By Farooq Mughal
— “I know it when I see it even if I cannot tell you what it is”
(Schachter, 1983: p. 849)
Dignity is a concept that holds different meanings for people in different contexts. My journey to understanding what dignity means did not start until I landed as an immigrant in the UK to pursue an academic career. Dignity became part of my search for an identity at the intersection of narratives about the ‘self’ and of the ‘self in relation to others’. The colour of my skin and the way I look or even speak (English as a second language) constituted some of the defining features of whether I would be entitled to respect as an academic within the neoliberal academy. I soon realised that my foreignness was a liability that needed to be offset to fit the image of an enterprising academic competing in an open market with neither the power to articulate nor the know-how to raise his voice.
Abandoning strong family ties and a life of comfort in Pakistan for a better future was certainly not easy. Although located at the lower rungs of the middle-class, some might have called my previous life privileged because of the class structure, familial ties, and social capital in Pakistan. Because of this, I took for granted the language I spoke, people I knew, the colour of my skin, and the culture I lived in. My class position in Pakistan clouded my understanding of what dignity meant – a transaction in which you give respect, you get respected and nothing more. Looking back, culture and class played a critical role because I was privileged and an insider in Pakistan. This drastically changed as I arrived in the UK where I was not privileged and was actively classed as an outsider. I had to work hard to earn respect. I found myself culturally displaced and an outlier within the UK’s class-based system. Lacking social, familial, economic capital and even finesse, I had to rebuild what I took for granted.
During my journey to becoming an academic in the UK, I learnt an important lesson: dignity is not transactional but a dynamic process of identity construction. It is embedded in who you are. In other words, it is a subjective and an ongoing process which requires continuous work to maintain a desirable image to earn respect. This image may not be the one you relate to but one that you actively portray to others in the quest for respect and standing. It is in some ways, a borrowed image. Borrowed because it is meant to fit a predefined mould of an ideal subject, of an individual who finds recognition in what is acceptable to others. In my experience so far, dignity is paradoxical. Your true image can violate other people’s view of what they consider acceptable or unacceptable. Moreover, in the quest to satisfy others, we can also violate our dignity by reconstructing an image of who we are not.
Thus, improving dignity within the academy (or in any workplace) requires breaking predefined frames and preconceived notions about what constitutes dignity at work. Dignity is not something to be gained or lost; it is a basic (given) human right. The fact that dignity is taken for granted as a basic human right, points to the need to start learning about indignity rather than dignity. We need to start with the experience of granted because we tend to take for granted what we have (in this instance, my privileged social position in another context). Dignity is a process, that must be realised by celebrating differences, diversity, and failure. Small actions can make a difference, such as those around being heard, being taken seriously, giving space for diverse voices, and actively welcoming people to share their experiences of indignity in the pursuit of creating dignified workplaces. We can recover from material loss, but can we recover from indignity?
Schachter, O. (1983). Human dignity as a normative concept. American Journal of International Law, 77(4), 848-854.
Farooq Mughal is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at the University of Bath. You can read more about his work here.