Eliminating Humiliation

The word humiliation is used in numerous ways and we need to differentiate which kinds of humiliation we may want or need to eliminate.


Feelings of humiliation

Clearly, feelings of humiliation, or the human capacity to feel humiliated, cannot be eliminated, nor should it.


Acts of humiliation

Those acts of humiliation that are committed accidentally, will clearly never be eliminated. However, many other acts of humiliation could in fact be avoided. Raising awareness of the destructiveness of acts of humiliation, for example, could diminish the likelilhood for acts of humiliation being inflicted. What currently seems to be lacking, in particular, is an awareness for the fact that humiliating people more often than not proves to be counterproductive, rendering angry enemies instead of humble friends.


Institutionalized humiliation

The use of the word eliminate is probably most suitable in the realm of instutionalized humiliation. If we think of eliminating humiliation, Apartheid is perhaps the most striking example, together with all Apartheid-like institutions. Even though such institutions cannot be "eliminated" over night, nevertheless, elininating them must remain the goal.

Palestinians reacted with rage, for example, when Lindner reflected on how humiliating experiences at checkpoints could be diminished. They raged: "If you think in terms of diminishing humiliation, you have not understood anything! You merely will legitimize checkpoints and prolong their existence! You have to eliminate humiliating institutions, eliminate completely! Not just diminish!"

Avishai Margalit wrote a book entitled The Decent Society (1996), in which he calls for institutions that do not anymore humiliate citizens.

Evelin Lindner, June 2004


For more detailed reflections, see Lindner (2004), as well as Francisco Gomes de Matos (2004) and Elisabeth E. Scheper (2004):


Reflections by Evelin Lindner (2004)

Many criticize that humiliation cannot be eliminated and that a call for a Moratorium of Humiliation is not realistic. This is argument is partly valid, partly not. It is valid because one of the problems with the notion of humiliation is that the same word is used for a) feelings and b) acts, and c) for processes including institutional humiliation, where the act is embedded within institutions (see, for example, Apartheid): "I humiliate you" (act) and "you feel humiliated" (feeling), and "the entire process may be played out in institutions that humiliate." Feelings of humiliation clearly are part of human emotions and cannot be eliminated nor should they. However, it is still possible to hold on to the call to decrease, or eliminate, acts and institutions of humiliation. Consider Apartheid and Apartheid-like social and societal structures such as autocratic cultures in schools, workplaces, homes; presumably, all Human Rights promoters would agree that it is beneficial not only to decrease such structures, but to eliminate them. So, the goal for public policy planning ought to be to diminish acts of humiliation, those that are institutionalized as well as those that occur "at random," and to heighten awareness as to acts of humiliation - random and institutionalized - and how destructive they can be.

Human rights stipulate that every human being is equal in dignity. Still, this is an ideal that is not attained anywhere, on the contrary, we find many social settings where human worthiness and value are being ranked (men are regarded to possess more worthiness than women, etc....), and it is this ranking of human worthiness that human rights declare to be illegitimate. Robert Fuller, 2003, wrote a book on rankism. What we have to overcome, is rankism. Rankism has humiliating effects as soon as we take Human Rights ideals seriously. And rankism forms the core of many traditional cultures; honor typically is ranked, there are higher and lesser beings. In contrast to that, human rights ideals stipulate that people's worthiness should not be ranked.

According to Lindner's conceptualization there are, simplified, three ways out of feelings of humiliation: a) depression/apathy, b) the "Hitler way" (violence, war, genocide, terror, etc.), and c) the "Mandela way" (constructive social change that includes the humiliator, in Mandela's case, he quite remarkably did not unleash genocide on the white elite in South Africa ). Considering Mandela, we recognize that he did not attempt to put in place a perfect society in one year or so; he explained to his followers that such impatience would be counterproductive. Social change is a process, during which we have to keep the goal in front of our eyes in order to keep on track, and the goal would be to eliminate particularly institutionalized humiliation, and diminish otherwise rampant acts of humiliation with a Moratorium on Humiliation.

