Shame and Humiliation Part III of V: The Spectrum of Humiliation

Shame and Humiliation

Part III of V: The Spectrum of Humiliation


Howard Adelman

From yesterday’s Jerusalem Online (28 June 2015): “Gossip blogger sues Eyal Golan for insult on Facebook.”

Omri Hayon, a gossip blogger, claims that he was deeply hurt by posts from the singer and is suing for NIS 300,000 in compensation. Gossip blogger Omri Hayun filed a lawsuit of NIS 300,000 against known Israeli singer Eyal Golan for defamation following a post on Facebook where he called Hayun a “nerd who suffered from other people his whole life.” The post came in response to Hayun’s coverage of the affair involving Golan, whose name was published despite a gag order. At the same time, Golan sued Hayun along with several other journalists, in cases that are still pending. “After this post I started getting death threats,” said Hayun regarding his decision to file the lawsuit.  “All at once it was as if all of his fans had received permission to attack me, they removed all restraint. After the post went up, every half hour I received a phone call from someone else yelling at me and threatening me. One time a man called and said he was outside my house, another said he would put a bullet in my head. I only now decided to sue because it is an expensive process.”

Yesterday, one of the readers of my blog referred me to Jon Ronson’s (2015) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which came out in April. I read a few Amazon reviews and ordered the book. My analysis of the rise of a shaming culture seems to be confirmed by this observer and commentator. Though his account seems far more vivid than my own, he seems to agree that, with the internet, we have developed a form of vigilante justice that is, as I argued, totally out of proportion to the misdeeds or mistakes made by those who are humiliated. The original offence may be stupid, foolish, careless or thoughtless, but not usually evil or malicious. Ronson points to the difference between seventeenth century modes of shaming to contemporary forms because now the charges go far beyond a community which can more easily monitor and judge the alleged offence. The reports are spread without context or verification. The attacks are democratic on both ends, for anyone can participate and anyone can be a target, whether you are a stuffed shirt or a poor teenager. They are a new form of public pillorying with much more long-lasting effects because the internet never forgets. The accusers are often anonymous and the process is brutal and unrelenting. “Internet witch hunts, silicon mobs fueled by righteous indignation, create loops of animosity that end careers, and shatter lives.”

Shame has various different responses, each with different degrees of pain. Humiliation also covers a wide spectrum, from mild titillation at someone’s self-embarrassment to taking pleasure in the mortification of another and, worst of all, dancing with righteousness on his or her torn soul, the one subjected to rampant and raging humiliation. If a person accidentally pours hot tea on another, this is inherently embarrassing. But the situation need not be made worse by humiliating the spiller of the tea. And it can be made better by dismissing the significance of the inadvertent act –  by suggesting that just because the tea was not made properly enough, pouring it out on the floor and everyone around was definitely not an appropriate response, thereby ironically rebuking everyone’s general propensity to hyperbole and preventing making matters worse than they really are. We can even travel in the reverse direction and, instead of extending an embarrassing error into a situation requiring a public rebuke and mortification to humble another in the estimation of onlookers, we can use the occasion to reflect self-critically on our easy surrender to and indulgence in the propensity to thrill at the humiliation of another, especially when we can dress it up in a righteous cause such as ensuring everyone’s safety or valuing the equality of the sexes or being honest and respectful.

Let me give a mild but contemporary example of humiliation dressed up in the masquerade of righteous indignation. Some men harass and abuse women. This is a disgrace. In response, many women, frustrated at the seeming impotence of our public institutions and culture to confront the problem, have taken to the internet to out such creeps by exposing what they do and subjecting them in turn to the same embarrassment and shame these jerks induce in the women they harass and abuse. This becomes the highest expression of egalitarianism – namely, we can all be brought low. This displacement of one’s own sense of shame, however, does not confront the reality that these men engage in such behaviour because they have so little confidence and respect for themselves. Further, such efforts at retaliation do not work. The men do not change their behaviour. Even worse, the propensity of a culture to veer off course into a shaming society is enhanced at the cost of everyone having a higher sense of self-respect.

