Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

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"We are a network of scholars, both researchers and practitioners, dedicated to ending cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We believe that by eliminating these harmful cycles, a space is opened for mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thereby leading to the resolution of previously intractable conflicts. We believe that both global sustainability of social cohesion and ecological survival require a mindset of connection and a spirit of shared humility - and not a mindset of humiliation.

As researchers we study the dynamics of humiliation, the antecedents and consequences of humiliating behaviors, and interventions that can help break the cycle of humiliation and restore human dignity. As practitioners we attempt to bring incidents of humiliation in international affairs to the attention of people across the globe, to create public awareness of the destructive effects of such humiliation, and to promote ways of dealing with tensions in human affairs that generate human dignity and respect.

Many reject research on "evil" as naïve appeasement. This is not our view. We believe that "understanding" and "condoning" ought not be conflated. Nelson Mandela showed the world that humiliation does not automatically lead to mayem. His example attests to the constructive ways out of humiliation that merit to be studied and promoted. We wish to learn from those constructive elements in Mandela-like or Gandhi-like approaches (please note that we are aware of the various criticisms that may be aimed at Mandela or Gandhi) - for example, Mandela could have instigated a genocide of the white elite, yet he did not.

In our work, we wish to make research relevant to practice and vice versa (as in participatory action research). We invite you, researchers and practitioners from around the world who share our goals, to join us. Please read our call for creativity, a detailed description of our mission and a short description of what we mean when we speak about humiliation. See also our newsletters and our collection of quotes.

What is our aim?

We wish to help discontinue humiliating practices wherever they occur, globally and locally. In order to do this we aim at building bridges between research and practice. We wish to raise awareness of the workings of humiliation through research and education, and "change the world" more directly through interventions. In other words, we wish to focus on the interplay of both, subjective and institutional aspects of humiliation (Nancy Fraser (2000) discusses this in Rethinking Recognition).

Human rights ideals, emphasizing that each human being is born with equal dignity that ought not be humiliated are central to our work. We are aware of the debate questioning whether human rights are universal, or not, and whether their advocates are arrogant Western imperialists, or not, and we are aware that feelings of humiliation accompany this debate on all sides. We wish to contribute to building a future world society that includes all humankind in constructive and dignified ways.

The vision of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) is to contribute to reducing - and ultimately eliminating - destructive disrespect and humiliation around the world. Our efforts focus on generating research, disseminating information, applying creative educational methods, and devising pilot projects and policy strategies. With these initiatives we wish to promote a new level of consciousness that is characterized by caring, mutual respect and sensitivity to dignity, thereby fertilizing new and constructive community action.

Research shows the important effect of "framing." In experiments, when players are asked to play the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game as a "community game," they tend to cooperate, while players who think they are playing a "Wallstreet game" tend to cheat. Although the structure of the game is identical, the mere difference in the label has a profound effect upon whether or not players cooperate (see for more information, for example, Lindner 2000).

For our work for more dignity (and less humiliation), we believe that the principle of Unity in Diversity represents a dignifying framing. We wish to promote more unity and at the same time more diversity. We think that this can be made operational by applying the Subsidiarity Principle (matters are handled by the smallest or lowest competent authority, a principle applied, for example, by the European Union). This, in turn, can be made operational, we believe, by Walking the Talk or the Appreciative Approach. We are convinced that this is valid for global and local institutions and organisations as much as for how we construct our identity (and even our brain works in this fashion, by using hierarchies of loops), and not least for our own HumanDHS work.

What we do

Our endeavor is innovative, at many levels, and thus, by definition, we do not yet have a long-standing organization that can look back on years of activities. The organizational structure or our group is that of a network and thus entails a wide range of activities by our members. In our research we study the workings of humiliation, in our educational activities we address them, and in our intervention projects we attempt to translate research into practice.

HumanDHS is a network of scholars, researchers and practitioners that is independent of any religious or political agenda. At the core of our work is the use of transdisciplinary approaches for generating and disseminating knowledge about human dignity and humiliation. We are committed to a wide range of knowledge creation and dissemination, from shifts in awareness and practice at the local micro-level to larger changes at the level of the global community.