Will a Moratorium on Humiliation, if incorporated and mainstreamed in public policy planning, increase human security and decrease perils such as global terror? Yes. We hear in the news (June 20, 2004), "Foreign affairs adviser Adel al-Jubeir said a Saudi campaign which included the shooting of Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin had destroyed al-Qaeda's capabilities. The group later confirmed in a statement on an Islamist website that Muqrin and three others were killed. It said earlier it had carried out the beheading of US hostage Paul Johnson. It also pledged to continue what it called its holy war" (retrieved June 20, 2004, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/).

What are we to do, if killing, "eliminating," "hunting down," and "smoking out" terrorists only leads to their defiance? What if military approaches are only second-best, due to the fact that feelings of humiliation smoldering within broader masses provide reservoirs for innumerable new terrorists? Do we not need better methods for securing the world? The fact that respect, recognition and safeguarding equal dignity for all are terms that did not figure large in old Realpolitik does not mean that they should not be introduced into the new Realpolitik that is necessary for a new globalizing world. Public policy planning has to embrace the entire global village and include considerations for safeguarding social cohesion therein. Merely "hitting" at some "evil guys," in a "War on Terror," despite laudable intentions and noble motives, and despite the fact that sound policing should not to be neglected - if applied as overarching strategy - might rather prove to be out-dated, ineffective and insufficient, even counterproductive. A Moratorium on Humiliation, operationalized, mainstreamed and incorporated in public policy planning might be a more suitable approach.

quoted from:
Lindner, Evelin Gerda (2004). Humiliation Replacing Fear as Leading Emotion in a Globalizing World? New York, NY: Paper prepared for the "Workshop on Conflict and Social Emotions," November 18-19, 2004 at Columbia University, co-organized by Thomas J. Scheff and Evelin G. Lindner (Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, www.humiliationstudies.org).


Reflections by Francisco Gomes de Matos (June 24, 2004, in a personal message to Lindner):

The use of the forceful noun HUMILIATION raises thought-provoking questions. If you look at the HUMAN RIGHTS DISCOURSE, for instance, you will come across the use of the verb ERADICATE, as in "The World Conference of Human Rights therefore urges all States to put an immediate end to the practice of torture and ERADICATE this evil forever....," or, "States should strive to ERADICATE illiteracy" ( Drinan, 2001, 227), or "efforts to ERADICATE torture should, first and foremost, be concentrated on prevention,...." (223) or, "The World Conference of Human Rights urges the ERADICATION of all forms of discrimination against women, both hidden and overt" (218).

Now, note how ELIMINATION appears in that same document: (Vienna Declaration, adopted June 25, 1993): "The World Conference on Human Rights considers the ELIMINATION of racism and racial discrimination... as a primary objective for the international community .... (214). On that same page, there appears a verb which is typical of MILITARY DISCOURSE: "to COMBAT all forms and manifestations of racism."

On page 225, COMBAT is used thus ..,"take immediate measures to COMBAT the practice of ethnic cleansing to bring it quickly to an end." NOTE THAT "to bring it quickly to an end" may be interpreted as a paraphrase of TERMINATE, ELIMINATE.... The choice of nouns such as ELIMINATION, ERADICATION, SUPPRESSION, depends on how forcefully, strongly, emphatically we wish to "translate" our communicative intention.

Last but not least, note the following usage, also from the World Conference text: "The existence of widespread extreme poverty inhibits the full and effective enjoyment of human rights: its immediate alleviation and EVENTUAL ELIMINATION must remain a high priority for the international community" (201).

In HUMAN RIGHTS DISCOURSE, E L I M I N A T I O N is a frequently used noun; ERADICATION seems to be fairly frequent, too. If you want to use CAUTIOUS LANGUAGE - some would say "realistically tactful" - you could add the adjective EVENTUAL before ELIMINATION as was done in the last example above.

Another message from Francisco, June 25, 2004:
The concept-term of HUMILIATION seems to be well-established in the Human Rights discourse, so that we have a good precedent there. It would be most instructive/revealing to look at other Human Rights documents and see how my cautious generalization stands, namely, that HUMILIATION seems to be well-established as a lexical choice in Human Rights texts.

If we consider that selfhood is also constructed via texts, the use of HUMILIATION reflects the way we textually (and hence psycho-socio-culturally and politically) construct images of persons, groups, communities, or nations experiencing humiliation.

