The Anatomy of Humiliation

Nemo congressu, nemo aditu, nemo suffragio, nemo civitate, nemo luce dignum putet. —Cicero, In Vatinium

(No one thinks you’re worth his attention, his time, a vote, a place in society, or even the light of day.)

Embarrassment, shame, guilt, and humiliation all imply the existence of value systems, which are to some extent culture- and context dependent. Whereas shame and guilt are primarily the outcome of self-appraisal, embarrassment and humiliation are primarily the outcome of the appraisal of one or several others, even if only in thought or imagination (see my previous article on embarrassment, shame, and guilt).

One respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that, whereas we bring embarrassment upon ourselves, humiliation is something that is brought upon us by others. A pupil confides to his teacher that he has not done his homework. He feels embarrassment. Later, the teacher publicly denounces the pupil and makes him sit facing into a corner, which provokes the laughter of his classmates. Now he feels humiliation.

If, instead, the teacher had quietly given the pupil an F grade, he would have felt more offended than humiliated. Offense is cognitive, to do with clashing beliefs and values, whereas humiliation is visceral and existential.

Another respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that it cuts deeper. Humiliation is traumatic and often repressed and unspoken, whereas, given enough time, embarrassment becomes source material for an entertaining story. More fundamentally, humiliation involves the abasement of pride and dignity, and therefore the loss of status and standing. The Latin root of ‘humiliation’ is ‘humus’, which translates as ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’.

Everyone in society makes certain status claims, however modest these may be: “I am a good secretary”, “I am a good mother”, “I am a loyal friend”, “I am an upstanding citizen”, and so on. When we are merely embarrassed, our status claims are not undermined, or, if they are undermined, they are easily recovered. However, when we are humiliated, our status claims cannot easily be recovered because, in this case, our very authority to make status claims has been called into question. Thus, a person who is in the process of being humiliated is usually left stunned and speechless. Voiceless, in fact.

When criticizing people, especially people with low self-esteem, we must take care to preserve and protect their authority to make the status claims that they make, which can be especially challenging if their status claims are excessively excessive!

In short, humiliation is the public failure of one’s status claims. Their private failure amounts not to humiliation but to painful self-realization. This is why, when something is potentially humiliating to someone, it is very important to keep it as private as possible. Being rejected by a secret love interest may be painful, but it is not humiliating. On the other hand, being cheated upon by one’s spouse and this becoming public knowledge, as happened to Anne Sinclair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is highly humiliating.

Humiliation often entails shame, but it is possible to be humiliated without feeling shame. For instance, Jesus may have been crucified and thereby humiliated, but he surely did not feel any shame. Highly secure or self-confident people who are in the right rarely feel shame at their humiliation.

Just as Jesus’ crucifixion left stigmata, so humiliation is stigmatizing. A humiliated person carries the mark of his humiliation, becomes his humiliation, and is thought of and remembered in terms of his humiliation. After all, who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn today? Not so much the former Director of the International Monetary Fund or potential President of France as a common adulterer.

To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. Historically, humiliation has been a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression, and, of course, it remains so to this day. Conversely, the fear of humiliation is a strong deterrent and powerful motivator.

There are many forms of humiliating mob punishments. The last recorded use in England of the pillory dates back to 1830, and of stocks to 1872. Pillories and stocks were commonly used to immobilize victims in an uncomfortable and degrading position, while people gathered excitedly to taunt, tease, and abuse them. Tarring and feathering, used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, involved covering victims with hot tar and feathers, before parading them on a cart or wooden rail.

Ritual humiliation can serve to enforce a particular social order, or, as with hazing rituals, to emphasize that the group is greater than any of its parts.

In hierarchical societies, the elites take great care to nurture and protect their honor, while the common orders suffer prescribed degrees of debasement. As a society becomes more egalitarian, such institutionalized humiliation is resented and resisted, which can lead to violent outbursts and even outright revolution. Many traditional, tribal societies feature complex initiation rites designed to defuse the threat posed by young men to the male gerontocracy. These rites often include painful and bloody circumcision, which is symbolic of castration.

