Humiliation is destructive

But how can we get out of that vicious cycle?

These last few days I've been wanting to write about ridicule and humiliation – how bad and destructive they are – and how (self-chosen) humility is so completely different. I see respecting another person as the opposite of humiliating them. But it's quite complex, and maybe the best cure for humiliation is love.

25 years ago it was the second year of my two-year stay in Italy, where I got to know Davide Melodia, an extraordinary and lovely character. He was much the same age as my father. What brought him back to mind is a piece that he wrote for me, in 1998, a couple of years after I went back to England, which although it doesn't mention humility or humiliation, really focuses on the place of respect. He wrote the piece in Italian, and I translated it into English. I see it now as a gentle and kind drawing my attention to some of my blind spots, which I hope are not quite so blind now.

If I fail to respect someone else's point of view, or opinion, or position, or attitude about something; if I don't go to the trouble of empathising and really trying to see where they are coming from – and this might include, what kind of trauma they are reacting to – then it's all too easy to react to them in a patronising, belittling way. This is on a personal level; but on a social level it can be yet more tangled up. If they have suffered a history of being made fun of for their eccentric views, then they might have come to expect that, and somehow, unconsciously, played into the game of my patronising them.

Conspiracy theories are a particularly difficult area to navigate. Being someone with a ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ background (in parallel with a strong spiritual sense) I take some care to look into conspiracy theories with an open mind, trying to tease out the reliable evidence; asking myself the difficult ‘what if’ or ‘what if not’ questions. Of course there are some real conspiracies, like the one about light bulbs, and there are ones where the only safe position is one of not knowing. But when people I care about (as I see it) fall prey to ones that seem to me ridiculous, like some of the Covid-19-related ones, well, ridicule comes easily. If I allow myself to voice ridicule, then I am an agent of someone's humiliation, no matter how ‘objectively right’ I may be, or how ‘unscientifically wrong’ they may be.

Maybe ridicule comes to most of us all too easily. I find it reasonable to suppose that most people, when they ridicule someone else, are more deeply afraid of their own position being questioned or undermined. Having one's world view taken apart is genuine personal danger! We all navigate our lives on the basis of our beliefs about the world, and having any of the core beliefs pulled out from underneath you is at least destabilising, and at worst can disrupt your whole life. So of course people defend the belief systems on which they have based their lives, and it is easy to see how this plays out in a destructive cycle of verbal abuse – recognised by many as a form of violence.

I see this vicious cycle alive and kicking in the area of social justice. All of us had probably had times of feeling humiliated, but my guess is that many people on the wrong end of some social prejudice suffer humiliation much worse than I do – though there's no easy scale for it. If the humiliated people have no power, and no one is speaking for them, then they can't really retaliate, but if they, or someone on their behalf, has power, then playing into that cycle may well mean that they try to humiliate their oppressors. This is what I see going on in the excesses of ‘cancel culture’.

A couple of days ago I wrote about this elsewhere, in these terms:

Historically, there has sometimes been an attitude of “I've been humiliated, so I have the right to humiliate you, to teach you a lesson, so you know what it feels like.” I am utterly opposed to this retaliatory attitude. Perhaps even more sinister is the attitude “You have humiliated these other people, so I'm going to self-righteously take the law into my own hands and humiliate you.” Nor do I simply go along with “you've used these words that trigger me, therefore you are responsible for my anger”. But I do believe that we can all take our own responsibility, so that if we become aware that our words or expressions or attitudes trigger other people, we do what we reasonably can to care about that and change our ways. This is so that others will feel enough psychological safety in our presence to allow dialogue to flow. We all need to recognise that certain words, actions, expressed attitudes, etc. for others may play into patterns in which they have felt humiliation, even if our intention is pure and positive.

This is one reason why I haven't been writing here – I've been trying to work it through in other contexts.

The question that really exercises me at present is, simply, what to do about all this.

On a personal level, it is open to any of us to do something to halt the cycle of verbal abuse – to take seriously what my late friend Davide wrote; to refrain from hurtful intemperate language laden with the force of our personal emotional reactions, and instead to offer respect; to be on the side of the other. (Davide used the Italian word solidarietà which does translate to ‘solidarity’ in English – the reason I haven't used that word in my translation is that it seemed to me more politically laden in English.) Another way of looking at this is by voluntarily adopting a position of humility. In any complex situation is it hard enough to know what is best, so expressing the fact that we are not certain, that we may be mistaken, and in particular that we may have misjudged the people who oppose us, is all to the good.

An advance on that involves some insight into oneself, some introspection. Why is it that I am tempted to react by joining that vicious cycle? What am I afraid of? I want to stress here that I see this as a partial answer, not a complete one. There has been a lot written in recent years about how people need to look inside themselves, if they see anything wrong with the world. Which is, in itself, good. Be the change that you want to see in the world. But that does not mean that social injustice does not exist, or that it is all up to the individual. That seems to me a dreadful mistake, born out of an individualistic culture, and stereotyped in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society.” (Though it is a worthwhile exercise to follow this quote through: Thatcher didn't mean it in the way that is was subsequently taken to mean.)

But what to do if we see people we care about ripping each other apart, as though they were the bitterly rival sects in the Life of Brian? At one level, I could not possibly have an answer, for reasons I've already mentioned. But I do think there is a very general approach we can take. We can stop playing that particular ‘game’ and start playing a different game, singing a different song, dancing a different dance.

Though I can't say much about that other approach, two things I am sure about: first, that love features centrally as a motive power. Instead of fear, which motivates defence and attack, love does good. Second, we need to do it collectively. Collective Presencing offers a good orientation.


Topics: Complex psychology; Personal development

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