I have written Op-ed pieces about the wars in Syria and Libya, highlighting the role dignity could play in healing the wounds of those conflicts. Never would I have imagined that I would be writing about the uncivil war in my own beloved country, brought on by the protracted presidential election.
During my 25 years working as a third party facilitator of longstanding international conflicts, I discovered a missing link in my understanding of the root causes of these tragic wars. That missing link was dignity. While there were the obvious political issues that divided the parties, the emotional scaffolding underlying all these disputes was a reaction to the inhuman ways their people had been treated. The identity assaults, lack of recognition of the human suffering, the injustice, the failure to acknowledge and empathize with the lived experience of the other side, created rage and resentment so deep that even when there were offers on the table that satisfied many of the needs on both sides, they were unable to sign on to an agreement. Human beings have a hard time letting go of being treated as if they didn’t matter.
All of us want to be treated as if we were valuable and worthy. The desire for dignity—the recognition of our inherent value and worth–is a universal human yearning. The other truth about dignity is that it is as vulnerable to injury as the physical aspects of our humanity. Violations to our dignity need attention, just like a physical wound. They do not go away on their own. They need to be surfaced, and addressed before they are healed. What does it take to heal from these wounds?
I worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu some years ago in Northern Ireland and asked him to tell me what he thought was the essential ingredient in healing the divisions brought on by conflict. He looked at me and paused for a few seconds, then said, “ When people have been roughed up, they need public acknowledgment for the suffering they have endured.”
With that profound truth in mind, consider what happened during our presidential election. Donald Trump acknowledged the pain and suffering that his supporters had experienced and he did it publically. It was the first time many of them had been seen, heard, and responded to. He honored their dignity. They felt understood by Donald Trump. He legitimized their experiences with a powerful political agenda, creating an emotional infrastructure to his campaign that was fueled by his supporters’ rage and resentment. He made promises to them that addressed their shattered dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the emotional volatility of his political agenda, he employed some of the most primitive, hardwired human fears to gain support. Neuroscientists tell us that under circumstances of threat, some of our most destructive instinctive behaviors emerge, such as creating “us/them” distinctions , allowing for the righteous justification to do others’ harm. When these instincts are triggered, empathy is the first thing to go; we lose our capacity to connect with the feelings of the threatening “other.”
While honoring the dignity of what he calls the “forgotten men and women,” Donald Trump tapped into the underlying racism, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia in the process of recognizing the painful loss felt by his supporters. If only he had stopped at validating loss of dignity of his supporters instead of vilifying Mexicans, Muslims, women and other minorities, he would have had a victory that helped recover the dignity of his supporters, without diminishing the worth of others. It would have been a proud moment for dignity and for Donald Trump.
What should President-elect Donald Trump do now to address the millions of Americans who feel debased, degraded, and humiliated by his campaign strategy? If he were to take Archbishop Tutu seriously, he would immediately address the nation and acknowledge the multiple violations of dignity he perpetrated on the American people during the presidential campaign. He should say he is sorry. He should ask the nation for forgiveness. His premature call for unity should have been preceded by such actions. People have a hard time letting go of being treated badly.
If he has any chance of reconciling this divided country, he has to take responsibility for the harm he has caused. A positive and constructive step such as outline above would help all Americans who are struggling to find safety in a country they love and where they thought they belonged.
We all need to take a positive and constructive step toward healing our wounded nation. Many Americans feel they have been violated by this election and as tragic as that is, the wounds to dignity do not stop there. The dignity of our country is also in peril—our democracy itself has suffered. It will take more than the constructive acknowledgment of President Trump to restore our broken nation. We are all responsible.
As one young child who lost a member of his family to terrorism said, “Healing means we let go of hate and put more dignity in the world.” We can do better.