A man, who pretends he is a gentleman, suddenly makes an inappropriate comment to a female colleague or, even worse, touches her ever so gently on her ass. He thinks he is being smart and clever. She feels humiliated. If she has enough self-respect, she will confront that man in person and in private and not in the elevator where the offence may have taken place. If she is not to stoop to revenge and retaliation by engaging in a reciprocal war of tit for tat humiliation by not simply rebuffing the inappropriate advance right then in the elevator, but takes to the internet to let everyone of his colleagues, friends and relations know on Facebook how he behaved, all in the name of the honour of women, then we can understand how quickly a culture of humiliation can displace a culture of guilt. The latter requires due process and constantly trying to ensure respect for the one who should acknowledge his or her guilt. The former is wanting both in process and in the intended result.

Technology, the democratization of communications, has been accompanied by a serious outbreak of the virus of humiliation. While understandable, it must be fought and resisted. It indulges our lowest sense of ourselves rather than enhancing our self respect. It leads to tit for tat acts of revenge. He responds to his humiliation by calling her a cunt and joking that he was just engaging in a test and found her ass to be flabby and not firm. More seriously, he spreads the word among his colleagues that she is toxic and they should avoid hiring her or engaging with her professionally lest they be subject to the same reaction. The war of words, the game of revenge, is set in motion and everyone loses.

The internet has made it easy to out others, and to make such outing viral. The conditions for witch trials have gone beyond Salem to become global. Recourse to public shaming has once again become terribly easy. Through the internet, one can be instantly in touch with almost half of the world’s population. The internet allows us to live in a tiny village once again with the virtues of intimacy and mutual support, but the vices of back-biting and rumour mongering. In fact, there are now sites dedicated to facilitating the humiliation of others. The social media have become the global trading markets for the exchange of insults and introduced an unregulated bitcom, an uncontrolled currency for demolishing reputations.

When do we cross the line? If I leave a note on a travelling site that I found a restaurant offered poor food and even inadequate service, when does such criticism to offer guidance to others become an effort in public humiliation. The analogy is to a book or movie review. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out failures and inadequacies in a public institution or an institution serving the public. Individuals, however, should not be subject to such public reviews. Directly confronting another with his or her failures is one thing. Publicly exposing those failures for collective rebuke and humiliation is another.

A fellow passenger on a subway may offer an offensive remark or even subversively touch another inappropriately. A young male may sprawl out his legs taking the room of four passengers, and even scratch his crotch in the process. If one can find out the individual’s identity – not difficult these days since a woman can easily trick him into giving her his cell phone number – she can then publish on line her opinion that his balls are not that big. In any case, they have been inflated by hot air so that they require two seats and the area of the subway floor where three people could stand. This retort may provide a release for the discomfort a fellow passenger experiences. But such publicity will not change the behaviour of the boor. Worse yet, it will lower the tone of public discourse and increase the scope and strength for a culture of humiliation and shame.

If you think I am exaggerating, there are specific sites for women to vent their rage and quest for revenge on men who insult and degrade women in public such as:  There is even a name for these tit-for-tat exchanges for the purposes of reciprocal humiliation – Asshole Whack-a-Mole. Of course, it only gets worse. So in addition to the internet providing a place for anonymity, discretion and respect for privacy as a dating service, it has also spawned the very reverse, an organized forum for public humiliation.

So what does this have to do with the treatment of Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal? They were outed and publicly humiliated for their alleged sexism and misrepresentation respectively. But what if there is little evidence for Tim Hunt being a sexist? What if he is just a poor incompetent stand-up comedian? And even if he were a rhetorical sexist, was the treatment he was accorded appropriate to his faults? Well, you may admit, perhaps the point about Tim Hunt’s exaggerated treatment may be valid. But surely I cannot deny that Rachel Dolezal lied or, at the very least, dissembled.

If a lie is an effort to deliberately mislead, note the following: Rachel never claimed to be African-American as far as I could learn. She claimed to be Black. She also insisted that she was not white, in full knowledge that others would interpret that, not as a cultural statement, and not as a denial of the validity and relevance of colour as a racial category, but as a pretence that she was not somatically white. She compounded the problem by questioning whether the two parents who raised her were her genetic parents. She even at one point seemed to suggest questioning whether they could be considered white. Yet I could find no journalist account that tried to explore why what on the surface appeared to be such outlandish claims, claims that could and were easily falsified, Rachel did it and what it meant. After all, her own identification as white just a few years earlier was easily learned.

