The Internet has normalised collective shaming. What are the political costs?

From fraternity houses to welfare applications, shame has long circulated in public life. A new book seeks to broaden our understanding of this complex and often destructive emotion
May 7, 2020

The US police follow and search young black men who are wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from Covid-19. A spurned boyfriend sits in front of his computer posting graphic descriptions of sex with his former partner. A judge orders a shoplifter to stand outside a department store holding a sign saying: “I am a dirty thief.” A teacher sends a disobedient boy to the naughty step. The Jeremy Kyle Show, which was broadcast over 3,300 times between 2005 and 2019, ridicules dysfunctional families, unmarried adolescents and “love rats.” ITV only cancelled the show when one of its guests committed suicide after failing a (dubious) lie detector test that he had hoped would prove to his lover that he had “been faithful.”

All these examples share one thing: they involve deliberately humiliating other people. The word “humiliation” comes from the Latin humus, meaning “ground”: to humiliate someone is to push them to the ground, lower their self-esteem, or “put them down.”

Humiliation is effective because it elicits painful feelings. The shame that a prisoner experiences after being sexually assaulted by his cellmate leads him to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. An unemployed father is mortified when his daughter cannot join the football team because the kit is too expensive. A low-paid immigrant would rather go hungry than ask for help at a local food bank.

[su_pullquote]"Humiliating actions are not “merely” symbolic forms of violence. They have real effects."[/su_pullquote]

Humiliation is always at some level about other people. Along with shame, it is fundamentally a social emotion: to be effective, they require an audience. Humiliation is something one person or group inflicts on another person or group—and usually the victims are less powerful. Those who witness shaming acts typically feel morally superior to the person being shamed. Importantly, though, despite being a social emotion, a person can feel humiliated even if no other person is present, if victims have internalised the social values of those being aggressive towards them. In their imagination, they recognise that they have been “pushed to the ground.”

Humiliating actions are not “merely” symbolic forms of violence. They have real effects. Humiliation is capable of triggering sadness, anxiety or self-hatred. It can lead to destructive behaviours, including sexual and social dysfunction, drug and alcohol abuse and self-harm. It is deeply isolating because it entails acknowledging that other people have judged you to be inadequate, soiled, stigmatised. In this way, humiliation is simultaneously a social emotion and an isolating one.

Humiliating someone is also a political act. After all, such practices are inequitable: they are inculcated through relations of domination—including racism, sexism, snobbery or class sneering. In recent decades, for example, there has been a proliferation of “poverty porn” on TV and other mass media. Shows such as The Jerry Springer Show and Channel 5’s Gypsies on Benefits & Proud are structured around practices of humiliation. They give viewers permission to mock people who are already vulnerable. Such programmes encourage the use of denigrating terms such as “white trash,” “scroungers” and “chavs.” The effects can be significant. Humiliating practices obscure structural causes of poverty: the ashamed welfare dependent can start to feel that they are the problem, rather than an inequitable job market. By caricaturing the poor, the theatre of humiliation justifies cuts to welfare benefits or social housing.

*** Ute Frevert’s new book, The Politics of Humiliation, seeks to broaden our understanding of this complex and often destructive emotion. The book was originally published in German three years ago, and is now available in English thanks to an eloquent translation by Adam Bresnahan.

Frevert turns her investigative gaze onto practices and symbols of humiliation in Europe from the 18th century to the present. She is a historian with a formidable publication record, but she also draws on insights from anthropology, politics, philosophy and sociology. Her interests are extremely broad. The role of humiliation in national justice systems and international politics interests her as much as the way humiliation serves to socialise young people in schools and college fraternities. She deals at length with shaming practices in the military as well as in the media. She is always sensitive to questions of context.

Her book is part of a movement that has grown in the past few decades to show how emotions are historically constructed rather than “natural” or universal. Indeed, as the director of the History of the Emotions Research Centre at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Frevert has been a leader in the field.

For historians of the emotions it is axiomatic that feelings are mutable; they have a social and political life. By charting the rules any particular society has for expressing emotions, they argue that we can learn a great deal about social organisation. Exploring the ways these rules change over time provides insights into values, ideologies, institutional structures and the formation of identities.

Frevert argues that although people have always been subjected to various forms of humiliation, what elicited this emotion, and how they responded to it, have changed through time. Put simply: people learn when to be humiliated. It matters if a person is born into a radical left-wing home or a traditional Presbyterian one; it makes a difference if a person is female or an ethnic minority. Authority dictates all.

