"Voluntary self-humiliation"

Excerpt from Lindner, Evelin Gerda (2003). Humiliation: A New Basis for Understanding, Preventing, and Defusing Conflict and Violence in the World and Our Lives. Oslo: University of Oslo, unpublished book manuscript. pp. 226-229.

Stop voluntary self-humiliation! How bystanders can help preserve cultural diversity

There are innumerable stories to be told of what I call voluntary self-humiliation. Walk into any international hotel in the poorer parts of the world and you will find that indigenous dishes and drinks are hardly available, or if yes, then in some kind of weak imitation, supposedly adapted to the "Western" taste.

Ask in Cairo, in international hotels, whether you can get the drinks that are sold just outside of the window in the street. You will earn a smile of embarrassment and be told that you can only have international drinks. Ask for traditional food in Sri Lanka, people will be as ashamed of their delicious heritage and believe that Western visitors cannot be served poor-mans' products in an expensive international hotel.

A British friend who was born in Sri Lanka more than fifty years ago told me, "Last time I went to Sri Lanka, I saw how the hotel's employees prepared this delicious coco nut dish I love from the times of my childhood in the kitchen, for themselves, but not for the guests! I made a deal with them, and they brought me their food to my table somehow in secret, as if it was a crime! Can you imagine the degree of voluntary self-humiliation these people perpetrate on themselves? How can I encourage them to be proud of what they regard their poor-mans' products? They are about to lose their indigenous cuisine out of self-inflicted humiliation!"

Or, travel to the Azores, those nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Still, wonderful old houses can be observed, hand laid from the local volcanic stones, and some even decorated with the wood from stranded ships. Yet, the richer the island, the fewer of these houses you will find. Concrete slabs are viewed to have higher status. Western technology has a quasi religious rank. I remember, I once visited a house on one of these lush islands, it was in 1991. A microwave oven was placed in the middle of the sitting room and decorated like an altar with porcelain figures inside. The microwave oven was not in use; it was a shrine. The owners of the house were in the process of saving money to tear down their wonderful stone house and replace it with a concrete "box."

Or, visit other parts of the world where you see old-style houses, well adapted to local conditions, being taken down and concrete "containers" put in their place. I recall the story of a good Egyptian friend. He filled this container with pitiful imitations of Western furniture, Louis XIV or XV style. He and his family were used to squat all their lives. But now he packed the new houses with chairs and fauteuils only to sit in front of them on the carpet. The only purpose of this furniture was to cater for and impress the Western guest. At the same time his family had no way to go. In the new house, the family had no courtyard anymore to prepare food in the midst of the extended family on a gas stove because a "modern" kitchen - useless to them - was in place. And there was no space to sit on carpets on the floor as the family was used to do, except squeezed between the monsters of the new fauteuils. The family would thus huddle in the small, window-less and dark corridor on their carpets so as to try to rescue some of the life they were used to live before. Thus, the owner's family basically was misplaced in their own new house. The house was not built for the family but for the Western visitor. To witness this "voluntary self-humiliation" literally broke my heart. What could I say? My friend was so extremely proud of his new, expensive, and supposedly brilliantly Western house!

Incidentally, squatting is a very beneficial exercise, seen from the anatomical point of view. Only in recent years have gynecologists had to admit that giving birth in bed is convenient for the attending doctor, but perhaps not the best position for the woman. Defecating and giving birth are activities that are aided by squatting. The body's anatomy is built thus and gravity cooperates. However, squatting is not only good for defecation and delivering babies. Flexibility, moving about, squatting in different positions, is good for everybody. Chairs are not made to promote human health, on the contrary. They produce stiff people with back problems. Squatting, sitting on platforms (the traditional Japanese house, for example, provides platforms to sit on), like the majority of human kind is used to since millennia, is preferable. Many children still have an inborn knowledge about this; they roll about on the floor or on their beds when doing their homework. However, since some Westerners some time ago found out that squatting is "not the way to behave," stiffened Westerners invade the rest of the world with their rigidity, chronically sore backs and nobody stops them. Admittedly, stiffened Westerners, after a certain age cannot enjoy squatting anymore, yet, why should coming generations be forced into the same straight-jacket? Here, Western "civilization" does a disservice to itself in a self-humiliatory way, without being aware of it. Chairs are like thrones, they give status, the chair-man is not without reason the one to lead a meeting. However, in a world where everybody sits on a chair, the status-giving function is void. What we are left with is the fact that chairs are not very functional with respect to human health.

In 1999, I participated in several fieldtrips in Rwanda, both with the UNDP and with international and national NGOs. These trips came to represent a chain of informal focus groups since I discussed the topic of humiliation whenever it was possible. Particularly during these fieldtrips I did not only monitor other people's feelings of humiliation, but also mine. With many people I shared my deep shock, and feelings of humiliation, that developed in me, about the way for example shelter programs were being built. Not so much that water had to be fetched from sources that were too far away, and that the distance to the fields was too great in many cases, as is the case of many such "villages" in Rwanda. To me, these "villages" represented more; they are part of a general problem, namely the flagrant humiliation of humanity through an uninformed admiration of outdated concepts of "modernity." The design of these artificial "villages," that invade for example Rwandan landscape, corrugated iron sheets on huts set in a military camp layout, remind me of the same anti-human philosophy that stood behind the Plattenbauten (ugly tower blocks) architecture in the socialist East, but also in the West, that today are regarded as a shame by almost everyone in the very same West or East.

Obsession with rectangularity and military uniformity is widely seen as an obsolete concept of modernity and few in the West today are proud of having admired it once. The socialist belief that uniformity (from clothing style to architectural design) would heal wounds of bygone humiliation inflicted by past oppressive hierarchies obviously commits the same mess-up of categories that it aims to remedy.

Clearly, difference is first of all a term that describes diversity; it can perfectly well exist independently of ranking and untouched by humiliating pecking hierarchies. Uniformity, meant to introduce equality, destroys this diversity, and thus, as I see it, introduces a new kind of humiliation, because the loss of diversity is not a small loss. Human beings are diverse, at least to a certain extent, and human identity seems, at least partly, to depend on diversity markers. And uniformity neglects precisely this basic human reality and need; instead, uniformity relegates and humiliates the human being down to the status of robots, of machines, or at best animals. This is endured by those who are forced to live in uniform rectangular blocks or "rabbit boxes," they feel indeed humiliated and abased to the level of rabbits, a reaction involuntarily "proven" by the architects who would never live in the very blocks they design.

To round up this section, I find myself hoping that international organizations, used to care for emergencies and development, will plan better for the emergencies that are to be expected in the future. Arguments that only rectangular military uniformity is efficient and practicable, and that poor refugees or returnees should be happy with what they get, are not good enough arguments to me. How is a helpless person, struggling to heal and build a new life, to be expected to become better if her basic individual particularity is removed and humiliated into even more helpless uniformity? Is not this humiliation of the essence of humanity itself?

Subaltern elite admiration - the slavish copying of elite lifestyles (or worse, bygone concepts of elite lifestyles) - turns into what I call voluntary self-humiliation when a world of equal dignity is what we aim at. Yet, as discussed earlier, the opposite extreme, namely the blind rejection of whatever elites do, the obsessive humiliation and killing of elites or former elites, and the destruction of elite lifestyle symbols, is as mistaken as a strategy. Stepping outside of the master-slave dyad means that elite lifestyles are evaluated calmly: if found to be functional and constructive, elite products and habits may be adopted, if not, not.