric these days is any indication, then we will have plenty of chances to try out different approaches.

I’ll be sharing more ideas on this theme during the week to come.


Relevant posts

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Making human dignity the centerpiece of American employment law and policy (2014)


Storytelling for social change


The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium.

That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.

A Changemaker’s Guide is full of advice and resources on how to use storytelling as a change making tool. Here are the eight steps of social change storytelling detailed in the guide:

Step 1. Reflect and build your narrative arc.
Step 2. Identify your key audience (i.e. the general public, social innovators, thought leaders, funders)
Step 3. Select your core message.
Step 4. Choose your story type (i.e. challenge story, big idea, how-to, impact).
Step 5. Create your call to action.
Step 6. Select your story medium (i.e. written, video, audio, spoken).
Step 7. Create an authentic and concrete story.
Step 8. Optimize channels for sharing your story.

A lot of people discover this blog because of their own not-so-great work experiences. Some may be considering ways to tell their stories. This resource will provide ideas, guidance, and inspiration. 


Related posts

A book list for intellectual activists and difference makers (2015)

What’s the plot line of your work life story? (2011)


Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change


So long as I’ve already referred to the work of writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin this week, I’d like to add another mention in the context of his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008). Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” Tribes and movements go together, he suggests, grounded in our desires for connection, growth, and positive change.

Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.

Four books that I pulled from my library help to illustrate of how groups of smart, bold visionaries connected with each other and formed tribes in the days before digital technology made long-distance communication easy. Physical proximation had a lot to do with their success, sometimes as close as sharing meals and meetings in the same city:

  • Christina Robb’s This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006) tells the story of the pioneers of relational psychology, clustered in the Greater Boston area, including Carol Gilligan (gender and moral voices), Jean Baker Miller (psychology, women, and relational-cultural theory) , and Judith Lewis Herman (trauma theory and practice).
  • James Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (2003) recounts an extraordinary coalescence of leading intellectuals such as Adam Smith (economics and markets), James Boswell (biography), David Hume (philosophy), and Robert Burns (poetry) in 18th century Edinburgh.
  • Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club (2011) shares how four men who first crossed paths at Cambridge University — Charles Babbage (mathematics and computing), John Herschel (astronomy and photography), William Whewell (multiple fields of science), and Richard Jones (economic science) — began meeting over Sunday morning breakfast to exchange ideas and plant the seeds of the modernization of science.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001) focuses on the lives and ideas of four remarkable members of a conversational club that met throughout 1872: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (law), Charles Sanders Pierce (philosophy), William James (philosophy and psychology), and John Dewey (education and philosophy).

Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible. This is the angle that Godin plays up in Tribes.

Although my strong preference is for small group face-to-face meetings, the bridging power of communications technologies helps to bring leading thinkers and doers together. I’ve seen this dynamic occur on Facebook, listserves, and blog discussions. In fact, this blend of face-to-face and online interaction is a key to the success of four sometimes overlapping tribes of which I’m a part, the workplace anti-bullying movement, the therapeutic jurisprudence network, the intern rights movement, and the global human dignity community.

If you will indulge my closing with an educator’s homework questions: What are your natural tribes? How can you contribute to the work of your favorite tribes? How can you form and lead a tribe to make a difference in a dimension that needs your presence?


Recent related posts

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Working with change agents (2015)

We understand human dignity only if we also comprehend humiliation and abuse (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

On the nature of dignitary harm — and its revolutionary potential

What does a dignity violation feel like?

In her excellent book Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (2011), Dr. Donna Hicks captures the essence of what violationa of personal dignity do to us (pp.19-20):

We feel injuries to our dignity at the core of our being. They are a threat to the very existence of who we are. Worse, the perpetrators get away with harming us. And the injuries usually go unattended.

There is no 911 call for when we feel that we have been humiliated, excluded, dismissed, treated unfairly, or belittled. Neuroscientists have found that a psychological injury such as being excluded stimulates the same part of the brain as a physical wound. . . .

. . . What exactly gets injured? Our dignity. The painful effects of the wounds to our dignity are not imaginary. They linger, often accumulating, one on top of the other, until one day we erupt in a rage or sink into depression, or we quit our job, get a divorce, or foment a revolution.

Wait a minute…foment a revolution?!

Someone struggling with a dignity violation might easily miss the last phrase of the passage, but it’s actually a prime avenue toward positive change.

Fomenting a revolution to embrace human dignity sounds like a pretty darn good idea, so long as it is done peacefully and, well, with dignity. (In other words, we don’t want heads to roll literally.) It sure beats turning our anger outward or our pain inward.

And if we’re talking about revolutionary energies, then let’s make sure it applies to the workplace. If human dignity became the baseline of our interactions at work, then how would that transform our organizations? Imagine how much happier, healthier, and more productive we would be!


Related post

Donna Hicks: Demand dignity, earn respect (2013)

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On perseverance


Novelist Marlon James has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker prize for his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), a story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. What caught my eye in the media coverage, however, was not his current success, but rather repeated mentions that his first novel was rejected almost 80 times before a publisher finally picked it up. Matthew Weaver and Mark Brown report for The Guardian:

He recalled that his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 78 times by publishers, before it was eventually published in 2005. “I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much,” he said.

Despite the success of his latest novel, which the Man booker judges described as “an extraordinary book” after a unanimous decision, James said he thought the publishing industry had not changed that much since his first book was repeatedly turned down.

