"Nobody will get on it unless we bend our backs," said Martin Luther King. However, life 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 derives from the Latin dignitas, which means excellence, nobility and valor. 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 hand it implies affirming ourselves as people so that others do not violate our rights.
Therefore, personal dignity is an indicator of how we value ourselves, the level of esteem we have for ourselves and how far we are willing to go to defend ourselves and prevent being trampled, humiliated or degraded.
Defend our dignity
In the past, psychologists divided dignity. They believed that there was an inner dignity, understood as a gift that no one can take away from us, a sort 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's true. But only up to a certain 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 humiliations and let them humiliate us, sooner or later our inner dignity will be damaged.
In fact, psychologist Christine R. Kovach said that "the experience of dignity, understood as the feeling of value, requires that there be someone who understands and recognizes those values and shows respect for them".
When we do not assert our dignity and not even the people around us recognize it, we run the risk of falling into a downward spiral marked by humiliation, manipulation, abuse and excessive demands that will belittle us by making us feel 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 endures 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 humiliated and systematically mistreated by others
• We become conformists and accept less than we deserve
• We allow ourselves to be manipulated by those around us
• We lose respect for ourselves and stop loving each other
The more conformism grows, the smaller the dignity becomes
Kant thought that dignity pushes us to defend ourselves, to prevent others from trampling 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 worthy of respect. Therefore, we must not settle for less.
Writer Irving Wallace said that "being yourself, fearless, right or wrong, is more admirable than the easy cowardice of surrendering to conformity." Taking a conformist attitude involves giving in to the pressure exerted by others, whether it is a person, a group or a company.
Conformism arises from resignation and surrender. It involves underestimating our ideas and values, silencing our feelings, to give more credit to the ideas, values and feelings of others, letting them prevail dangerously over our own, many times to the point of overwhelming us.
Therefore, we lose dignity every time we are content with:
• Having at our side people who do not respect us or do not love us for who we are
• Receive unfair treatment that violates our fundamental rights, from individuals or institutions
• Do not develop our potential to the maximum by simply living in a restricted comfort zone
Conformity can be a familiar ground in which we feel safe, but we must be aware that it is not a space in which dignity can flourish. Whenever we settle for less, we deny part of our individuality and worth. For this reason, Kant believed that a dignified person was someone with conscience, will and autonomy to choose their own path.
Excessive dignity no longer makes us worthy
Curiously, we can lose our dignity even when we push the boundaries. 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 own 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 “for what it's 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 it involves 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.