And so does context. 18th-century shaming practices are different from 20th- or 21st-century ones. In the early modern period, for example, people who had defied societal mores were publicly humiliated in marketplaces or church squares. Different levels of violence could be inflicted. Women who bore children out of wedlock might be forced to stand outside the church wearing “straw crowns.” More dangerous forms of shaming included being placed in a pillory or stocks. Offenders could be pelted with faeces, rotten food or even rocks. In the UK, a notorious instance took place on 11th April 1780, when William Smith (a coachman) and Theodosius Reade (a plasterer) were convicted of having engaged in “Sodomitical Practices” inside the Magdalen coffee house in London. They were forced to stand in the pillory at St Margaret’s Hill. Their crime was considered so offensive (and perhaps risible) that 20,000 people gathered. According to one newspaper, “after Smith had stood about half an hour, he received a blow by a stone under the right ear.” He “appeared black in the face, the blood gushing from his ears,” and he died. The next day in parliament, Edmund Burke “expatiated on the cruelty of the punishment of the pillory.” He urged government “to abolish a punishment which is meant only to expose a man to open shame and reproach, but which puts in the power of an enraged mob, or negligent officers, to make the punishment capital.” Humiliation could kill.

As with the tragic story of Smith and Reade, some of Frevert’s analysis deals with individual experiences of humiliation. But she also demonstrates that humiliation was often government practice. In Nazi Germany, it enabled dehumanisation and murder. In the immediate aftermath of that war, female collaborators in newly liberated countries had their hair publicly shaved. The aim was to cast them out of the moral community. This form of humiliation was made famous by Robert Capa, when he photographed 23-year-old Simone Touseau being hounded down the streets of Chartres holding the three-month-old child she had had with her lover, a German soldier.

Shaving off a woman’s hair continues to be seen as extremely humiliating. This was the punishment imposed in 2015 by the father of 13-year-old Izzy Laxamana of Tacoma, Washington. He was so furious when he discovered she had sent a boy a photo of herself wearing a sports bra and leggings that he made a video of himself cutting off her long hair. The video was circulated and, jeered at by her schoolfriends, she committed suicide. Unlike the public humiliation of post-war women in Europe, Laxamana’s shaming was shaped and amplified by social media. The internet has allowed extremely asymmetrical displays of contempt. The anonymity that it provides allows for hidden revelling in sadistic behaviour.

Laxamana’s tragic case also reminds us that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to being humiliated. Historically, schools have used humiliation to discipline their charges. Children have been forced to don a dunce’s cap or made to stand in the corner for having breached some arbitrary rule. Girls might be required to take a public beating on their hands, while boys suffered the indignity of baring their bottoms. Such practices had a long life: while corporal punishment in the UK was phased out in state schools through the 1960s and 70s, it was only formally banned from 1987, and was lawful in private schools until the end of the 1990s. Indeed, in the US, certain schools continue to authorise teachers to hit children.

*** More surprisingly, Frevert draws attention to two facts. The first, that shaming practices can sometimes be a weapon wielded by or on behalf of the weak. In 19th-century England, for example, husbands who beat their wives might be paraded round the village to hisses and boos. Striking factory workers in Germany posted the names of “scabs” on lampposts and factory gates. Up until the 1970s, Italian workers used “rough music”—a kind of mock serenade—to shame exploitative employers.

[su_pullquote]"Shaming practices can sometimes be a weapon wielded by or on behalf of the weak"[/su_pullquote]

The second unexpected twist is the way that some shamed people seem to seek out their own humiliation. Consensual humiliation is an important ritual in some military units as well as in fraternities and sororities. “Hazing” (or initiation) rites typically involve a range of degrading and revolting practices. Victims are forced to eat or drink disgusting food and fluids. They are made to feel worthless, forced to wear silly clothes and ordered to sing nonsensical ditties. Many rituals are sexually shaming. However, many of those being humiliated defend the practice on the grounds that it creates a sense of belonging for individual members and is crucial in forging a strong, shared identity. Painful rites can be seen by “initiates” as essential to the mystique of joining an exclusive “club.” And of course once you are in the club, you can inflict your own humiliations on new recruits.

Frevert’s book addresses two urgent questions. In particular, she asks us to think more deeply about why people who claim to be committed to the ideals of dignity and respect continue to enjoy humiliating others. Online shaming—including doxing (maliciously revealing someone’s identity) and cancel culture (declaring someone a pariah for having the wrong opinion)—have an almost irresistible attraction to some people. On the other hand, the academic Mary Beard’s empathetic response to her Twitter trolls has given us an example of how online etiquette can transform lives. There are also many examples of people using shame to extoll ideals about human dignity. Periodically, racists, misogynists, anti-semites and transphobic people have all been shamed into (temporary) silence, even if they fail to actually change their views.

Frevert is not a pessimist. She reminds us that humiliating practices are effective because they have an audience who share the moral code of the aggressor. Once that moral code is denied, the spectacle of cruelty collapses. Gay Pride is one example of a liberationist ideology that rose up to defy shaming. In the US, the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military was reversed, after banners and T-shirts worn by gay people and their allies encouraged people to start asking and telling.

But despite such heartening tales of shame being beaten back, humiliation has not lost its efficacy. Paradoxically, Frevert reminds us, the increased value placed on human dignity may make its withdrawal especially hard to bear. But the central message of the book is that there are choices to be made: and maintaining the dignity of the more marginalised members of our society is the right one.

The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History, by Ute Frevert (Oxford University Press, £25)