Blog: Dignity – What is it and why is it so important?

As the country looks to embed human rights into Scots law, there is one word that has been at the heart of discussions – dignity. Dignity is being brought to the forefront of the conversation about human rights, but what does it mean? What does it look like for dignity to be respected, and how do we achieve a society that prioritises dignity beyond changes to the law?

Graham, one of our Development Officers, has written about what dignity means for him, and what it could mean for the sector as Scotland works towards a culture of human rights.

With the prospect of Scotland facing an historic attempt to incorporate human rights legislation into Scots law with the introduction of the Scottish Human Rights Bill, the third sector is faced with an opportunity to improve the wellbeing, treatment and experiences of the people and communities that they work with through prioritising dignity as a core value of human rights.

Dignity is engrained in literature and legislation about human rights. It is often used to underpin or justify universal human rights, as it is our shared common dignity that entitles us all to human rights. According to the Cambridge dictionary, dignity is “calm, serious and controlled behaviour that makes people respect you.” In the context of third sector organisations and human rights, this definition doesn’t feel true to what dignity means in practice.

For those supporting or working with individuals who face barriers within society, dignity is not about calm, serious and controlled behaviour. It is about preserving and promoting the humanity and wellbeing of the people that we work with. For me, dignity is the opposite of shame. As Dr Elaine Webster from The University of Strathclyde states, “We know it when we see it.” I believe that this applies to both shame and dignity. As I’ve seen through my work with care experienced young people, shame is arguable the greatest hurdle to overcome in the world of trauma, therefore dignity is the goal that we should strive for. Shame is prevalent for anyone that has experienced any form of discrimination or oppression, so shame and dignity should both be at the forefront of this conversation about what it means for Scots to have their human rights be respected, protected and fulfilled.

In my past role working with care-experienced young people, dignity looked like de-escalating a distressed young person in a compassionate way, modelling calm and emotionally intelligent behaviour, and expressing love regardless of any difficult interactions. For the third sector, upholding dignity could mean prioritising discretion when people are seeking support, allowing people to make informed choices about the support they receive, and finding flexible ways of working to meet individual needs. Doing so will support both the individual and the organisation to thrive. After all, by fighting for the dignity of another, we preserve our own.

As new human rights legislation is introduced, the third sector must consider what dignity means for them. By keeping dignity at the heart of the Scottish Human Rights Bill and its implementation, we can ensure that it creates meaningful outcomes for all Scots. This means avoiding mere tick box exercises and instead actively working to combat shame. As we move forward into a new era for human rights in Scotland, dignity should be prioritised for everyone. This includes services users, those working and volunteering within the sector, and the country as a whole. It’s in all our best interests for us to transform dignity from a concept and into a destination.