Summary of "Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict"

Summary of

Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict

By Evelin Lindner

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium


Citation: Lindner, Evelin. Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict. London, England: Praeger Security International, 2006.


Often deprivation leads to depression and apathy, but sometimes it leads to organized violence (such as acts of terrorism). In Making Enemies, Evelin Lindner asks the question: "What kind of deprivation generates the urge toward violent retaliation, and under what conditions is this retaliation carried out in an organized way?" According to Lindner, the answer is humiliation. She argues that humiliation instigates extremism and hampers moderate reactions and solutions. Humiliation, she says, has the tendency to destroy everything in its path, making it "the nuclear bomb of emotions." Despite its central role in so much of human misery, surprisingly little research or writing has been devoted to this topic. Hopefully, this book will be an impetus for much more.

Lindner, an accomplished social scientist, and a true world citizen who has lived in many countries around the world, holds Ph.D.s in both social psychology and medicine. Founder of Columbia University's Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Program, which has brought together like-minded researchers from around the world, Lindner has been studying and writing about humiliation for over a decade. This book is an engaging and very readable summation of much of that important work.

Humiliation, Lindner says simply, is "about putting down and holding down." It is the "enforced lowering of any person or group by a process of subjugation that damages their dignity." Examples range from the interpersonal: parents, siblings, or schoolmates putting down children, husbands berating or beating their wives, to societal-level and international actions: the Versailles Treaty's treatment of Germany after World War I, for example, is widely believed to have been a major impetus for the rise of Hitler and World War II; the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust certainly contributed to Israelis feelings of victimhood, which is now manifested, in part, by their humiliating treatment of Palestinians; the U.S.'s humiliation of Iraq is also thought by many to be contributing to the intensity of the insurgency in that country.

Though very real and intense, humiliation is not objective. Whether or not an action is perceived as humiliating depends on cultural norms and personal judgments. What one person considers humiliating, another may view as benign or even flattering. As such, all claims to humiliation should be regarded as important (even those viewed as illegitimate) because "feelings are feelings." That is, whether you view another's humiliation as valid or not, they feel humiliated and will react with very real anger. Further, to recognize feelings, analyze their consequences and develop solutions to them is not to "legitimize, accept or condone them."

Approaching humiliation in this way is important because left to its own devices, humiliation often escalates in self-perpetuating cycles. These cycles of humiliation are cycles "...of violation and vindication that both sides believe they are obliged to pursue." The parties feel "obliged to purse" the humiliation cycle because to withdraw from the cycle brings further humiliation. Additionally some individuals and groups are thought to be "addicted" to humiliation. That is, they intentionally incite their own humiliation by provoking it systematically and using it as an excuse to humiliate others. In this way, humiliation cycles can become a "...self-perpetuating cultural obsession." Because cycles of humiliation are so destructive and difficult to stop, it is incredibly important to prevent them.

Unfortunately, grand narratives of humiliation and "chosen traumas" (group memories of humiliation selectively rekindled) can be easily exploited by "humiliation entrepreneurs" to incite violence and mayhem. Lindner refers to this as a "Hitler-like" response to humiliation. Fortunately, it is also possible to refuse to engage in cycles of humiliation and to treat those who humiliate you with dignity. Doing so can potentially begin a cycle of dignity and is referred to as a "Mandela-like" response. Today humiliation and one,s response to it are extremely important to ensuring peace, but humiliation was not always prevalent in human discourse.

According to Lindner, humiliation became a prevalent part of human interaction through historical processes which encouraged the ranking of individuals. She argues that "during long stretches of history it was almost universally accepted as the normal order of things that human beings were ranked along a vertical scale..." Such a vertical scale ranges from those at the top, the highly valued masters to those at the bottom, the underlings with virtually no value. This system is based on an "honor code" in which each "level" has its own honor. In such a system, to humiliate means to maintain the hierarchical order and thus stability and law. In these societies humiliation was a technique to maintain social cohesion, or as Lindner puts it, humiliation was an "honorable social medicine."

Lindner views these honor societies as "old" and archaic social systems. However, she is adamant that the term "old" is not equivalent to "bad". Rather she views honor societies as highly functional in their time, but argues that they are now obsolete. In contemporary societies, the vertical scale of human worth is no longer relevant (largely as a result of the human rights movement discussed below). In these new systems, humiliation has shifted from an "honorable social medicine" to a "dishonorable social disease," in which "Stripping away one's dignity is as profound a violation as stripping away one's flesh."

According to Lindner, this is a result of the human rights movement. Human rights advocates seek to dismantle the vertical valuation of people. That is, they attempt to destroy hierarchical and oppressive systems. This differs from past revolutions which sought the demise of a specific regime. Because the human rights movement seeks the destruction of a system, it is seen as a fragmented and continuous revolution. Wherever a political system based on vertical valuation crops up, human rights advocates will fight to dismantle it.