“There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read,” he told Today. Asked if he had considered giving up writing, the 44-year-old writer said: “I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends computers and erased it.” He said he retrieved the text by searching in the email outbox of an old iMac computer.

Marlon James’s story is one of both perseverance and a bit of good fortune, the latter being how he was able to rescue his discarded book manuscript after he had given up after all of those rejections. Many of us would have thrown in the towel a lot earlier.

Is it possible to think about this decision making process more systematically? In The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin identifies three common stay vs. go scenarios regarding projects, jobs, and affiliations:

  • The Dip “is the long slog between starting and mastery” of something achievable and worthwhile. After an optimistic start, you encounter resistances, but they are surmountable, and the ends justify your perseverance.
  • The Cul-de-Sac is “a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” You invest tons of time, energy, intellect, and emotion into trying to change a status quo that is determined not to budge.
  • The Cliff is a thankfully rare, but addictive situation that can end badly, the work equivalent of taking drugs. Examples are folks who get caught up in Ponzi schemes and subprime housing deals.

Dips, says Godin, are worth fighting through. Cul-de-Sacs and Cliffs, however, call for escape.


But here’s a big challenge: It’s a lot easier to identify a Dip or a Cul-de-Sac after the fact. (Most Cliffs send out earlier warning signs.) But how do you tell the difference when you’re in the thick of things? There’s no easy answer to that!

If you’re encountering resistances toward something that really means a lot to you — a matter that goes to your core — maybe you simply keep trying. If your efforts are part of a broader cause, then you also may have to accept that the change you want to see will not occur in your lifetime.

Perhaps you hedge your bets, putting your project on the shelf for now, but staying ready for a more opportune moment. Then you seize an opening that either arrives or you created.

Or maybe you say enough is enough. This decision, for example, confronts talented athletes, performers, and creative people over and again. There’s nothing wrong about stepping away when you know the time has come.  

Which brings us back to Marlon James and his first novel. At some point, he gave up, having concluded that becoming a published novelist was not meant to be. From a distance, at least, we might’ve regarded him as being unrealistically obsessive after even 15 or 33 or 50 rejections, much less the 78th one that caused him to destroy his manuscript. In considering his story, we may hear echoes of references to fine lines between genius and madness.

But then a window of opportunity opened, and he found a way to retrieve his discarded novel. Talent once rejected and abandoned is now being recognized in big venues. Hmm…..this is vexing stuff. When do we keep at it, and when do we let it go? James’s tale yields no answers.

Sometimes followed by bright sunlight ((photo: DY)

Sometimes followed by bright sunlight (photo: DY)

Related post

“Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash (2011)

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Working with change agents


I spent a good chunk of today and yesterday hosting a workshop on workplace bullying at Suffolk University Law School here in Boston. The goal of the workshop was to give feedback, advice, and suggestions to a group of individuals who are devoting time and energy to responding to workplace bullying through public education initiatives, publications, and law reform advocacy. Although I had high hopes for the gathering based on the list of participants, I wasn’t quite sure what the collective chemistry would produce.

I am pleased to report that it was a very stimulating, intense, and moving experience, infused with genuine fellowship and even moments of humor. We covered a lot of ground during our conversations, and the interactions and exchange among our participants made for an honest and gently respectful learning environment.

Serving as discussants were Eunice Aviles, Torii Bottomley, Deb Falzoi, Denise Bartholomew Gilligan, Henry Jung, and Greg Sorozan, all of whom brought plenty of experience and wisdom to our discussion. We also were joined by Katie Fedigan, who helped her father Jay with some of the filming.

For several participants, being a part of this gathering called upon them to dig deep into wells of courage, for their own experiences of being bullying targets were part of our conversations. We specially thank them for their contributions to our understanding.


Related post

This workshop only bolstered my enthusiasm for smaller, in-person gatherings that encourage genuine dialogue and exchange. For more on that, see my earlier post from this month, “The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents.”

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Entering the mainstream


Observances such as Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week serve as an invitation for reflection and assessment. Recently, a written feature about my work concerning workplace bullying published on my University’s website referred to my “two-decade battle against bullying on the job.” The writers took a slight liberty there; my fateful initial contact with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute was made in 1998, so I’m not quite at the 20-year mark. But even 17 years is a long time, and during this stretch I’ve seen a term that once barely appeared on the radar screen of American employee relations now entering its mainstream.

Indeed, we are moving past the point of having to spend 10-15 minutes simply explaining what workplace bullying is and how much harm it can inflict. Instead, we can devote greater attention to preventing, stopping, and responding to abusive behaviors at work, while connecting bullying to other forms of worker mistreatment.

Along those lines, some readers may have noticed an editorial shift on this blog concerning workplace bullying-related commentary, whereby I’ve been devoting more time to discussing potential new understandings, responses, connections, outreach, and solutions. I imagine that evolution will continue.

Similarly, here in Boston we’ll be observing Freedom Week with a workshop at which we’ll be giving feedback, advice, and suggestions to a group of individuals who are devoting time and energy to responding to workplace bullying through public education initiatives, publications, and law reform advocacy. It will be a wonderful opportunity to explore this topic in a small-group setting that promotes conversation, shared insights, and fellowship.

I give a short personal history of my involvement in the workplace anti-bullying movement, and some of the accompanying lessons I’ve learned about legal and social activism, in my forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), a draft of which may be downloaded without charge. I hope that readers who want to learn more will find it interesting.


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