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The Psychology of Humiliation

What is humiliation and can it ever be justified?

[Article revised on 2 May 2020.]

Source: Pixabay

Embarrassment, shame, guilt, and humiliation all imply the existence of value systems. Whereas shame and guilt are primarily the outcome of self-appraisal, embarrassment and humiliation are primarily the outcome of appraisal by one or several others, even if only in thought or imagination.

One critical 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.

Tommy confides to his teacher that he has not done his homework. He feels embarrassment. The teacher reveals this to the whole class. Now he feels even greater embarrassment. The teacher makes him sit facing into a corner, provoking the laughter of his classmates. This time, he feels humiliation.

Had the teacher quietly given Tommy an "F" grade, he would have felt not humiliated but offended. Offense is primarily cognitive, to do with clashing beliefs and values, whereas humiliation is much more visceral and existential.

The Latin root of "humiliation" is "humus", which means "earth" or "dirt". Humiliation involves abasement of honour and dignity and, with that, loss of status and standing. We all make certain status claims, however modest they may be, for example, "I am a competent doctor", "I am a happily married mother", or even "I am a human being". When we are merely embarrassed, our status claims are not undermined—or if they are, they are easily recovered. But when we are humiliated, our status claims cannot so easily be recovered because, in this case, our very authority to make status claims has been called into question. People who are in the process of being humiliated are usually left stunned and speechless, and more than that, voiceless. When criticizing people, especially people with low self- esteem, we must take care not to attack their authority to make the status claims that they make.

In short, humiliation is the public failure of one’s status claims. Their private failure amounts not to humiliation but to painful self-realization. Potentially humiliating episodes ought to be kept as private as possible. Being rejected by a secret love interest may be crushing, but it is not humiliating. In contrast, being casually cheated upon by one’s spouse and this becoming public knowledge is highly humiliating.

Note that humiliation need not be accompanied by shame. Jesus may have been crucified and thereby humiliated, but he surely did not feel any shame. Highly secure people who are confident that they are in the right rarely feel shame at their humiliation.

To this day, humiliation remains a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression. Conversely, the dread of humiliation is a strong deterrent against crime, and history has devised many forms of humiliating mob punishments. The last recorded use in England of the pillory dates back to 1830, and of the stocks to 1872. Pillories and stocks immobilized victims in an uncomfortable and degrading position while people gathered to taunt and torment 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 in traditional societies can serve to enforce a particular social order, or, as with hazing rituals, to emphasize that the group takes precedence over its individual members. Many tribal societies feature complex initiation rites designed to defuse the threat posed by fit and fertile young men to the male gerontocracy. These rites sometimes include a painful and bloody circumcision, which is, of course, symbolic of castration.

In hierarchical societies, the elites go to great lengths to protect and uphold their reputation and standing, while the lower orders submit to prescribed degrees of debasement. As a society becomes more egalitarian, such institutionalized humiliation is increasingly resented and resisted, which can give rise to violent outbursts and even outright revolution.

Because elites live by their pride, and because they embody 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 Sassanid 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. After Valerian offered Shapur a huge ransom for his release, he was flayed alive or, by another account, made to swallow molten gold. His cadaver was then skinned and the skin stuffed with straw and displayed as a trophy.

Humiliation need not involve an act of aggression or coercion. People can readily be humiliated through more passive means such as being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. They can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, abused, betrayed, or used as means-to-an-end.

Immanuel Kant famously argued that, by virtue of their free will, human beings are not means-to-an-end but ends-in- themselves, with a moral dimension that invests them with dignity and the right to ethical treatment. To humiliate people, that is, to treat them as anything less than ends-in-themselves, is therefore to deny them their very humanity.

Humiliation can befall anyone at 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. But in February 2012 he was charged with perverting the course of justice over a 2003 speeding ticket. His ex-wife, bent on exacting revenge for the affair that had ended their marriage, claimed that he had coerced her into accepting the penalty points on his behalf. Huhne resigned from the Cabinet while denying the charge. When the trial began in February 2013, he unexpectedly 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 Mr Huhne’s downfall had been chronicled in the media, which went so far as to publish highly personal text messages between him and his then 18-year-old son that laid bare 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." His humiliation could not have been more complete.

When we are humiliated, we can almost feel our heart shrivelling. For many months, sometimes years, we may be preoccupied or obsessed by our humiliation and its real or imagined perpetrators. We may react with anger, fantasies of revenge, sadism, delinquency, or terrorism, among others. We may also internalize the trauma, leading to fear and anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, suspicion and paranoia, social isolation, apathy, depression, and suicidal ideation.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, severe humiliation is a fate worse even than death, in that it destroys our standing as well as our life, whereas death merely destroys our life. Prison inmates who have suffered severe humiliation are routinely placed on suicide watch.

It is in the nature of humiliation that it undermines the ability of victims to defend themselves against their aggressor or aggressors. In any case, anger, violence, and revenge are ineffective responses to humiliation because they do nothing to reverse or repair the damage that has been done.

Victims of humiliation have to find the strength and self-esteem to come to terms with their humiliation, or, if that proves too difficult, abandon the lives that they have made in the hope of starting anew.

I notice that, throughout this article, I have subconsciously chosen to refer to the subjects of humiliation as "victims". This suggests that humiliation is rarely if ever a proportionate or justified response.

What do you think?

See my related article on embarrassment, shame, and guilt here.


Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, Ch V.

Kant (1797), Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals.

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