Toward Preserving Human Dignity

…we need empathy and compassion for all…
there is too much at stake for us to not pursue this ideal.
– Barbara English


This is something I wrote way back in 2008…
…some of the details sound dated, and some of them don’t.
– BE


September 18, 2008
Toward Preserving Human Dignity
By Barbara English, LMFT

A BBC headline this morning read, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has told his party’s leaders that Monday’s power-sharing deal is a “humiliation”. The word “humiliation” jumped out at me and does not bode well for success. (Click here for the article:

I don’t think we adequately comprehend or address the human experiences that lie just below the surface within political leaders, or the influential role they play in determining the success or failure of power sharing agreements and peace accords.

In 2005, a peace accord was signed in Sudan to end the multi-decade civil war. Many deemed the agreement grossly inadequate in terms of its comprehensiveness. Less attention has been paid to the personal stories of those involved. When one of the signers had previously lost to the conflict multiple family members, and the night prior to the intended signing of the peace accord gained news of yet another family member, his brother, being added to the list of those killed, how likely is it that the peace will be solid? For success, unresolved grief can not be ignored. It does not preserve human dignity to ask someone who has just received such agonizing news to sign and make peace with the killers the next day.

I recall attending a talk a few years ago given by a man devoted to the cause of peace for Israelis and Palestinians. I listened as he discussed the lengthy list of items contributing to disagreements and ongoing source of conflicts. After that I watched him draw a map of the Middle East and outline with black Sharpie how the land could be divided equitably. I came away from the talk thinking that if his shallow, mechanical thought process resembled in the least any of those trying to broker peace deals, complete, chronic failure to achieve lasting agreements made perfect sense to me.

Re-drawing the map is the least of the difficulties. Addressing the set of issues stemming from the needs of the people who live in the region is a far more daunting, relevant, complex, and delicate challenge. Even the best of black Sharpies would struggle with that illustration. Beyond geography and beyond access to primary physical needs being met (e.g. food, water, shelter, medicine, etc.), where is the comprehension of the complicated, traumatizing, painful, enraging, combative history involved on both sides in this discussion? Has the mass trauma incurred from the holocaust ever been adequately addressed in terms of mass recovery? Are the Israelis ever listened to in the way traumatized people need to be in order to feel heard? And it is not just the holocaust, but the struggle for safety and security they have been in ever since. Beyond that, it doesn’t stop with actual, literal safety and security, but subjective, perceived safety and security. Unrecovered trauma can interfere with the ability to feel safe even in a safe place. If that is the case, no agreement will ever be enough to satiate.

The Palestinians for their part, are also a traumatized people. Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist in trying to explain the epidemic of suicide bombings, sums up the root of the problem as being one of humiliation. “What propels people into such action is a long history of humiliation and a desire for revenge that every Arab harbors.” Statistics are high on the number of Palestinians arrested by Israeli soldiers at one point or another who were subjected to torture during their time of captivity. That combines with the “35 years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank,” serving as “a continuous reminder of Arab weakness,” from Dr. Sarraj’s perspective. “In every case of martyrdom, there is a personal story of tragedy and trauma.” (TIME: Why We Blow Ourselves Up)

These issues are not limited to Zimbabwe, Sudan and the Middle East. In her book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, Jessica Stern notes humiliation and perceived deprivation as common themes in the background stories of terrorists she interviewed in a variety of cultures, including those from the U.S.

Infant mental health studies point to states of shame as linked to a “loss of words,” (Izard, 1991) and can interfere with the ability to express emotions. Humiliation has been defined by researchers as shame-rage stemming from having experienced contempt or angry rejection. States of humiliation are not merely psychological but reflect changes in physiological state, taking a person into that which is not only subjectively unbearable, but a genuinely destructive state to endure long-term in the body. Weaponizing one’s own body could be said to make sense in certain circumstances. When human dignity has been repeatedly obliterated and become the common experience of a people, how can we expect anything other than the most insidious forms of violence to erupt from some of those, so to speak, and perhaps literally, at a loss for words?

In the case of President Mugabe, there is yet another vulnerability to consider. Often it is those most narcissistic, if not outright sociopathic, that are drawn to positions of power. This of course does not apply to all world leaders, but they are disproportionately represented in the global population. Narcissism at its most basic level is a defense against shame and humiliation. While they have dawned an air of being puffed up, superior, and arrogant, their image is innately riddled with fragility. Narcissistic rage is easily triggered, because the investment in avoiding states of shame and humiliation is incredibly strong. In returning to my original point, hearing from Mugabe that the power sharing deal is perceived by him to be a “humiliation,” as I said before, does not bode well for success. And this is where it gets especially slippery.

Frequently, we are uncomfortable with making concessions to cruel, dictatorial tyrants. If dehumanized, minimum qualifiers have not been met for these “monsters” to be deemed worthy of receiving common human decency. It will not do the global community, or the people of Zimbabwe, any good to lie down and passively tolerate the atrocities a man such as Mugabe is capable of perpetrating. Like an out of control two year old, with access to a large stock of deadly weapons, to say he needs containment is a gross understatement.

If we get emotionally lazy and willing to sacrifice aspects of our own humanity, we become tempted to indulge in the view that in enacting horrors upon others, Mugabe, and others like him, have somehow forfeited their right to empathic understanding of their own pain. This perspective is a disservice to us all. It is a gross distortion to equate trying to understand a perpetrator, terrorist or tyrant’s point of view with being a concession in and of itself. Empathy does not equate to approval. Human feelings, needs and experiences can be understood and met with compassion, while maintaining a firm line on behavior. This is not to say such a stance is easy, or clear cut, but we need to aspire toward simultaneously holding these tensions while wrestling toward agreements. It might sound naïve or Pollyanna to say we need empathy and compassion for all, but in fact, there is too much at stake for us to not pursue this ideal.

Barbara English is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience in the field. As a Certified Bioenergetic Therapist, she works from a mind-body perspective, and utilizes relational somatic methods as part of the process toward healing and a sense of well-being. Much of her training has focused on Early Development, Infant Mental Health, and healing after abuse or trauma. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of Living Ubuntu, and a 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellow.


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