Why Dignity is Not a Noun

By Dr. Barbara Benoliel | May 27, 2021

Until recently, I had not realized how much I was a part of causing harm. Not that it was intentional, but just because of who and what I am in the world, I am able to cause harm. Perhaps we all are unintentionally causing harm to someone, somewhere, and no, that doesn’t let me off the hook. There are a lot of words being tossed around these days to try and capture the essence of social justice. There is history to contend with, along with the current status of equity issues that impact and challenge our lives every day in so many ways. The words diversity and inclusion are set out as a standard to attain, and more and more we see resources committed to making movement in a positive direction. Other words that have been suggested at the World Economic Forum (2021) are belonging, dignity and justice. Avishai Margalit used the word, decent (Margalit, 1996). He said a decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate its citizens. The words are important, loaded with meaning and nuance.

I am not sure we can move forward though without first looking back. Behind all the initiatives is cultural trauma, for the oppressed and diminished, the many who have lost dignity over generations, and continue today. I understand human dignity is a noun in language, but not in practice. Incremental, systemic, and institutionalized attacks on human dignity, and ongoing micro-aggressions build up to create a discriminatory standard of behavior.

This standard is like a toxic poison to society, an active process developed over time, causing irreparable harm.  Dignity is not an outcome. Dignity is how we approach each other every day. It is seeing each other and recognizing each other in every-day life. The driver who honks at the old person crossing the road to slowly, the cat calls at women walking down the street, the push to enter the elevator ahead of the person in a wheelchair, the passing over of a person of color for promotion, are marks of invisibility, and lost dignity. And here, where I may have benefitted is how I contributed to the harm. Once the trauma of lost dignity is recognized, it takes a different process to begin to reflect on where we are and how we got here before we can move to improve things.

Woman Sitting On Couch Meeting With Male Relationship Counsellor In Office

Restorative process is one way to begin that reflection through a facilitated dialogue between those who have been harmed and those who have been a party to the harm done. The goal is beginning to repair harm with acknowledgement that there is harm.  The lines are not clearly drawn to make it easy to identify who is on either side. When human dignity is at stake, we are all at risk of being harmed.  There are many examples of different forms of restorative process. It is frequently used in different justice systems, schools, and workplaces. On a larger scale, truth and reconciliation activities often use restorative process dialogues.

Repairing harm requires the curiosity and the fortitude to listen and to hear the story of harm in each instance where harm has been done. Restorative process mediation is a place where those harmed and those who are responsible for causing harm can sit together and talk (Bolivar 2019). At a restorative process mediation, participants ask questions and listen to the answers to help fully understand who has been harmed and how it happened. There are four questions I ask all the participants in each restorative process meeting; what do we know about what has happened, how do we feel about it, what does it mean to us, and what do we want to do about it to help repair the harm done? Repairing harm is a process to begin to restore dignity; the key word being process. That is why dignity is not a noun.

Dr. Barbara Benoliel graduated from Walden’s Ph.D. program in Human Services, specializing in Criminal Justice, and has made her career exploring and contributing to alternative dispute resolution and alternative justice systems through teaching and advocacy. Now, having continued with Walden University on faculty in her role as a senior core faculty member, she supports student doctoral research and expanding ways of knowing how to resolve conflict and make peace.


Bolivar, D. (2019). Restoring harm: a psychosocial approach to victims and restorative justice. Routledge.

Margalit, A., The Decent Society, Harvard University Press, 1996.

World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/02/diversity-equity-inclusion-have-failed-belonging-dignity-justice/

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