Shame and Humiliation
Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mendacius and Humiliation
The understanding of shame and humiliation is writ deep in our culture. I will illustrate this with a story from Aesop’s Fables. But before I do, I have first to remind everyone who Prometheus was because the fable begins with him. Prometheus was a Titan, the gods who first overthrew the primordial gods only to be overthrown in turn by the Olympian gods. Prometheus was a second generation lesser god, the god of forethought and crafty counsel, a traitor to his side in providing aid to Zeus to help the Olympians overthrow his fellow Titans led by Cronos. He was also a potter.
In Genesis in the Torah, there are two different stories of how man came into being, first by naming. God said and there was. The second was by God moulding the man’s material form from clay. In ancient Greek mythology, that task was assigned to a lesser god, Prometheus. In Genesis, Cain and Abel rival over who should be recognized for making the best sacrifice – the best of a farmer’s versus a hunter’s (or cowboy’s) labours. In Greece, the story takes place in a different direction. For instead of taking the best that you have laboured to bring forth and sacrificing that to God, Prometheus tricks the gods, more particularly Zeus, in the switcheroo at Mecone and ensures that the best and most nourishing part of a sacrificed bull will be reserved for the celebration of human men; he left only the inedible parts, the bones and organs, to be sacrificed to the Olympians. Second, when Zeus, to prevent Prometheus from taking the last necessary step in that sacrifice, withheld fire from him, Prometheus stole a fire bolt, hid it in a fennel stalk and gave it to man. Prometheus was the first humanist.
In revenge for both these acts of rebellion, Zeus created Pandora, the first woman. In Genesis, Eve has a twofold history, created by God in the same way Adam was and, secondly, by taking one side of Adam and forming a woman. In the Greek mythological tradition, Pandora was created specifically to bring mischief to men. Instead of the snake being the trickster, as in the bible, in Aesop’s fable that was directly Pandora’s function. In the Hebrew tradition, that element of Greek mythology was imported into the interpretation of the Biblical tale of human creation. Pandora has been projected onto Eve’s character ever since the two traditions came into contact.
For his double-crossing the gods, humans are not thrown out of the Garden of Innocence called Eden. Rather Prometheus was punished, not by having, like Sisyphus, to roll a great rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down just before it reached the top so that the next day he had to roll it up again. Instead, an eagle was assigned to pick out the eye and/or the heart of Prometheus (after all, he had shown too much compassion for human men), and/or the liver, thought to be the source of bile. As soon as that part was eaten, it grew back so the process was repeated day after day. Prometheus was punished for his foresight – it was taken away. Prometheus was punished for his compassion – it was converted into self-pity at his own suffering. Prometheus was punished for his rebellious spirit against the Olympian gods.
Aesop tells a subsidiary tale. One day, Prometheus decided to sculpt a mirror image of Veritas, the daughter of Zeus and the embodiment of honesty. When Zeus summoned Prometheus to appear before him, perhaps to explain what tricks he was up to, Dolos (Dolus), his assistant, was left behind. Dolos’ chief characteristic was to be a trickster, a master of deception and craftiness, treachery and guile that was even superior to that of his master, Prometheus. Dolos had been fired up by his master’s ambition and decided to fashion a replica of Veritas on his own. The replica would be of the same size and weight and share the same features of Veritas so it would be impossible to tell the facsimile from the real thing. However, Dolos, though an exceptional copier, was not as experienced as Prometheus in his preparations. He ran out of clay before he could complete his copy. Prometheus, when he returned, was delighted at the result, praised Dolos and did not notice that the copy of the original lacked the feet of clay of the original. He infused the copy with a love of honesty to ensure it was a precise copy in spirit as well as in the flesh and placed the sculpture into his kiln.
When the fixing of the clay was completed, while Veritas as the model could walk away on her own two feet, the imitation was frozen on the spot. That forgery, which lacked feet of clay, was named Mendacius, from which we have inherited the word, mendacity, the characteristic of being, not only a liar, but being a born liar. A liar has no feet and cannot travel. A liar becomes fixed in and by his or her own lies. However, as a faithful copy of the original, Mendacius always claims to uphold honesty as the highest principle.