Because elites live by their honor, and because they represent their people and culture, their humiliation can be especially poignant and emblematic. In early 260, after suffering defeat at the Battle of Edessa, the Roman Emperor Valerian arranged a meeting with Shapur I the Great, the shahanshah (‘king of kings’) of the Sasanid Empire. Shapur betrayed the truce and seized Valerian, holding him captive for the rest of his life. According to some accounts, Shapur used Valerian as a human footstool when mounting his horse. When Valerian offered Shapur a huge ransom for his release, he was killed either by being flayed alive or forced to swallow molten gold. After his death, Valerian was skinned and his skin stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy.

In January 1077, Henry IV, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, travelled to Canossa Castle in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, to obtain the revocation of his excommunication from Pope Gregory VII. Before granting Henry the revocation, Gregory made him wait outside the castle on his knees, exposed to the stormy elements, for three days and three nights. Several centuries later, the Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck coined the expression ‘to go to Canossa’, which means ‘to submit willingly to humiliation’.

Humiliation need not involve violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated by being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. She can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, lied to, betrayed, or used as a means to an end rather than an end in herself.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that, by virtue of their free will, human beings are ends in themselves, and that ends in themselves, by virtue of being ends in themselves, are invested with dignity, that is, the right to be valued and to receive ethical treatment. To humiliate a person to beneath human dignity is therefore to deny her her very humanity.

Humiliation can befall most anyone at most any time. Chris Huhne, the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 2010 to 2012, had long been touted as a potential leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. In February 2012, Huhne was charged with perverting the course of justice over a 2003 speeding case. His ex-wife, bent on extracting revenge for the extramarital relationship that had ended their marriage, had publically claimed that he had coerced her into accepting the license penalty points on his behalf. He promptly resigned from the Cabinet but steadfastly denied the charge. However, when the trial began in February 2013, he changed his plea to guilty, resigned as a member of parliament, and left the Privy Council. By the end of this sorry saga, he had traded a seat in Cabinet for a mattress in a prison cell. Every twist and turn of Huhne’s downfall had received headline coverage in the media, which, feeding in the Schadenfreude, went so far as to publish highly personal text messages between him and his then 18-year-old son that exposed their fractious relationship. In a video statement for the 2007 Liberal Democrat Party leadership election campaign, Huhne had stated: “Relationships, including particularly family relationships, are actually the most important things in making people happy and fulfilled.” Huhne’s humiliation could hardly have been more complete or severe.

When one is humiliated, one can almost feel one’s heart shrinking. A person who has been humiliated often becomes preoccupied or obsessed by his humiliation. He may react with rage, fantasies of revenge, sadism, delinquency, or terrorism. He may also internalize the pain, leading to anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, suspicion and paranoia, social isolation, apathy, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

After all, does severe humiliation not amount to metaphorical death? Arguably, it amounts to more than death because it destroys the person’s life as well as his reputation, whereas death only destroys his life. For just this reason, inmates who have suffered severe humiliation are routinely placed on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, it is in the nature of humiliation that it leaves the victim powerless to react. In any case, anger, violence, and revenge are not effective responses to humiliation because they do nothing to repair the damage done. Either the victim has to find the strength and self-esteem to come to terms with the humiliation, or, if that proves impossible, abandon the life that he has built in the hope of starting another.

I notice that, throughout this article, I have subconsciously chosen to refer to the subject of humiliation as a ‘victim’. This might suggest that humiliating someone, even a criminal, is never a proportionate or justified response.

What do you think?

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  1. Thanks for the insights about Strauss-Kahn and Huhne. If you’re right the culprits are at large and have got away with their deeds or even omissions, the truth not being widely known, which is a part of the problem.
    “Humiliation need not involve violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated by being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. She can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, lied to, betrayed, or used as a means to an end rather than an end in herself.”
    I would add, incidentally, that all these things are the norm for many who are known to be receiving treatment from NHS psychiatrists or have received such treatment; and that such treatment can, and sometimes does, involve violence and coercion.