This month I read Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays In Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks. It relates to some of my current coursework, had high ratings on Amazon, and the forward was written by Desmond Tutu so I figured it was worth reading. I don’t give this book the 5-star rating many on Amazon do. I don’t even give it the 4-star rating, but I’ll unpack the highs and lows of this book below to me.
First, there’s a lot of great stuff here in the book from a research standpoint. I will be using this as a resource to find different relevant research to the world of conflict resolution, negotiation, or mediation. There’s a lot of helpful research cited.
Second, the author writes many times how she has developed a “model” of dignity – “The Dignity Model” of conflict resolution. However, it’s nothing remotely resembling a model. It’s just a list really of behaviors that can increase dignity or diminish dignity in others and ourselves. In some ways it’s a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for treating people with dignity. But it’s not a model and I thought it was strange how often the author referred to it as such. It’s like calling the 10 commandments or even the book “everything I needed in life I learned in Kindergarten” a model. There isn’t any conceptual framework in the model – just descriptions of how to treat people with a view towards increasing dignity.
Third, the whole approach is based heavily on evolutionary psychology and 19th-century psychologist William James. I don’t share the same fundamental worldview assumptions as the author so that’s a factor here, but I can still see value in unpacking things with a socio-historical perspective. What’s hard for me is when the cavemen come out and we start talking about evil behavior and violence as “outdated survival strategies.” That’s just so empty to me and left me very unsatisfied.
This book goes beyond conflict resolution to really try to frame a human rights argument that at one point the author refers to as “God-given.” And in so doing, there has to be some effort to tackle the problem of evil and human darkness or “sin.” The worldview here attempts to build a case for dignity as a human right while also building a case for how fallenness in humanity is a result of a loss of dignity and the impact of these “outdated survival strategies” on an interpersonal, communal, or societal level.
This really is a secular humanist effort to build a theology of dignity without God. It is a secular attempt at a theology of “the image of God” in humanity based on evolutionary principles and contemporary attitudes. But the reality is the overwhelming majority of the book in its principles and its model would be obvious extensions of the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei and reflects really blatantly at times a New Testament ethic – just without reference to God. So that’s the elephant in the room with this book – it represents a longing to treat people in light of innate God-given value and unpack what that looks like. But it tries to build that ethic on a foundation of evolutionary principles. If there had been an attempt to acknowledge and integrate that these “ideas” were not “new,” but reflected in human history in other belief systems I would have done a lot better with the book. But there was a component of academic snobbery in asserting the “newness” of this approach when in fact – there wasn’t much new about it all.
Another criticism is the framing of “Dignity.” I think the word is good attempt to capture a governing principle here, but it’s a bit sloppy in its usage. The author uses the word dignity as a general concept that overlaps with dimensions of honor and shame, concepts of intrinsic worth, identity, and how Christians think about the “image of God.” There were points where the language of dignity as used ran into problems. There was also so many more opportunities to explore the dynamics of honor and shame, but they were treated with minimal effort.
So it may sound like I’m very critical – and in the ways I am I believe the book deserves the criticism because it really pretends as if whole bodies of knowledge and insight out there don’t exist. That to me is not good scholarship. However, the author and I probably share a lot of common values and perspectives. We just have a very different foundation.
It does bother me how many 5-star reviews there are, which reflects that people are highly interested in this topic and looking for solutions to the heart issues that plague mankind. But there are better paradigms that address the human heart and the human condition – but it takes the humility of faith to explore them. It seems like the fundamental effort of the book is trying to preserve “God-given” value by distancing fallenness and any concept of “sin.” The Christian worldview allows for both intrinsic value and completely sinful depravity – it just requires needing something outside of ourselves for redemption. The tragedy is how Christian doctrine has been corrupted and abused for depraved purposes and power agendas – the merits of theology has lost credibility through leaders and societies seeking personal advantage. But the theology is still there to be engaged and it’s foolishness for people to reject where such ideas are unpacked in favor of trying to “re-create” something similar on their own.
There’s tons of value here though and conversations and illustrations of how to treat people with dignity and what tends to lead to breakdowns in relationships and conversations. So it’s a worthy resource if you want to go deeper into the conversation about what is required to create environments in which human identity and worth is valued, respected, and preserved, then this can help challenge and refine some of your thinking.