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This Is Civity Radio: Claudia Cohen on Everyday Dignity

Updated: May 22, 2019



Acts of dehumanization and humiliation are well-documented tools of war and submission. But the flip side – the impact of offering someone dignity, acknowledging their humanity – is less studied.

“It occurs to me that if you can damage the dignity of someone in a small or a very large way, well then aren't we also vulnerable to being healed? Aren't there small acts that would that would either restore or reinforce?” asks psychologist Claudia Cohen, an adjunct faculty member at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia Teachers College. Cohen, who is also a founding member of both the Summit Interfaith Council Anti-Racism Committee and the Anti-Racism Community Collaborative in Westfield/Scotch Plains, New Jersey, adds, “In any case to make a positive difference that says, ‘yeah, I recognize you. You're a person. You're human, and you have this inherent worth, and I'm not better than you.’”

Cohen, who appeared on our This Is Civity Podcast has coined the term “everyday dignity” to refer to simple, Civity-like acts that acknowledge another person’s dignity. She experiments as she goes through her own life, and asks students and friends to share their stories of practicing everyday dignity. One of her favorite places to practice everyday dignity is on the New York subway, in particular when commuters exit the train and funnel onto the narrow escalator or staircase en masse.

"There's a lot of camaraderie once you're on the train,” Cohen said. “We might have been a group of commuters who would occasionally catch one other’s eye, make a comment about the weather or how late the train was." But, “as soon as we got off the train, it turned into this competition, and everyone was struggling to save 13 seconds on their commute. It switched from a somewhat cooperative or neutral situation to a highly competitive one. So, I started to experiment.”

Cohen would offer a smile and an “after you” gesture to someone near her – an act of offering dignity, of recognizing that person’s humanity. “I'd say 80% of the people respond with making eye contact, with a smile, and sometimes they gesture, ‘no, after you.’ So, this is a miraculous moment where I feel I'm floating the idea that we are all equally worthy of being the next one on the escalator,” Cohen said. “You’re acknowledging them. You’re saying, ‘you’re a person. You have needs. I’m asking you to do me a favor,’ as opposed to ‘out of my way’ with an elbow.”

For Cohen, the first step toward fostering everyday dignity is to acknowledge that we need to focus on fostering it, and to name it.

“I think that's part of how change happens. Some small group of people names a concept and defines it and points out examples of it, and then slowly, hopefully, more of us begin to see it and define it and hopefully build on what they've created,” Cohen said. “I think that if we don't name it, then we're lazy, and we rely on what we've been exposed to and what we've been taught. So, the very fact that it's not in the mainstream and not talked about, I believe it takes extra effort to make it part of the conversation so that it does become a habit of thought, and we start to see it.”

In fact, Cohen and Civity both believe that if we don’t name it and consciously work toward it, we’ll fall into the lazy, easy habits of stereotyping, othering, and ultimately denying humanity. “We know the negative and harmful, but we're more oblivious or even dismissive of the constructive or the positive.”

Cohen works with several organizations to instill this conscientious, educated, empathetic approach. Beyond a simple act on a subway, people involved in her dialogue circles read, research, and engage with others on a longer-term basis. Many of the dialogue circles center on structural and institutional racism and our own inherent biases.

“We attract people who decry racism and see themselves as not racist. However, do they decry racism out loud? And how do they define racism? So people – white people – come who are well meaning, but often poorly educated about race, not educated about the true history of structural racism,” Cohen said. “It is uncomfortable. We're talking about painful things, and it's uncomfortable to know how much you may not know. People who are there want to be there, but they may not fully recognize the work they're going to be doing as they confront how as a white person they're affected by the structural racism. Then, for my black colleagues, what they report is both a deep appreciation that this group of white people is taking race seriously and willing to engage, and frustration that they have to keep telling their stories over and over.”

The goal of the dialogue circles is to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity, especially people of color, who have regularly been marginalized, othered, and dehumanized in American society.

“I believe that ignorance about two things – one is racism and how we define it, including structural racism, but also personal racism – gives people permission to treat others without dignity, to treat them as less than human,” Cohen said. “So I've become very passionate about finding tools and techniques to educate people so that they can see structural racism, see the origins of implicit bias, and learn to catch their own lazy processing, if you will. It's a lot more than that, but you know that's part of it.”

Cohen was involved with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, but then she said she lost sight of it to focus on her own life.

“I had sort of looked away, consumed with other things,” she said. Then, when she got involved with a group in her community, she learned a new lesson. “We were looking at the history of race within New Jersey, my adopted state. We were looking at things like when movie theaters in the town were integrated and when the first black official was elected, and I knew almost none of that, and nor did the other white people in the group. But, the people of color in the group, they weren't surprised by any of it. They knew it. And that struck me, that there's knowledge that I haven't had to accumulate, because I could look away. It hasn't been directly about me. And then that made me realize that I don't want to be – that I don't want to live – that way. I don't want to be blind to other people's reality.”

Cohen said she sees her work as partially selfish and partially logical.

“It’s never made sense to me. It’s always troubled me that there's a hierarchy of power and privilege and the way people are treated,” Cohen said. “When I think about dignity, I think about people who are not treated with dignity, and it's partly selfish. I want to be treated with dignity, so I want to proselytize, and when I see egregious examples, to say ‘wait a minute. If they're doing that to that group of people, we could be next.’”

Once she reached that conclusion, Cohen knew she had to be part of the solution. “It just seems very unambiguous to me that if we believe in the inherent worth of dignity of all people, then we’ve got to make it happen. That's so fundamental.”

Even if you cannot commit to a multi-week dialogue group or even reading a book (or a dozen), everyone can contribute to fostering everyday dignity.

“One strategy would be to encourage each of us to look at when we feel micro-aggressed against – whether it's road rage, whether it's I can't believe my sister-in-law said that about me on Facebook, when you feel like ‘how dare they’ and get offended, think whether it feels like a dignity infraction and see if that fits. If it does, then say how would I want them to treat me? How could they either have not done that in the first place, or how could they repair it? Then think about when do I do that, and how could I do it differently? And how much impact might that have on someone else?”

Though Cohen focuses on fostering dignity and humanity across racial and ethnic lines, she recognizes that there are many areas where Everyday Dignity can play a role. “We are not only separated by ethnicity and race but to some extent by religious community,” she said. “So we know what's going on in our club, but we don’t necessarily know what’s going on elsewhere.”

Cohen hopes that everyone becomes conscious about offering dignity across differences and in everyday interactions. And, if you’re interested in going deeper, she hopes you reach out to her.


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