Philosophers serve truth; they understand they are not and never will be masters as they try to perform their duties as the cleaning staff of the intellectual life. Many journalists, perhaps most, pursue honesty and claim it is the truth. They are heirs to Hermes (Mercury in the Roman pantheon), a son of Zeus, and see themselves as belonging to the Olympian gods. But, mistakenly, many and perhaps most follow the facsimile of truth, Mendacius, the immobilized image of Veritas. They fail to recognize that truth is established by subjecting one’s own presuppositions to self-criticism and not recognizing that the truth is never ensured by honesty. For them, truth is ensured by following rules, by recognizing the sacredness of boundaries and not by questioning those rules and boundaries.
On the other hand, they are populist democrats of the human spirit, for those boundaries are universal and apply to rich men as well as thieves, to the rulers as well as the ruled. Thus, they do not recognize that, in the name of honesty as a facsimile of the truth, in the name of universality, their underlying and unconscious goal in life is to prove that all are bound by these rules. Secretly, their greatest achievement will be to prove, that, like themselves, those who are great achievers also have “feet of clay”, which means they lack feet and are stuck and mired in the hidden drives in their own lives. The exposure may be accurate. At other times, it is simply a revelation of the journalist’s own inadequacies projected onto the target and done without the effort or even the ability to see and grasp that the result is more a product of their own projections than the alleged failings of the object of their mischief.
Humiliation, instead of attending to a specific wrong, deflects attention from that fault to attend to an allegedly greater one, an offence against an abstract and universal principle. By abstracting and deflecting, the public and, more importantly, Rachel herself, is distracted from the need to experience guilt. The process, instead, drives shame into even deeper recesses in the soul. And the shaming allows the multitude to coalesce and feel good about themselves at Rachel’s expense. Most importantly, shaming prevents us from expunging our sense of shame within and inhibits us from striving and standing on the stage to express our own self-worth. Who would want to take the risk and be subjected to so much scorn and humiliation? As Brené Brown so richly characterizes the difference between shame and guilt: “Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” Blaming someone tells the other that he or she did something wrong; shaming someone tells you that the other is bad.
When I transferred in my last year of high school from Harbord Collegiate to Bathurst Heights, portraying that you loved learning in that new school was grounds for shaming. The standard was that it was alright to get top marks, but you also had to show that you did so without cracking a sweat. Shame is a straight jacket that prevents the highest achievement. If you shame another, you cannot feel empathy. And compassion for another is the best antidote to the toxicity of shame.
In Russia, gays and lesbians are persecuted both by the law and by vigilante action to out gays, humiliate them and get them fired. Last night on Pride Weekend around the world on CBC’s The Passionate Eye, I watched the documentary “Hunted in Russia.” In excellent journalism, the film portrayed how vigilantes systematically outed gays, beat and persecuted them, exposed their faces and got them fired on the Catch-22 that the pictures of their victims had appeared in the press as gays and, thus, they were guilty of promoting homosexuality which was against the law. When the persecutors were ever prosecuted for assault, they were mostly able to get off through lawyers’ tricks, widespread support in society and the complicity of the law. On the other hand, if a gay or lesbian protested the infringement of his or her rights, they never could get a permit, and, if they protested in the name of being gay, they were prosecuted under the law for promoting homosexuality. Even without mentioning homosexuality, if two gathered in one place, one to hand out leaflets and the other to carry a sign, even if they insisted they were not together, they were harassed, arrested and prosecuted for launching an illegal protest, for there were two of them together protesting and they lacked a permit.
Shame is a virus and easily detectable because in any age, but particularly in our electronic age, it triumphs when it now goes viral. Vigilantes in Russia use the internet to persecute gays. When going viral is held in such high esteem, a culture of shame expands and grows like a cancer in the body politic.
Tony Judt made cancers on the body politic his intellectual obsession. (I have already published a long essay on Tony Judt focused on his anti-Zionism of which these few comments formed a small part.) But he was driven by a fear of humiliation and that was how the last two years of his life ended. As his wife, Jennifer Homans, described it, “The more he retreated the more public he became. His private life at home and with friends was his greatest comfort but it was also deeply sad: he couldn’t be the things he wanted to be and he was haunted and humiliated by his ‘old’ self—what he called ‘the old Tony,’ who was lost to him forever.” He declared, “whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.” He insisted he would and did not feel shame. But he feared, and suffered, humiliation. Why?
