When Oprah received in 2003 the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the Emmys, she told the following story about her father:
“I grew up in Nashville with a father who owned a barber shop. I can’t get him to retire. Every holiday all the transients were always bumming haircuts from my father and asking for money from my dad. All those guys always ended up at our dinner table. I would often say to my father afterwards, “Dad, why can’t we just have regular people at our Christmas dinner?” My father said to me, “They are regular people. They want the same thing you want.” And I would say, “What?” And he said, “To be fed.” At the time I thought he was just talking about dinner, but I have since learned how profound he really was because we are all regular people seeing the same thing. We all just want to know that we matter.”
Dignity is the backbone of mattering. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” The feelings of being recognized, acknowledged, included, and respected for who we are or what we know provide us with dignity. They make us feel human.
To feel worthy, we have to feel that we are equal to others, and that we deserve to be treated with respect. We have to experience fairness in relationships, at work, and in society. Moreover, we have to be fair to ourselves. We cannot experience dignity without fairness.
We seem to be wired for fairness. As human beings we are hypersensitive to fairness transgressions. So much so that lack of fairness and rejection register in the brain as physical pain. But the opposite is also true. As social neuropsychologist Matthew Lieberman notes, fairness feels like chocolate in the brain. We seek fairness and pursue dignity. We know right away when someone makes us feel valued and when someone is dismissive. We have highly developed radars for dignity.
From children’s exclamations “it’s not fair” on the playground, to feeling dissed by somebody at work, evidence of our sensitivity to injustice is everywhere. The psychological wound inflicted in unfair treatment is very painful. We feel deprived of our humanity when we are dismissed, ignored, or devalued.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.