We believe that research in social science should not remain within the academic realm only. Like the natural sciences, social sciences should be taken into "real life." Professor Shibley Telhami explains this point as follows, "I have always believed that good scholarship can be relevant and consequential for public policy. It is possible to affect public policy without being an advocate; to be passionate about peace without losing analytical rigor; to be moved by what is just while conceding that no one has a monopoly on justice."

Also within our group, we want to live our values and create an innovative global network where we emphasize respect for equal dignity and refrain from old-style autocratic communication modes. We also wish to "walk the talk" and create a humiliation-free, collaborative learning environment characterized by appreciative inquiry, mutual respect, mutual empathy, and openness to difference in our research, our communication style with others, as well as in our meetings and dealings within the group.

HumanDHS is developing a global network that serves as a platform for everybody who wishes to contribute to this work. Committed to creating a better future for our world, for our children and grandchildren, our members are dedicated to providing effective and creative platforms for building bridges in situations of disagreement and conflict and for generating a program of future-oriented activities that result in a viable global community." (


Towards Dignism

"October 17, 2016

From Evelin Lindner:

"In my view, Journey to Earthland is one of the most important documents of our time. I have immense admiration for Paul and his seminal work over so many decades. Yes, as Paul writes on page 66, “the race for the soul of Earthland is on”! Is a global citizens movement possible? If so, can it “take shape at the requisite speed, scale and coherence?” And can it be global enough?

For the past forty years, I have been living globally, at home on all continents, to nurture a global “dignity family.” In other words, I am working day and night to nurture precisely the very solidarity of a global citizens movement that Paul describes: “This augmented solidarity is the correlative in consciousness of the interdependence in the external world. The Planetary Phase, in mingling the destinies of all, has stretched esprit de corps across space and time to embrace the whole human family, living and unborn, and beyond” (p. 77).

Do we, as humankind, understand how dire our situation is, and how radical our responses must be? Everybody on this list, I assume, will reply with “No, we do not understand this.” There is “dewy-eyed sanguinity” and stoic optimism on one side, and “world-weary cynicism” on the other side (what a great formulation! Raskin, pp. 110-111), while what is needed, is largely missing: a due and measured sense of alarm. It is as if people in a burning house or on a sinking ship discuss their feelings, while failing to act.

Do we, as humankind, have the means to act? Everybody on this list, I assume, will reply with “Yes, we have.” Did our ancestors see pictures of our Blue Planet from the perspective of an astronaut? Were our forebears able to see, as we do, how we humans are *one single* family living on *one tiny* planet? Did our grandparents have access to as comprehensive a knowledge base as we have about the universe and our place in it? They did not. The image of the Blue Planet is revolutionary. It anchors humankind in the universe in ways no generation before was able to experience. For the first time, humankind can now act on and manifest the fact that we are one family. All the necessary information is amply available, more than ever before. A small window of opportunity is open for humankind at the current juncture in human history, for a few years to come perhaps, an opportunity to create a decent future for coming generations, rather than leave a ramshackle world to them.

I very much appreciate Paul’s discussion of constrained pluralism / unity in diversity. Many people I meet around the world believe that unity in diversity is a zero-sum game and that if one wants more unity, one has to sacrifice diversity, and vice versa, and they therefore think in dualities: “cosmopolitanism versus communalism, statism versus anarchism, and top-down versus bottom-up” (p. 84). There seem to be very high mental hurdles that keep people from grasping that unity in diversity is not a zero-sum game, but that both unity and diversity can be increased together, and that the benefits are immeasurable (see, for instance, Jean Baker Miller’s work on zest in relationships and mutual growth as an outcome of waging good conflict). The two prongs of unity and diversity, global responsibility and regional autonomy, are both essential and complementary.

For making unity in diversity work, it is not enough, however, to transcend dualities. What is needed, in addition, is to embrace processual thinking, to go from clinging to fixities to moving in flux. The tension between “Many” and “One” must be balanced by all involved in a never-ending process, it can never be “cemented” once and for all, in the way past systems tried to. This means that appropriate societal systems need to be created, and dignifying communication skills learned, which allow for fluid adaptations of this balance, without violence. It means moving away from a world that clings to illusions of fixity, where violent protests are launched whenever the balance is felt wanting. In short, maintaining unity in diversity is a never-ending balancing act that requires a high degree of cognitive sophistication, interpersonal sagacity, and dignifying communication skills.

