Humiliation and Conflict Dynamics

Jennifer Goldman

Graduate fellow at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a graduate student at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: First of all, there is often, if not always, a power dynamic going on when a humiliating event occurs. So, often the person who is being humiliated is made to feel lower than someone who already feels like they have power over them. In the case of the Palestinian who is going through a checkpoint who feels humiliated by needing to strip or other kinds of humiliating experiences, there is clearly a power dynamic going on there. There is a soldier and a civilian, and the soldier has a gun and the civilian doesn't, and the civilian is really at the whim of the soldier in this case. There are also cultural power dynamics, where an entire group of people is kind of being oppressed by another group of people in many ways. So, the power dynamics that are associated with humiliating experiences, they often go hand-in-hand with a power imbalance. So if you're at the negotiating table already, and there is a power imbalance and there is humiliation that is tied up in that power imbalance, sure, it would be much more difficult to have those parties come to an agreement than it would be had those humiliating experiences not occurred or if there weren't a power imbalance. I think, if we think about the span of conflict as being squarely in the conflict and having horrible events happen surrounding the conflict, then having the conflict become more ripe and move into a place where people can actually talk to each other and negotiate and try to come to understandings if not agreements, but at least understandings of each others' perspectives, the place that we're looking at, humiliation along that continuum is actually in the first part, surrounding the actual conflict experience, not such much at, "Okay, now you're at the table. What do you do looking back at the humiliation that brought you to this conflict in the first place?" In many ways that's a kind of hard thing to be doing within this field and "Getting to Yes," focusing on people sitting at the table, and they've gone through a conflict or they're in the midst of a conflict, but they can talk to each other. This research is focusing on way before that. "What gets people so caught up in this cycle of violence?"

Q: So, what do we need to know about humiliation that's helpful?

A: So, if humiliation is central to intractable conflict, then in order to know what to do about it, we first need to know what's going on with it. So, I feel like we're just at the very beginning of trying to understand, "What's the situation? What's the dynamic that's going on here?" I can go deeper into explaining the studies that we're working on and that might help explain how I'm thinking about it. So if we just try to say that humiliation is a bad thing and try to get rid of it and make it a non-issue, I don't think we could do that without first understanding, "How are the dynamics at play?" and "What's fueling it? How does it work? How does it get people stuck?" So the first question is, "How does it get people stuck? How does it work over time? How does it contribute to intractability of conflict?" Once we get a handle on that, and these are not necessarily linear steps where you first look at how it works and then look at how to prevent it, but in terms of research that takes a really long time I think looking at the process of it and the cycle of it is a really good place to start. So first we look at, "How do people get caught up in it?" Then we might look at, "What are some ways to prevent it from happening?" Then, "How can you continue to live in a way that humiliation does not play a part and does not help these conflicts spiral out of control?"

Q: So to keep it from happening, you have two choices: one, prevent the humiliator from humiliating, somehow, or two, the other side of creating coping mechanisms for the humiliated which would seem to be biased to parties. When you are figuring out the mechanisms behind humiliation, then what?

A: Well, can I speak to how it works first?

Q: Yes, I'm only saying that because I think its fascinating and I think it's interesting. My inclination is to always think about how to use this.

A: I would suggest that one way to figure out what to do about it, is by figuring out how it happens in the first place, so how does it work? So this is one theory on how it works, and the idea is that when someone comes face-to-face with a humiliating experience, someone cuts them off. Lets say that someone is speaking in a group of people and someone else cuts them off and says, "What do you have to contribute, anyway? Why don't you just be quiet and get the rest of us some coffee?" I see, just by your facial expression, that it hits a core for many people and it's not an international example, but it hits.

In that case, there are different ways people could experience that. Some people might think, "Yes, I identify that as a humiliating experience and I'm going to move on with my life, and that one person said this one comment to me and that's okay." There might be other people who would say, "How dare that person do that," and stew about it and think about it, and it could be weeks and it's still on their mind, and they are thinking about all of the things in their head that they could have said or should have said or would have wanted to say. There might be other people who, in the moment, would yell and scream and fight back right away. There might be some other people who would make light of the situation, who would make a joke of the situation. So there are all these different ways that the person, in the moment, can experience the event and actually behave.

