No one will come over us if we don’t bend our backs,” said Martin Luther King. However, life’s circumstances often end up crushing us under their weight, undermining our personal dignity. At that point, we are likely to lose 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 and 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 ourselves with respect, seriousness, responsibility and kindness, on the other it means establishing ourselves as people so that others do not violate our rights.
Therefore, personal dignity is an indicator of how we evaluate ourselves, of the level of esteem we have for ourselves and how far we are willing to go to defend ourselves and prevent us from being trampled on, humiliated or degraded.
Defend our dignity
In the past, psychologists subdivided dignity. They believed that there was an inner dignity, understood as a gift that no one can take away from us, a kind of immutable and protected intrinsic value. But they also recognized the existence of an external dignity, more malleable and dependent on the circumstances in which we live.
From this perspective, we could allow external dignity to be violated because internal dignity would remain intact. Therefore, insults and humiliations would not affect the value we place on ourselves. It is true. But only up to a point.
The image we have of ourselves, the value and respect we attribute to ourselves are constantly reflected and confirmed in the relationships we establish with the world. If we allow others to continually violate our rights, do not respond to humiliation and let them humiliate us, sooner or later our inner dignity will be damaged.
In fact, the psychologist Christine R. Kovach said that “the experience of dignity, understood as a sense of value, requires that there be someone who understands and recognizes those values and shows respect for them.”
When we don’t assert our dignity and not even those around us recognize it, we run the risk of falling into a downward spiral marked by humiliation, manipulation, abuse and excessive demands that will demean us into feeling insignificant and worthless.
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 tolerates the excesses of others, convinced that it is what we deserve in this life.
We actually lose some dignity every time we:
- We allow ourselves to be systematically humiliated and abused by others
- We become conformist and accept less than we deserve
- We allow ourselves to be manipulated by those around us
- We lose respect for ourselves and stop loving ourselves
The more conformity grows, the smaller becomes the dignity
Kant thought that dignity drives us to defend ourselves, to prevent 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.
The writer Irving Wallace said that “being yourself, without fear, right or wrong, is more admirable than the easy cowardice of surrendering to conformity”. Taking a conformist attitude involves giving in to pressure from others, be it a person, a group or a company.
Conformism is born of resignation and surrender. It implies underestimating our ideas and our values, silencing our feelings, to give more credence to the ideas, values and feelings of others, letting them dangerously prevail over ours, many times to the point of overwhelming us.
Therefore, we lose dignity whenever we settle for:
- Having by our side people who don’t respect us or don’t love us for who we are
- Receive unfair treatment that violates our fundamental rights, from individuals or institutions
- Not developing our potential to its fullest by limiting ourselves to living in a narrow comfort zone
Conformism may be familiar ground where we feel safe, but we need to be aware that it is not a space 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 dignified person is someone with the conscience, will, and autonomy to choose their own path.
Excessive dignity does not make us more worthy
Curiously, we can also lose our dignity when we cross the line. Then dignity becomes despotism because we abuse our superiority, power or strength to force other people to give us preferential treatment.
Claiming privileges in the name of dignity actually makes us lose them. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant explains: “work in such a way that you can use humanity, both in your person and in the person of everyone else, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.”
This implies recognizing our existence and that of others as the ultimate goal, never as the means to achieve certain goals. It implies recognizing that “no matter how much he is worth, a man 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 street. We must claim it for ourselves, but we must also offer it to others.