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Why are we so quick to shame others?

Tracing the politics of humiliation throughout history, from the Middle Ages to our digital era

By Prospect Team  

Ute Frevert is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. She is the author of many books, including Women in German History (1990), Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (1995), and Emotions in History: Lost and found (2011). Her latest title, The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History (2020) is published by Oxford University Press.

What inspired you to write The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History?

I was struck by the discrepancy between normative condemnations of humiliation and how common humiliating practices are in our society. On the one hand, we are encouraged by our institutions—families, schools, welfare state—to treat our fellow citizens respectfully, as equals. On the other hand, we witness practices of humiliation all the time, as much in everyday life as in international politics. Our sensitivity to what it means to be shamed and humiliated seems to grow by the hour, and so does our active and passive experience of these very practices.

What is behind this? Why is it that modern societies depict themselves as “decent societies” (Avishai Margalit) while at the same time allowing—or sometimes even encouraging— members to engage in all kinds of indecent behaviour? In order to come to terms with this apparent contradiction, I conducted historical research on this question by tracing motives, obstacles, and counter-currents in the modern politics of humiliation.

How has the practice of humiliation as a means of coercion and control evolved over the last 250 years?

In the book, I start with analyzing legal policies. Around 1800, there was a growing movement to abolish public shame sanctions, which had enjoyed tremendous appeal since the Middle Ages. Putting someone in the pillory, branding them, or giving them a public flogging were punishments with a strong moral overtone. They publicly reprimanded people for violating certain rules, norms, and laws, thus marking them as transgressors in the eyes of their peers.

For a minority of legal experts and liberal intellectuals, this ran counter to the principle of human dignity. When dignity became a more widely discussed issue after the mid-nineteenth century, public shaming ceased being employed as a legal instrument in most European countries. At the same time, it continued in popular shaming rituals, like rough music or sanctions against strike breakers within the labour movement. It also played a growing role in mass media, as well as in institutions like the military, schools, and students’ fraternities. It has even surged in reality TV programs and in social media.

What are the implications of this for the people who suffer public humiliation or shame in contemporary society?

Humiliation is always about power. Those who have or seek power over others exert and demonstrate it by putting other people down, degrading and debasing them. But they need a public audience that witnesses their power and the other’s powerlessness. If they lack that, then their act of humiliation will not have the desired effect. Public approval gives humiliation its intensity and sting. If the audience disapproves, though, the victim has a chance to escape unharmed or might even be able to turn the tables on the aggressor. Thus, the central actor in the theatre of humiliation is the public.

Have you noticed any similarities or differences about how the tool of humiliation is used in different parts of the world, or between different groups of people?

I see more similarities than differences. France, Germany, and Britain more or less abolished legal shame sanctions at the very same time, and anti-humiliation sentiment began to appear in each at about the same time. In British schools, though, public floggings stayed on until the end of the twentieth century as a ‘last resort’, while they had been outlawed decades earlier in Germany. In international politics, all powerful, imperial nations have used humiliation to make the less powerful feel their dominance. While we witnessed a short period of diplomatic apologies after the 1990s, such apologies are now again shunned as acts of self-humiliation, as we see in the United States.

What role do you see humiliation playing in the future, as we become more interconnected and visible through channels such as social media?

Social media is a new and extremely effective tool of humiliation, and it is wielded this way with increasing frequency, above all among adolescents. Of course, we have seen acts of bullying before, but they usually played out in front of a small audience. Now the audience has grown extraordinarily large, and there seems to be no escape, because once something is on the internet, it stays there forever. At the same time, young people are extremely sensitive to anything that appears to encroach upon their sense of self. Sensitivity and violence thus seem to go hand in hand. Educators might find this challenging and use it as a way to teach students about the harmful nature of humiliation.

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