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What Is Dignity?

By Cultures Of Dignity | January 23, 2020

dignity video

What Is Dignity?

Dignity is our way forward to build strong relationships.


We all grew up hearing that we should “respect our elders.” It’s a core value that unites across ethnicities, religions, countries and class. But, rarely do we hear about dignity, the essential worth and value of every human being.  

Meanwhile, we have lost a meaningful definition of respect. Adults often feel that young people aren’t showing them the respect that they believe they deserve. Many young people feel that adults need to earn their respect. Why does it seem that we have lost basic respect for each other? How do we get it back?

The answer is right in front of us. At Cultures of Dignity, we ask young people what comes to mind when they hear the word “respect”, these are a few common responses:

Respect is supposed to be earned, but it’s usually imposed.

I have to obey them no matter how they treat me.

If they don’t respect me then I don’t have to respect them.

The Problem with Only Using “Respect” 

Respect is admiration for someone’s actions, traits, or accomplishments. It is earned or lost through a person’s actions and behaviors. But respect is often used to force someone to comply or obey when they have more authority.

From the playground, to our locker rooms, work-places, our faith communities and halls of government, young people have good reason for their skepticism and reluctance to come forward and report wrongdoing. As long as we tell young people to respect others who are abusing power, they will be anxious, resentful and doubt the purpose of speaking out when they see something wrong. The constant parade of “elders” who abuse their position of authority and then demand respect weighs on the hearts and minds of young people. When we don’t admit what young people see, we appear to accept the hypocrisy, and we are helpless to stop it.

It doesn’t matter if you are 5, 12, 27, 80 years old we all know the feeling of being forced to respect someone and it makes us feel angry, confused, and powerless.   

None of this is an excuse for young people to treat adults badly. But if we want young people to truly respect us we need to get clear about what the word means and shine a light on the power of dignity to guide our interactions with each other. 

We partnered with Cognitive Media to bring the concepts of dignity and respect to life in this animated film. Cognitive specializes in taking complex concepts and transforming into powerful stories and ideas through illustration, storytelling and whiteboard animation. We loved working with them and hope we have the opportunity to do so again!

Let’s Stop Using the Word “Respect” and Use “Dignity” Instead

Dignity, the belief that all humans have equal worth and value, is the foundation of our work. Everyone has dignity. Everyone has the same amount. It cannot be earned or lost.  Dignity is a given. It is an absolute. It is a non-negotiable right. 

It may seem simple that everyone has essential value.  However, the practice of using dignity to guide our interactions with each other is actually a radical shift.  And while we are all born with dignity, we are not born knowing how to act in ways that honor everyone’s dignity, including our own. 

Take a moment to remember an adult you respected when you were growing up. Your answer is most likely based on how that person treated you and others, not how successful or powerful they were. You respected them because they were treating others with dignity. 

Using dignity instead of respect gives us a new way to interact with each other. A way where we can recognize the person’s essential worth apart from their actions. This is where we get our courage to stand up for ourselves and have the tough conversations we so often shy away from.

dignity and respect

Children Are Not Broken 

While it is true that we live in an increasingly anxious world, children are not broken. The systems that have traditionally supported them are increasingly challenged to meet their needs and support them effectively. Many of us; parents, educators, people who recognize that we are leaving our children an increasingly complex set of global problems, desperately want to contribute and collaborate with like-minded people. 

Dignity Is The Path Forward

Dignity gives us the path forward to build the relationships with young people that we must have. Our schools depend on it. Our communities depend on it. And it all begins with young people believing in us and what we teach them. As Sorah G., a middle schooler shared, “Dignity gave me a new language to understand and analyze the interactions I had between my peers and to understand the world I live in.”

Click here to access the free Dignity Tiny Guides


What Is Dignity?