One theme, repeatedly mentioned, but not highlighted in his last book Thinking the Twentieth Century, written when he was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), is perhaps the most revealing. Judt described his father “as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him.” Humiliation is that theme. His mother too suffered from shame. “Mother was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness versus the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of his extended family.” When his father drove their Citroën to visit relatives in a poor area of London, Tony Judt “wanted to disappear down the nearest manhole” because of “the envious attention his new car was attracting.” When he lived on the kibbutz in Israel, he recognized that its functioning was based on the “successful deployment of physical intimidation and moral humiliation.” Not our usual association with kibbutzim, but an incisive comment true of most tribal and collectivist societies, whether a small town or an imperial Soviet Union or Russia.
When Judt became a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, and had some authority, the student cohort who now attended these elite colleges came, not from the aristocracy and private schools, but from excellent state schools. Once they were discovered by one of the “bedders” (women from town who served as surrogate mothers to the young boys and girls, for King’s had become co-ed by that time) cavorting on college grounds nude.
The “bedder” was humiliated and felt ashamed. Three factors explained her reaction: the presence of girls; when she came upon them, they made no effort to dissimulate or even cover up; worst of all, they laughed at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement between herself as a working class woman in the midst of a society of privilege in the name of populist egalitarianism. She felt humiliated.
As Judt explained the situation, previous cohorts of students, though often repugnant snobs and sods brought up in privilege, recognized her station and respected her class and its values. They knew better than to treat a servant as an equal sharing their values. Those gentlemen “would have apologized, expressed their regret in the form of a gift and offered an affectionate, remorseful embrace.” Treating the “bedder” as an equal had “as much as anything hurt her feelings.” She had lost a claim on their forbearance and respect: her role had been reduced to mere employment rather than being a surrogate mother. The new rich bourgeois class shared none of the sensibilities of those who practiced the better side of noblesse oblige, but shared the same ignorant principle amongst themselves: “all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest.”
The bourgeoisie, the Olympian gods of modernity who had overthrown the aristocratic Titans, were true believers in the reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: “the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention.” They have no “understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests.” They spouted and said that they revered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, probably not having read it, but certainly not having read his volume, A Theory of Moral Sentiments. They acted as if all humans were driven, at bottom, by self-interest. If they became journalists and messengers of the greater gods, their perpetual mission was to demonstrate the validity of that Truth.
Why was humiliation and shame the most evident by-product of this indifference to and failure to recognize class differences? Respect and recognition are the proper antidotes to class differences and economic conditions. And it works both ways. One must show the greatest respect to those who do not share our privileges, no matter what your level or lifestyle. But one must also show the greatest respect to those who have earned it, whether in their intellectual or social productivity. Bringing them low when they slip up is not showing respect. Humiliating them in total disproportion to any error they have committed is merely an effort to displace lack of respect for ourselves in the terrible guise of righteousness and honesty.
All this merely explicates that shame and humiliation were crucial themes for Judt. These extracts do not explain why humiliation was so important so that these two themes became a window through which he experienced the world.
Tony Judt only hints at all the humiliations he suffered on growing up. When he was an established academic in London and went in to launch a complaint about mistreatment of a Czech acquaintance by the authorities, he learned that he was totally ignorant of the circumstances and problematics of the case. He was offended and embarrassed “to be thought both unimportant and uniformed.” And, of course, his humiliation at needing help all the time to do almost everything during his last two years of an immobilized life must have been the pinnacle of humiliation for him. But then why was humiliation so central to Judt’s historical experience?
Because, in the end, Tony Judt was himself a journalist and not a philosopher, a messenger of the gods, but one sent out and about to ensure the gods came to recognize they were only mortal. In 2010, Maggie Smith published a book, Asylum, migration and community which probes the experience refugees feel when they exit a country and then the double humiliation they experience in their country of asylum. Their loss of status is more embarrassing than anything else they experience, especially if they come from middle class roots. Humiliation is almost always about failure of recognition. And journalists are the group most sensitive to this failure to recognize their role as Hermes to Zeus, as messengers of the Olympian gods.