From a Human Linguistic Rights perspective, we have the right to choose HUMILIATION/HUMILIATE as the most appropriate representations for our intentions. After all, both PERCEPTION OF (AWARENESS OF/CONSCIOUSNESS OF), PREVENTION OF and E L I M I N A T I O N of HUMILIATION is the key stance in your research, Evelin, and your compelling descriptions of humiliating experiences/conditions make a cogent case for your approach to humiliation. It is precisely for such reasons that the documentation of HUMILIATION-BASED/RELATED PHRASEOLOGIES ACROSS CULTURES can shed more light on the dimensions of self-image (of the humiliated, especially): When do persons all over the world say things like I FEEL/FELT HUMILIATED, THAT WAS A MOST HUMILIATING EXPERIENCE FOR ME, (DOING THIS) IS HUMILIATING, MY COUNTRY WAS HUMILIATED (said of a result in a sports/soccer competition, for example). How is the CONTINUUM OF H U M I L I A T I O N explored/resorted to in cultures the world over?

Just as LITERACY should enhance personal/community independence, economic emancipation, and a secure self-image/self-esteem, HUMILIATION LITERACY should contribute to helping prepare persons as citizens with the right to DIGNITY so that they can CHALLENGE and CHANGE humiliating, dehumanizing social structures, or, to use the military discourse metaphor, COMBAT and DEFEAT HUMILIATION, rather than just timidly alleviating the conditions of those persons, those groups and communities who are humiliated.

Drinan, Robert F. (2001). The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


A Plea for Dignification

Francisco Gomes de Matos

When we humiliate others
PERSONS we depreciate
And ourselves deteriorate
HUMAN RIGHTS we violate
Dehumanization we proclamate

LIFE we must consecrate
mutual respect perpetuate
Let's the GOOD activate
And truly commiserate
with whom we deprecate
so the verb humiliate
HUMANKIND can eliminate!

Francisco Gomes de Matos, applied PEACE linguist from Recife, Brazil



Reflections by Elisabeth E. Scheper (June 24, 2004, in a personal message to Lindner):

I think of the major debate on the change in mission statements in international development cooperation agencies in 1992. From 1990 - 2000, I was Novib's (Oxfam Netherlands ) Head of the East and South East Asia Department. Since the late 1970s Novib's aim had been to reduce or alleviate poverty and the debate was to change it to eradicate. There were two objections: First it was too big a "trouser" we were putting on, as Dutch development cooperation - while huge GNP percentage wise - is still only a drop in the ocean globally, making it an unattainable goal. Second, some felt it sounded too radical and anti-establishment and would alienate us from our constituencies. Now a decade later, even the UN aims at eradicating poverty.

I myself had long been an advocate for the change towards using eradicating. Your vision is what you envision the world to look like ideally, not what is attainable in a year's time. You have a mission statement and long term objectives for that. It is crucial to have such vision, to get your approach and priorities right.

Novib's mission became: "structural poverty eradication through sustainable development." For two years this sentence popped up in all combinations, flipping the two words around (sustainable poverty eradication and structural development) or mixing the old words (structural poverty reduction). It looked so stupid in our external publications, as it is all wrong if you understand what sustainable development really means (inclusive, socially just, self sustaining). Hence, we realised at last that this was the in-house discussion Novib needed to do. I was part of the small working group that led the process and we tried to weave in the other main Novib priority themes: gender, livelihood, environment and human rights. Sustainable development got thus translated as: socially just (HR), environmentally sound, economically viable (local ownership) and gender equal. It worked wonders and the institutional confusion was overcome once and for all.

I believe we should aim at eliminating all forms of humiliation as vision and target elimination of intentionally harmful forms of humiliation, as our mission. Institutionalized humiliation is a good example, but if the analogy with the Novib discussion holds, then it may be useful to look at the root causes we need to address to get institutionalised humiliation diminished or eradicated. Also, the role of the state and civil society, as well as their obligations and duties towards each other and their constituencies has to be taken seriously. That is another assumption, implicitly woven into your text, but like with sustainable development, I think it is important to be explicit about it.