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Humiliation [1]
 
By
Sarah Rosenberg


July 2003
 

 

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Simple Definition

A leading researcher on humiliation, Dr. Evelin Lindner, defines humiliation as "the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honor or dignity."[2] Further, humiliation means to be placed, against ones will, in a situation where one is made to feel inferior. "One of the defining characteristics of humiliation as a process is that the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, made helpless."[3] Johan Galtung, a leading practitioner, agrees with Lindner that the infliction of humiliation is a profoundly violent psychological act that leaves the victim with a deep wound to the psyche.[4]


Humiliation and Social Order

Historically, maintaining hierarchical societies meant that elites scrupulously guarded their honor against attempts to soil or humiliate it, while some form of more or less institutionalized humiliation was part of the reality for the lower echelons of a community. As long as such a reality is accepted as the norm, and it is believed that this structure helps to achieve and maintain common societal goals, the system is considered acceptable. Though some people in lower ranks may wish to be on a higher level, they do not view the system itself as flawed. By contrast, in societies such as Somalia, with its non-hierarchical egalitarian clan structures, Lindner's research shows that attempts to humiliate people are fervently resented, at least by the males of the major clan families. The more egalitarian a society, be it pre-hierarchical or post hierarchical, Lindner asserts, the less use there is for institutionalized humiliation, particularly as a way to maintain order, and the less acceptable it is.

Humiliation and Human Rights

Lindner's research on humiliation and the effect of humiliation on groups is related to her segmentation of human history into three phases of development and her categorization of the ideal types of human societies that can be found in these stages. Most relevant here is the connection between humiliation, conflict, and the human rights revolution.[5] When subordinate groups become aware of human rights values and adopt them into their value system, they reframe their formerly accepted subordination as humiliating circumstances that can no longer be deemed to be acceptable. In other words, when people redefine their situation and interpret formerly "normal" subjugation as structural violence, they begin to clash with the system. This clash can translate into violence. This can occur gradually, or a sudden change in power can lead to immediate devastating violence.

Why Paying Attention to Humiliation is Important

It is widely recognized that one of the main reasons for Hitler's rise to power and the onset of World War II was the humiliation of the German people in the aftermath of World War I. Though perhaps less obvious, humiliation seems to be part of much suffering world-wide, and makes millions of peoples' lives despondent. If violence between and within groups and nations is to be reduced, understanding the role of humiliation as a cause is critically important.

Humiliation, Trauma, and Victimhood

What is the difference between humiliation, trauma, and victimhood? The answer is both simple and complex. One may be traumatized without being humiliated. For example, one's home may be destroyed by an earthquake, in which the victim may be devastated and traumatized but not humiliated. This differs from the situation in which soldiers kick someone out of their home in the middle of the night and bulldoze it or set the home on fire. This latter case exemplifies the use of humiliation as a weapon by some people upon other people. More still, one may even be a victim of violence without feeling humiliated. The difference between feeling humiliated or not in these cases may depend on the subjective framing of the situation by each person involved when violence is perceived as accidental and non-intentional, similar to natural disaster, it may not be felt as humiliation. Importantly, the more a victim is aware of human rights values, the more likely they are to feel humiliated. When one is acted upon in a way that undermines one's sense of equal dignity, as it is enshrined in human rights, the psychological damage of humiliation is being inflicted. It is this damage that is particularly hard to recover and heal from. Lindner believes that humiliation is the necessary concept for defining victimhood as "victimhood" and as such has to be considered as the key ingredient that makes conflict comprehensible and thus preventable and manageable. According to Lindner, "victimhood at the hands of fellow human beings must entail the notion of humiliation, otherwise it would not be seen as victimhood but as pro-social event or natural disaster."[6]

Responses to Humiliation -- Hitler vs. Mandela

It is still somewhat of a mystery why responses to humiliation can differ so much. Lindner cites Hitler and Mandela as examples. Hitler chose to respond with war and atrocious acts of violence as a means of restoring national honor. His goal was to impose a new hierarchical world system with Germany on top. Mandela, on the other hand, opted for the enlightened path of peace and human rights for all of his countrymen. Mandela chose a healing track using dialogue, forgiveness, and reconciliation while still dealing with issues of justice as well. More research needs to be done to help explain why some choose a violent response to deal with feelings of humiliation and others choose peaceful struggle. But it is important to keep in mind that the "humiliation" factor in any conflict may well be the most difficult obstacle to overcome, and strong leaders are needed to prevent escalation of conflict through violence and bloodshed.

There are three possible outcomes to the effects of humiliation

  1. Acquiescence, or depression and apathy, nothing changes.
  2. Antagonism, anger, rage, and the violent pursuit of change, often hierarchy is not abolished but merely reversed.
  3. Antagonism, anger, rage, and the non-violent pursuit of change, including forgiveness and reconciliation, and the dismantling of hierarchy towards a human rights based system of equal dignity for every citizen.

Rage at the situation may overflow and a violent conflict may erupt as people try to change a system of humiliation. Human rights ideals indicate that humiliation and victimization of other have to eliminated, not simply the social hierarchy reversed. Mandela strove to abolish humiliation altogether in his society through wise social change, while Hitler used it as a core component of his campaign. Unfortunately, it seems easier to strike back and far more people in the world may feel the urge to resort to violence (though maybe not to the extent Hitler did) than there are those who would endure twenty seven years in prison, forgive their captors, and work with them to forge a united future. Better to avoid humiliation in the first place, lest we create more Hitlers, or, short of that thousands of suicide bombers.


[1] This essay is based on the work of Evelin Lindler, who sent us many of her papers, and corresponded via e-mail with me about the draft of this essay. Our thanks to Evelin for helping with this topic.

[2] Lindner, Evelin G. Humiliation or Dignity: Regional Conflicts in the Global Village. Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial work and Counseling in areas of Armed conflict, forthcoming (2002), p.2.

[3] Lindner, Evelin G. Humiliation or Dignity: Regional Conflicts in the Global Village. Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial work and Counseling in areas of Armed conflict, forthcoming (2002).

[4] Paraphrasing of quotes taken from Johan Galtung as recorded in Lindner, E G Humiliation - Trauma that has Been Overlooked. Traumatology, Vol. 7, (March 2001).

[5] For more on Pride, Honor, and Dignity societies, see Lindner, E "What every Negotiator Should Know: Understanding Humiliation," (2000), http://www.globalsolidarity.org/articles/what.pdf Lindner says that knowledge of human rights intensifies feelings of humiliation and that the humiliation factor is the hard core of any conflict. Another characteristic of humiliation is that when victims admire their humiliators they react more intensely when power changes hands. (Psychology of H.)

[6] Lindner. E-mail with the author, (2003).


Use the following to cite this article:
Rosenberg, Sarah. "Humiliation [1]." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/humiliation>.

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