Twenty years ago, at the close of a workshop I gave in a country locked in civil war, one of the most hostile generals in the room approached me and said: “Donna, I want to thank you. Not only did you help the relationships in this room. I think you also saved my marriage.” 

I was pleased, but not surprised. I have been a specialist of conflict resolution for more than 30 years, and my work has shown me again and again — whether we’re dealing with spouses, cultures, political parties or countries — that there really is only one issue at the heart of intractable conflict, and that is the issue of human dignity

Over the course of my career, I have applied the dignity model in many countries suffering from violence. But today, I am applying it in a country that appears to be descending into violence — the United States. 

Though we like to think of ourselves as exceptional, the causes and cures of division and violence are the same in the United States as anywhere else — and they all pivot on questions of dignity. If we can see and honor the dignity in ourselves and in those on “the other side,” we have a chance not only to avoid violence, but to create enduring cooperation across the deepest divides in our country.  

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What is dignity?

Dignity is the inherent worth that we all have from birth. And the yearning to have our dignity honored has been at the core of every international conflict I have worked on — from Israel-Palestine, to Colombia, the Balkans, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. Along with our survival instincts, the desire to be treated with dignity is the single most powerful force motivating our behavior. Many would rather die, or kill, than surrender their dignity.  

Treating people with dignity means offering them care and attention, hearing what they’ve been through, learning about their lives and their hardships, giving them the benefit of the doubt — and never giving in to the urge to shame, demonize or exclude them. 

It is never true to say of a group: “They are not who we are.” If they are here, they are who we are.

If we violate someone’s dignity repeatedly, we will get a divorce or a war or a revolution — because a desire for revenge is an instant response to a dignity violation, and we in the United States are suffering an epidemic of dignity violations right now. 

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Millions of well-meaning people sincerely believe they’re acting for the good of their country when they attack the other side. But in fact, the more we attack the other side, the more we divide our country, and the more blind we become to our own role in the division.  

The best chance for progress comes if Americans who believe they are for diversity and against division come to see how often they violate the dignity of the other side.  

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We have to watch ourselves. We need to discover how much we need to be treated with dignity, and see how easily we’re angered when our dignity is violated, and then we need to do what we can to stop violating the dignity of others.   

There is a special obligation on politicians, political campaigners and those who comment on politics to treat all sides with dignity.

Politicians face a constant temptation to demonize the other side so they can energize their own side. Some political leaders not only speak in ways that violate the dignity of the other side, they rub salt in the wounded dignity of their own side by saying (things like): “those disgusting people are trying to ruin what you love; they hate you and want to hurt you.” 

That is a political battle cry that goes beyond politics to inflame religious, racial, ethnic and cultural divisions. When a dignity violation can stir a desire for revenge, telling people over and over how their dignity has been violated can be an incitement to violence. In fact, violence is often a tragically misguided effort to restore lost dignity, and it is happening with increasing frequency and intensity all over America right now.  

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I have full faith in the sincere desire of most politicians to ease divides in our country. But as soon as we leave anyone outside the circle of those we treat with dignity, we feed divisions and a desire for revenge. If we’re going to avoid violence in America, we have to dignify politics in America.  

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In full disclosure, I advise a number of groups who are working to reduce divisions, including one in Utah that will introduce a tool to measure our use of dignity when we talk to each other. Ideally, the tool will also help expose the tricks and tactics that turn us against each other — so we can see them and refuse to be controlled by them. Whether this approach works or another one does, we need to wake up to the ways we’re violating each other’s dignity or we will all push the country into violence — and blame the other side for the result. 

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The most tragic fact about violence is that almost no one wants it. Again and again, I find myself working with people who are exhausted by hatred and division. If they could find a dignified way out of conflict, they would take it. But often that door is closed because each side cannot bring itself to treat the other side with dignity.  

I’m praying for my country, but no matter what happens next, it is never too late. If indignity tears us apart, dignity can bring us together … just as soon as we’re ready.  

Donna Hicks is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of the book “Dignity.”

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