As these "older" honor systems are brought down, human rights advocates seek to replace the cultural focus on honor to one based on dignity. That is, they seek to turn vertical valuation on its side, and create societies in which everyone exists on an "equal line of dignity". Lindner calls this "humility" and says that masters should be brought down the vertical scale of worth through a process she calls humbling (though masters may feel as though they are being humiliated when they are being humbled). Likewise underlings should be brought up the vertical scale. Care must be taken to ensure that everyone meets at the "line of equal dignity," and that underlings are not allowed to surpass it and humiliate their former masters. According to Linde,r such humiliation "...is equal to their former humiliation..." and will likely result in destructive cycles of humiliation.

These "new" social systems educated by the human rights movement are rapidly spreading their rhetoric of universal dignity around the globe as the forces of globalization take hold. Lindner views globalization as inescapable, and defines it as increasing global interdependence. Though she views increasing interdependence to be inevitable, and thinks this has resulted in the spread of human rights values, she does not see this as inevitably leading to universal global dignity (a process she has termed Egalization) and the demise of humiliation.

Rather, according to Lindner, "Feelings of humiliation emerging around the world can ironically be interpreted as a success of human rights teaching because feelings of humiliation are sharpened when ideals create new expectations, and they are sharpened even more when these new expectations are subsequently disappointed." In other words much of the world is experiencing an expectations gap between the human rights rhetoric and their real world experiences. This leads to grievances that are not met due to state failures, and the preeminence of short-term interests which "highjack institutional structures." Indeed, according to Lindner, "...the most upsetting humiliation occurs when human rights are promised but withheld, making human rights advocacy appear to be empty rhetoric." Essentially, Lindner views the emergence of a single "global village" as inevitable, but she argues that this global village may or may not increase egalization (or universal global dignity). According to Lindner, the rhetoric of the contemporary forces of globalization professes egalization, but pursues policies based on a global version of the vertical hierarchy.

The United States is on top of this hierarchy and thus is given special attention in this book. In order for there to be a "global village" with universal dignity, Lindner argues that the United States should "...invest its great abilities for courageous action into a special kind of internationalism of mutual trust and equal dignity." This would require the US to be "humbled" down from the position of global master to the "line of equal dignity." In doing so, the US would need to recognize the ways in which its foreign policies humiliate much of the world. But the US is not alone in its need to reduce humiliating actions. Lindner argues that the US needs to "...be invited out of isolated bitterness into participating in the joint task of caring for our planet." Such an invitation will require the rest of the world to stop its "anti-American language and shouts of "Yankee go home," which have "a humiliating effect on the citizens of the United States." Thus Lindner is arguing for a cessation of humiliation on the global scale.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely eliminate humiliation, because sometimes "perpetrators" accidentally or unknowingly humiliate. This is often the case with aid workers who are unfamiliar with the nuances of the cultural context in which they work. Further, "victims" many not know or agree that they are being humiliated. In honor societies, humiliation is a "legitimate" tool to maintain social stability. In such societies many people engage in voluntary self humiliation as a code of honor. Nonetheless, humiliation can be greatly reduced when we eliminate intentional acts of humiliation and actively purge our social structures of institutionalized humiliation.

If we are able to successfully reduce humiliation worldwide, a global village with universal dignity is possible. In such a world, there would be no out-groups, but rather a single global in-group. Lindner encourages her readers to begin to think this way, immediately suggesting "...readers abandon "we" and "them" differentiations and define themselves as "we" and "we humanity"..." Within such a conceptual framework war becomes obsolete as "...we are citizens of one village, with no imperial enemies threatening from outside." (Italics in original)

When the world is thought of as a single global village, threats are perceived as internal, rather than external. Thus, "...in order to safeguard social peace we need police (no longer soldiers to defend against enemies in wars)." These "global police" would seek to "...sustain the cohesive social web..." of the global village, rather than "...seek victory in war." Lindner identifies the precursor to such a police force in the UN, but acknowledges it will need to be further democratized internally and more extensively supported externally. In response to criticisms of the UN, she argues "...maybe the task is to strengthen our international police force rather than override it for its failures."

In the concluding chapter of Making Enemies, Lindner asks if the current "...deplorable state of the global village...is an expression of the essence of globalization or a side effect?" She argues that it is a side effect, largely caused by humiliation. From her perspective, if humiliation is allowed to coalesce into escalating cycles of humiliation spurned on by the "Hitler-like" responses of "humiliation entrepreneurs," humanity is likely doomed. On the other hand, if human rights advocates succeed in spreading not only the rhetoric but the reality of universal dignity, a truly remarkable and egalitarian global village can emerge. Though the complete elimination of humiliation is impossible, it can be significantly reduced in a "Mandela-like" way by never intentionally humiliating and taking steps to purge humiliation from our institutions. Such steps will go a long way in disarming "...the only "real" weapons of mass destruction..." humiliated hearts and minds.