What is Humiliation?

Humiliation is when you are put down, held down, rendered helpless, and feel hurt.

Dynamics of humiliation are embedded in relationships. People and institutions inflict humiliation on those who are at the receiving end. Dynamics of humiliation entail actors who inflict acts of humiliation, and receivers, who feel feelings of humiliation. It is important to note, however, that humiliation is not always inflicted intentionally. Sometimes, feelings of humiliation emerge as a result of misunderstandings, more so, they may even emerge when people wish to help and do not realize that their help humiliates the recipients.

Humiliation entails core aspects that are universal and other aspects that are specific to cultural and personal peculiarities. What is universal is that humiliation always is related to feeling "put down" and perceiving this as an illegitimate assault. What is different is that in various contexts being put down is defined and experienced in a variety of ways.

In collectivist contexts of honor, for example, humiliation is defined and experienced in ways that often contrast the ways humiliation is defined and experienced in contexts that emphasize the dignity of a person. So-called "honor killings" may serve as a stark example (according to Stephanie Nebehay, 2000, honor killings "have been reported in Bangladesh, Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda"...): when it occurs, in contexts that emphasize the honor of the group, such killings are perceived as a compelling duty so as to repair humiliated honor. In contexts that emphasize a person's dignity, the same strategy is regarded as a violation of human rights, humiliating the human dignity of all involved. In both contexts, its representatives may perceive it as profoundly humiliating to be criticized by the other side, as such criticism may be regarded as highly arrogant and self-righteous.

Wishing to respect cultural diversity is thus an endeavor that easily finds itself in a minefield of ubiquitous feelings of humiliation. Even the use of the example of so-called honor killings in this text, is responded to with rage by some of our friends, for example from Palestine, who feel that we mean to arrogantly stigmatize non-Western cultural mindsets as backward.

Our response is that we all, the entirety of humankind, "own" the plethora of cultural practices used on this planet, and that so-called honor killings are as much "our" human culture as any other practice. We do not condone the setting up of cultural realms against each other, on the contrary, we believe that we all carry a joint responsibility for the entire planet and its inhabitants.

Not least, the notion of honor is to be found everywhere, including the so-called West. Southern Honor, for example, though no longer explicitly appealed to, is still permeating policies in the United States of America. Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown (1982) describes Southern Honor in his book with the same title. According to Wyatt-Brown, southern inclination toward the "warrior ethic" embraces these elements: "that the world should recognize a state's high distinction; a dread of humiliation if that claim is not provided sufficient respect; a yearning for renown; and, finally, a compulsion for revenge when, in issues of both personal leadership calculations and in collective or national terms, repute for one or another virtue and self-justified power is repudiated" (Wyatt-Brown, 2005, p. 2). David Hackett Fischer (1989) informs us that Southerners "strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against" (Fischer, 1989, p. 843). Social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996) explain the psychology of violence in the culture of honour in the southern part of the United States.

Apartheid can serve as an example for institutional humiliation. Designed as a hierarchical system of "higher" and "lesser" beings that initially was regarded as representing a "natural" or "divine order," with the rise of human rights ideals, it was increasingly regarded as a system of institutionalized humiliation.

Feelings of humiliation may result in apathy and depression, or in humiliated fury (Helen Lewis) that nurtures either violence - from domestic violence to large-scale atrocities such as genocide or terrorism instigated by extremist humiliation-entrepreneurs who keep cycles of humiliation in motion - or it may lead to constructive social change, promoted by moderates in the spirit of people like Bertha von Suttner, Paulo Freire, Mohandas K. Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela, whose aim is to change humiliating systems without using humiliation as a tool.

In social contexts where it is regarded as "natural order" to have "higher" and "lesser" beings, "lesser" people are often routinely put down so as to "teach them lessons" and "remind" them of their due lowly place. Not seldom, underlings have internalized this arrangement and react with subservient "humbleness." In such contexts, typically only elites invoke the notion of humiliation when put down; they defend humiliated honor with duel-like responses.

This setup dramatically changes as soon as human rights ideals enter the hearts and minds of people. No longer do subordinates humbly accept their lowly position. On the contrary, they invoke the notion of humiliation and demand being regarded as equal in dignity by elites who now are asked to descend from arrogating superiority. As soon as human rights ideals begin to permeate social and psychological codes, applying old techniques of putting down people in order to "teach them where they belong" easily has counterproductive outcomes. No longer does it render humble underlings, be they subservient wives, subordinate employees, or second-class citizens who "know their place," on the contrary, it may render enraged adversaries who reject it as humiliating to be put down. And since feelings of humiliation carry the potential of leading to grave consequences, Lindner calls them the "nuclear bomb of the emotions," which may lead to outcomes ranging from breakdown of social relations to terrorism.