The Psychology of Humiliation
What is humiliation and can it ever be justified?
Posted Aug 27, 2014
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. (See my article on embarrassment, shame, and guilt here.)
One important 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.
Another point of difference between humiliation and embarrassment is that humiliation cuts deeper. Humiliation is traumatic and often hushed up, whereas embarrassment, given enough time, can be sublimed into a humorous anecdote. More fundamentally, humiliation involves abasement of pride and dignity, and with it loss of status and standing. The Latin root of ‘humiliation’ is ‘humus’, which translates as ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. We all make certain status claims, however modest they may be, for instance, ‘I am a competent teacher’, ‘I am a good mother’, or ‘I am a beloved spouse’. 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. On the other hand, being casually cheated upon by one’s spouse and this becoming public or even general knowledge, as happened to Anne Sinclair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is highly humiliating. Note that humiliation need not be accompanied by 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 believe that they are in the right rarely feel shame at their humiliation.
Just as Jesus’ crucifixion left stigmata, so humiliation is stigmatizing. People who have been humiliated carry the mark of their humiliation, and are thought of and remembered by their humiliation. In a very real sense, they become their humiliation. After all, who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn today? He is remembered much more for his humiliation than for having been a leading French politician or the director of the International Monetary Fund.
To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. To this day, humiliation remains a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression; conversely, the dread of humiliation is a strong deterrent against crime. History has devised 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 immobilized 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 in traditional societies can serve to enforce a particular social order, or, as also 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 often include 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 honour and reputation, while the common 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 honour, 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, such as that of early Christian author Lactantius, 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. His body was then skinned and the skin stuffed with straw and displayed as a trophy.
In January 1077, Henry IV, 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 for three days and three nights. 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 an act of violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated through more passive means such as being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. He can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, abused, betrayed, or used as a means-to-an-end rather than an end-in-himself. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that, by virtue of their free will, human beings are ends-in-themselves, with a moral dimension that invests them with dignity and the right to receive ethical treatment. To humiliate someone, that is, to treat him as anything less than an end-in-himself, is thus to deny him of his very humanity.
Humiliation can befall anyone at any time. Chris Huhne, the British Secretary of State (senior minister) for Energy and Climate Change from 2010 to 2012, had long been touted as a potential leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. However, in February 2012 he was charged with perverting the course of justice over a 2003 speeding case. His ex-wife, bent on extracting revenge for the affair that had ended their marriage, publically claimed that he had coerced her into accepting license penalty points on his behalf. Huhne promptly resigned from Cabinet but steadfastly denied 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 his 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 hardly have been more complete.
When we are humiliated, we can almost feel our heart shriveling. For many months, sometimes many years, we may be preoccupied or obsessed by our humiliation and its real or imagined agents or 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. Severe humiliation can be seen as a fate worse than death in that it destroys our reputation as well as our life, whereas death merely destroys our life. For this reason, inmates who have suffered severe humiliation are routinely placed on suicide watch.
It is in the nature of humiliation that it undermines the victim’s ability to defend himself against his aggressor. 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. The victim either has to find the strength and self-esteem to come to terms with his humiliation, or, if that proves too difficult, abandon the life that he has built in the hope of starting afresh.
I notice that, throughout this article, I have subconsciously chosen to refer to the subject of humiliation as a ‘victim’. This suggests that humiliating someone, even a criminal, is rarely, if ever, a proportionate or justified response.
What do you think?
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.