So one question is, "What leads to those individual differences of behavior or experience?" Why do some people experience it as, "I'll just let it roll off my back," and other people rise up and get angry right away? The thinking is that some of it has to do with internal psychology or DNA, personality, psychological variables, and some of it has to do with broader sociological variables. As a social psychologist, I am always thinking about both. In this case, I'm more interested right now in the sociological variables and what are the cultural dynamics that we all live with and the societies that we live in, what are the messages that are sent to us about how we should experience our emotions?

Someone who has influenced my thinking about this is someone named James Avril, he's a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts. He has written about emotional roles. He has basically said that there are a couple of different kinds of messages that we get sent about how we should experience certain emotions. People can feel privileged when they feel a certain emotion. For example, if you feel humiliated, your culture could lead you to feel privileged to aggress because you've been humiliated; you're a victim and now you're privileged to aggress against the person who humiliated you. You could be restricted from doing things as a result of emotions. An example would be grieving. If your husband just died and you are at a funeral and you are grieving, you are restricted from doing a bunch of different things. You're probably restricted from wearing colors other than black, you're restricted from laughing, you're restricted from going to work, you're restricted from dating other people for a year. There are all these social restrictions that are culturally based. In all cultures this would differ, but I am talking about American culture. So privilege and restriction are the two main ones that I think are relevant to the humiliation piece. There are all these different cultural messages that get sent about what you should do in certain situations.

When people are humiliated, the more constructive kinds of messages are the ones that don't privilege people to aggress, but rather prohibit, or that privilege people to be constructive about it in some way. That's one piece of the story -- the social norms about, "What should I do when I feel humiliated?" A second piece of the story is, "What do I do when I feel humiliated?" That's linked up in the emotional role. "How do I feel it? How do I behave based on it?" Again we're suggesting that there are social norms that tell people how to behave in different circumstances. In the situation I described, where someone gets shot down in the middle of a meeting, as they are speaking, let's say in the context of a company like On Wall Street, if that happened in the context of what I think of as a Wall Street example or scenario, you could imagine the person saying, "No, you shut up, sit down, go get me some coffee, get out of here. What are you saying?" There is this sense of macho-ness, of "anything goes," of people just telling each other what to do all the time and screaming and yelling is the norm. This is what I imagine about the Wall Street scenario.

On the flip side, if you think about a different kind of situation, where you have a very collaborative organization, like the ones that I've tended to work for, consulting firms that help people communicate more effectively. If someone did that in a meeting or in that setting, the reaction might be very different. The likelihood is that the person who felt humiliated would not yell and lash back. They might deal with it constructively or they might just sit silently and wait until later and have an offline conversation with the person. There might be some ramifications for the person who did the humiliating act, within the broader community of the people there. Depending on the setting you're in and the social norms in that setting, people will experience the humiliation differently and act on it differently. But the interesting piece in this set of studies that we're doing has to do with how people remember the humiliating experience.

We're not just looking at what happens when you feel humiliated in the moment, but one week later, one month later, how do you remember that experience? In that remembering, does your fire get fueled again and do you just feel like lashing out every time you remember the situation? Or does it dissipate over time? Does how you remember it and how you act on it later, does that differ based on the messages that you're sent from the society around you? The way that we are thinking about how humiliation works is that it's not only that the minute that you feel humiliated you lash out and that's the end of the story. It's actually that in societies or cultures when the message that's sent is, "When you feel humiliated, it is your duty or your privilege to stew with it and let it sink into you so that you can feel justified to lash out," if that's what's going on, we can see why that's such a problematic emotion and how it can be at the center of the cycles of destruction. It may not just be true for the emotion of humiliation, it may be true for many other kinds of emotions and other things involved in making conflicts intractable. If it's true that over time, people are stewing in these emotions, and every time they think about it or every time they go through that same checkpoint, even if that same soldier doesn't continue to humiliate them, just the sight of the checkpoint brings up these feelings of humiliation and those feelings fuel aggressive behavior, there is no end. That's how I'm thinking about how the dynamic works at this point. You can see it's just a kernel of a sense of what might be going on; it's just one piece of a much larger puzzle. I would never say that what I just described is the answer to why conflicts are intractable, I would never say that.