I would like to add to the discussion by highlighting two “blind spots” that I have observed even among the most progressives all around the world, and they have to do with precisely those affective and institutional dimensions of global citizenship.

Regarding the affective dimension, it speaks to the cultural solidarity that Paul rightly sees as the glue that holds together the movement towards a new Earthland, and it speaks to the reshaping of the secular story to include the deeper moral and spiritual aspirations of humans and what it is to be human.

As I observe it, not only the academic community lacks what might be called emotional-relational literacy. To say it in a caricature: the traditional professor/director was a man, who had a female secretary, who did all the relationship building work for him, she apologized to those he had insulted, and she even bought the flowers for his wife’s birthday. By saying so, I do not wish to blame the professor/director or the secretary in this story, since this was “the way it was.” However, in today’s world, in which cooperation is essential, it becomes dangerous to maintain this habitus. Cooperation requires trusting relationships as the very foundation for any voluntary inclination of people to rely on each other and work together. After living globally for the past forty years, I observe, unfortunately, that the work of creating trusting human-to-human connections largely fails to be done: it is still seen as an inconsequential “female” task that is “miraculously” self-executing, and the need to engage in it intentionally is simply not noticed. What happens instead is that a “male” script of throwing one’s weight around turns society into a scary battlefield where mistrust becomes the “smartest” strategy of survival. And this happens in a situation, where, if we wish to nurture a global citizens movement, people from different backgrounds will have to come together, and relationship-building work will need to be carried out much more deliberately than thus far. No technical innovation, no ever so “professional” approach can achieve this. Notions such as “family,” “friend,” “colleague,” or “stranger” will have to be brought together into a new sense of being part of a global dignity family. This relationship-building work is therefore one of the main foci of our work in the global Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies fellowship (

Currently, there is a worrying trend that weakens even further the relational literacy available in populations. Young mothers now sit in front of their crying babies with their cell phones, not knowing what to do with their baby. Brigitte Volz, consultant in early childhood development in Germany, and member in our fellowship, just shared with me that she observes the number of babies and young children with insecure relationships: parents no longer are able to attune to their offspring’s signals. Her message is that society as a whole will need to understand its responsibility to create a context that enables parents to give their children an adequate start into life. What is urgently needed in educational settings is the highest level of attention to creating resilient connections, rather than merely delivering instructions.

New relational neuroscience shows that the human brain and physiology functions best when people are embedded in webs of caring relationships. Isolation and exclusion activate the same neural pathways as physical pain. There are long-term physical and mental health benefits that flow from feeling loved and life-long mental damages from being neglected. While damage in otherwise healthy adults may be healed, in children, it can become structural. The brains of neglected children are smaller than those of loved children, since brain cells grow and cerebral circuits develop in response to an infant’s interaction with their main caregivers. Nature and nurture are entangled; the genes for brain function, including intelligence, may not even become functional if a baby is neglected during the first two years of life. In cases where brains have not developed properly due to neglect in the first two years of life, youths may later be incapable of responding to the incentives and punishments that otherwise guide society away from crime, and they may become persistent offenders. If we heed the African adage that “it needs a village to raise a child,” then the number of disaffected children and youth in the global village will rise if this trend is not turned around. Growth-fostering relationships are needed instead. What becomes important, if a society wishes to sustain social-psychological health among its members, is a focus on the quality of relationships, rather than the idolization of mathematics and quantities.

My second point concerns the institutional dimensions of global citizenship, in partiuclar, global economic arrangements. In my view, even if present-day economic arrangements were to work perfectly well in a Newtonian machine model, they do not work for human beings. In my book on A Dignity Economy, I analyze the social and psychological damage caused by the priority that present-day’s world system (Wallerstein) gives to “market pricing,” instead of to “communal sharing,” to use Alan Page Fiske’s terminology. Chapter headings in my book are “When abuse becomes a means of ‘getting things done’,” “When fear becomes overwhelming and debilitating,” “When false choices crowd out important choices,” or “When our souls are injured by the Homo economicus model.”

