When people are threatened, evolutionary biology dictates extreme reactions: flee or fight? Donna Hicks, who studies conflict resolution at Harvard, says that this dynamic is at the core of much global tension—it’s just scaled up to the level of cities or countries.
So she starts small, focusing on individual interactions. She puts an emphasis on dignity—the inherent value of a life—and says that focusing on that value can prevent or dissolve tensions. Using this approach, she once led a face-to-face reconciliation in Northern Ireland, between an Irish Republican Army fighter and the British police officer he had shot decades before in London.
Hicks’s dignity-based approach applies beyond the domain of police, soldiers, and insurgents; she has mentored graduate students and researchers with these same ideas in mind. For The Atlantic’s series, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I talked to Hicks about what studying conflict resolution reveals about successful mentorship and how her research can shed light on people’s personal and professional relationships. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
B.R.J. O’Donnell: You once led a conflict-resolution workshop for former guerrillas in Latin America. How did that inform your research on dignity?
Donna Hicks: Inevitably, in these intractable conflicts—like the ones that I’ve worked on in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and an array of countries in the Middle East—it wasn’t just about politics. That’s what was presented as the problem, but what I found was that underlying all of these political issues was this overwhelming undercurrent of unaddressed dignity violations between the warring parties.
When I used the word dignity to name that undercurrent, it opened doors in a way that talking about emotional injuries or trauma just didn’t. I found that when I said [to combatants], “Look, I know what’s at the heart of this—your dignity has been violated, and there is no way you have found to have that acknowledged or recognized,” that’s when we got progress. It wasn’t just that I touched on something that was relevant in international conflicts. Whether it’s your colleague, or your parent, or your significant other, there are these dignity violations that fly back and forth all the time in relationships. And that’s the backdrop of my work.
O’Donnell: How did that understanding impact your own relationships?
Hicks: I aspire to treat people with dignity all the time. And I think that was at the heart of my relationships with my students. I didn’t see some asymmetrical power arrangement where I was the all-knowing professor and they were the students. I might be different in title, but when it comes to dignity, we are the same, we are equal. That is the heart and soul of my mentorship relationships.
O’Donnell: Can you talk more about how that idea influences your mentorship?
Hicks: I think there is often this implicit notion that the mentor is the omniscient one, and the mentee is the one that is absorbing all this wisdom and knowledge. But what I’m finding is that if someone in a high-status position, like a professor, like a mentor, can actually say to his or her students, “Look, you know what, I really made a mistake,” instead of trying to rush to cover it up, or deceive or lie, that’s so impactful. It’s about being able to be vulnerable, so that you don’t present yourself as some kind of greater-than-God person.
O’Donnell: Can you talk about the work you did on the politics of dignity in the Middle East with Zaynab El Bernoussi?
Hicks: I have had so many wonderful graduate students who have explored this concept of dignity with me. This summer, I worked with Zaynab. She was on a Fulbright here at Harvard, writing a paper on how dignity violations shaped the Arab Spring.
I had done some work in Libya, right after Qaddafi, and I did some work with Syrians as well. The Syrians we worked with had been through hell: Many of them had been imprisoned and tortured, but their concerns were not limited to all of the dignity violations they personally and individually experienced. They were equally as concerned about what they called “the dignity of Syria.” The Libyans I spoke to felt the same way.
The thing that really struck me with Zaynab was her deep sense of conviction. I knew that she wanted to understand how to apply what she learned because she saw dignity violations informing the identities of Arab communities, and even countries. This was not just an academic exercise for her—this was a deep personal commitment. So when I got an email from her asking if I would help guide her research and be her mentor while she was here at Harvard, I said yes.
O’Donnell: What has it been like for you watching Zaynab work with your dignity model, as a professor and as a mentor?
Hicks: It’s such an honor. She’s so smart. I chair a seminar on international conflict, and Zaynab presented her work there. She came up with so many subtle ways of looking at dignity that I had never thought about.
O’Donnell: What comes to mind first?
Hicks: Well, for example, in Arabic, the word for dignity is karama. She was exploring the roots of that word, because one of her main goals for the project was to show how the word dignity meant different things to different people during the uprisings of the Arab Spring. She was talking about the roots of karama, and she was saying that it is anchored in the concept of generosity. I didn’t know that. It wasn’t something that was on my radar, and it made me think more about my own exploration of dignity.