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 emotionby Joanna Bourke / May 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
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.
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,…