To conclude my two points, I observe two blind spots among even the most progressive people around the world, first, regarding emotional-relational intelligence, and second, with respect to the salience of global constitutive rules (Taylor, Searle) and how they constrain what happens locally. No great transition will be possible if whole generations are too incapacitated, socially, cognitively, and psychologically, to even embark on it. No great transition will be possible if we do not learn to nurture a whole new quality of relationships among each other. While a new quality of relationships can be nurtured in small groups for a certain period of time, as we do in our global dignity movement, still, it cannot flourish at the necessary scale in a world with global economic constitutive rules that incentivize the opposite. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is reported of having explained the aims of the Washington Consensus as follows: “Economics is the method: the object is to change the soul.” By now, “greed” has transmuted from a vice to a virtue, giving a new “modern” justification to traditional masculine role descriptions of domination and disdain for “female” nurturing, it has created a “generation me” (Jean Twenge) of “excellent sheep” (William Deresiewicz), who are in danger of creating a psychologically and cognitively stunted next generation, unable to develop the relational wisdom that is needed now. All of this stands in the way of a great transition.

When I read the comments of Joan Cocks’ research assistant from Vietnam, and Mary Evelyn Tucker’s report saying that people now wonder whether we can even survive as a species or not, I was reminded of the image of the sinking Titanic that I sometimes use: The wealthy have their cabins on the upper luxury deck, where they dance and feast, while trying to hinder the poor from the lower decks to come up. They overlook that the poor may be in possession of wisdom that could save Titanic from sinking. The poor have one dream: getting to the first floor. They first try migration, or, in the worst case, they express their anger in terrorist attacks. All the while nobody notices that the entire ship goes down. And this, while those on the luxury upper floors are the primary holders of the material resources necessary to turn around the ship to avert the iceberg, even if only in the last minute. Those on the luxury upper floors do not notice the holes in the hull and the fire in the basement, and they are oblivious of the collision with the iceberg that is imminent. They feel safe behind the iron gates that separate the luxury floors from the rest. They have the illusion that simply blocking these gates harder will guarantee their safety. They paint their cabins pink and divert themselves by bringing possessions on board or seeking entertainment thrills, and then they accuse the messengers, the scientists, of delivering over-dramatizing calls to wake up. It is therefore that scientists no longer dare to speak. This scenario describes the proverbial “ship of fools.” The peak of foolishness is reached when fighting over access to the first floor makes the ship go down even faster. There are too few voices calling out that nobody is exempted from drowning: no money, no sense of entitlement, can save only “me,” while the rest goes down. Self-interest converges with common interest in a situation where either all drown or none. In a first step the ship would need to be reconfigured so that all are included, have a voice, and can contribute to solution-seeking dialogue conducted in respect for each other’s equality in dignity, instead of being caught in relational illiteracy or, even worse, violent cycles of humiliation.

Like Guy Dauncey, I am always seeking new language. Tired of the fact that the terminology of “communism/socialism” and “capitalism” has morphed into markers of cycles of humiliation more than markers of enlightenment, I thought of the term dignity + -ism. Dignism may describe a world,

  • where every new-born finds space and is nurtured to unfold their highest and best qualities, embedded in a social context of loving appreciation and connection,
  • where the carrying capacity of the planet guides the ways in which everybody’s basic needs are met,
  • a world, where we are united in respecting human dignity and celebrating diversity, where we prevent unity from being perverted into oppressive uniformity, and keep diversity from sliding into hostile division.

Again, I am profoundly thankful to Paul and all participants in this list. My project of building a “global dignity family” requires that I give my entire being to this task. I have no “normal life” as most people would have it. To be able to conduct such a life, I have to prioritize ruthlessly and give my time only to a select few significant conversations. This list is the only list I attempt to follow in its entirety if I can. To me, it is among the most future-oriented conversations there are on our planet." (, GT debates, October 2016)