I believe that the trading of insults on the lowest level of human discourse on and through the internet is but one end of a whole spectrum of the rise of a culture of public humiliation and the valorizing of shame. It is not as if the issue has been ignored. It has been discussed widely. Further, it has been documented not only by Ronson, for example, but by New York City photographer, Caroline Tompkins, in her series of photographs of men whom she confronted and then photographed. She revealed them to be defiant. They challenge Caroline rather than retreat in fear. They seem proud rather than ashamed of their contemptible behaviour. Some are smug and others become even lewder. See:

This seems to suggest that, at least in this case, shaming did not work. Those shamed certainly give no indication of any guilt or remorse. Do they feel ashamed inside? Is their sense of themselves reduced? Instead of their self-definition as boors and bullies being questioned, the shaming seems to have enhanced that aspect of their character. Rather than looking downward or away, they stare right back at Caroline.

When you are ashamed, your own sense of self suffers a hit. You metaphorically shrivel. You avoid effects and corresponding affects. On the one hand, shaming and humiliating may reinforce the status quo ante and even enhance bad behaviour. On the other hand, it may supposedly work, but work only by lowering the self-esteem and self-respect of the Other. In either case, the culture of shame is enhanced from either of these opposite results. And there is no learning or change in behaviour. The reason is simple. Shaming is not designed to alter behaviour by changing who we are. It is designed to perpetuate and enhance war –  war between the sexes, war between and among people of ostensibly different races or religions. Shaming attacks our beliefs about ourselves and about others. Though an act of shaming, another may let off steam, but it is decidedly ineffective in dampening the passions that lead to war.

Shaming, while it has some positive outcomes for the initial victim, ends up doing more harm than good in the long run by undermining self-criticism, the rule of law, due process until determined guilty, and, most of all, a respect for and appeal to the best in an Other rather than reinforcing the disrespect and low opinion the Other has of himself. But the problem that sticks most in my craw is when, in the same confidence one engages in shaming of louts, one brings down the high and mighty when they happen to err in inadvertent ways.

To the degree shaming works at all, it relies on fear. If you do not act in conformity with the ideal the other imposes, the consequences will be horrific. There will, literally, be hell to pay. If you do not experience hell, you will at the very least suffer in purgatory. And if you stand face-to-face with the Other who is part of the system of shaming and humiliation, you are in a losing game. If you insist that you are being persecuted unfairly, you appear to be full of self-pity. If you confront the Other, you appear belligerent. If you try to explain yourself, you come across as a bumbler and dissembler, for the interviewer frames the questions. It is impossible in such a situation for an individual on the defence to get outside the frame in which the shamee has been placed. It is a catch-22. There is no way of getting through to the other except by following the model set by the biblical Tamar –  refuse, adamantly refuse, to get into the same game. Do not try to shame the other by revealing the lack of compassion for an Other, by revealing the lack of self-reflection by the Other, by trying to obtain recognition of the lack of comprehension in the other. It is a mug’s game and the shamee is always the mug. Whatever course you take to deal with the matter directly will turn you into a loser.

However, it is not enough to be driven by fear and face the inevitable prospect of being cast as the loser if you engage in the shaming game, even by taking up a defensive posture, for there is no right of self-defense in the shaming game as opposed to the guilt game. But what if you humble yourself before the Other, offer an apology and a mea culpa? It does not matter whether it is the Inquisition or a Salem witch trial, a communist re-education camp or a show trial, do not expect justice. The system of shaming will only be reinforced and your responsibility for the public hysteria will be confirmed by your confession.

Given that a shame system is built on a foundation of fear, given that it is a closed system in which the shamee cannot win but must always emerge as a loser, given that confession only confirms guilt rather than rendering a guilty verdict only after your voice has been heard, there is no escape for the shamee without others confronting those who would paint scarlet letters, those who would reduce the shamee to a shattered and shaking mass of nervous tendrils, those who would deny due process.

The reason is simple. Shaming is not based on a rational system, but on a hysterical one. It depends upon hyperbole and disproportion. It lacks both a system of justice and an aim at arriving at a just outcome. Justice is its enemy rather than its ally. For a just system and a just outcome always depends on granting respect to and assuming the responsibility of the accused. A shame system depends on reinforcing an individual’s insecurity and lack of respect for him or herself.


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