Tracing the politics of humiliation throughout history, from the Middle Ages to our digital eraby Prospect Team / February 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…