Tony Judt was a famous scholar, but before that government bureaucrat he appeared to be an ignorant dolt. Tony’s father was an informed and articulate reader, thinker and believer, but he worked in a hairdressing parlour. Tony’s mother was a died-in-the-wool English woman ashamed of her Jewishness and the European accents of her social circle. After all, her friends were “greenies.” Tony was embarrassed and humiliated at the kibbutz because they saw him as just a grunt when he really was a very successful student who had achieved entry into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Britain. The kibbutzniks had no appreciation of that accomplishment. Judt just generalized on that ignorance and branded them provincial for not recognizing his achievements. And the “bedder” at Cambridge was embarrassed and humiliated, not simply because the students did not recognize the class to which she belonged and the rules of discourse long established in dealing with class relations, for all rules had to be universal and not conventional. These children of the nouveau riche did not see her as an independent Other with sensibilities and responsibilities. The previous privileged classes at least had the decency to give her the semblance of respect and recognition.
The humiliator generally is indifferent or has contempt for the position or the person of the Other, whether a thief or a rich man, whether an ordinary citizen or a great ruler. For journalists are those most attuned to humiliation. They suffer its pains and pangs every day of their lives. One who is humiliated is not only embarrassed, but can develop a repressed anger and urge to retaliate for that non-recognition, an attitude exemplified by Cain when God recognized Abel and not him. The humiliatee wants the injustice corrected and can become a demon in the pursuit of his or her version of social justice. At the extreme, humiliation, revenge and the desire for social justice can be found to be a pervasive theme in the actions of mass killers at schools and at places of work. (Cf. Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman and James Jones (eds.) with Katherine A. Boyd, The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History.) Journalists are the mass murderers of reputations.
Since Ruth Benedict in the year of Tony Judt’s birth characterized Japan as a shame culture and America as a guilt culture, and since then others have characterized Jewish culture as a guilt culture par excellence, and still others have built on and revised and improved on that distinction so that one broad consensus emerged. Shame cultures grant low cultural value to the individual. Shame can then be used as an effective tool of social guidance. Guilt cultures grant low cultural value to the community and guilt must be instilled within each individual to ensure a degree of social conformity to social norms. Why then was shame so preeminent in Judt’s psyche?
No culture relies solely on shame or guilt. Cultures use an admixture of both. A high degree of one versus the other allows one to characterize a culture as predominantly a shame or, alternatively, a guilt culture. But a culture can have high value placed on both individualism and community. This was true of the Jewish culture of the biblical period and contributes to its “schizophrenic” frenzy until today. It was both a shame and a guilt culture. Tony Judt was driven by a search for community in Zionism, in the kibbutz, in Cambridge University college life and in his intellectual devotion to social justice. In his behaviour and in his intellectual pursuits and writings, he was the consummate individual with an original voice. But in the value given to social order, a shared community was a prerequisite to enjoyment of public life. Guilt is expressed greatest if an individual like Tony Judt fails to grant adequate credit, recognition and acknowledgement to an Other. But shame becomes the main descriptor when social norms rather than individual achievements fail to be recognized. Tony Judt had very little sense of guilt, but was enormously sensitive to humiliation.
So Judt became the scourge of Zionism as the greatest expression of a guilt culture in today’s world. (I will deal with this theme separately in a discussion of the UN Human Rights Report on the Gaza War and the Israeli response.) He became, not an English, but an American Jew determined to turn the tables and humiliate both America and Israel as he also expunged any personal shame and became the widely admired brilliant writer, historian and critic. As an equal opportunity provider, he even had time to distribute the product of his poison pen on the English, the French and others. Only the Czechs get off, and that is because they were the vehicle for his rebirth and rejuvenation. The despiser of identity politics becomes its exemplar when applied to nations.
So why is shame such a vice and shaming others and humiliating them even worse? Because shamers undermine self-respect and respect for another. Shame can overwhelm you and shaming can drown you in a tsunami totally out of control. Enhancing anyone’s susceptibility to shame is not a good deed. Overwhelming someone with a cascade of shaming in an uncontrollable storm of public humiliation is definitely a bad thing. It is a virtue to stand before oneself and before others and be without shame. It is a vice and betrayal of oneself to allow oneself to be drowned in humiliation.
When someone’s actions bring disgrace and ignominy on themselves, they must face their guilt and be subjected to the condemnation of the law and or the moral code of a society applied to the specific offence, not a general abstract principle. Offending a specific law or lying in a specific situation, does not require shaming. Quite the reverse. Shaming inhibits anyone from coming face to face with one’s guilt, for facing one’s guilt requires enhancing one’s self-respect. A person should not be forced or induced to do something because he or she feels ashamed. If you feel afraid and cowardly, the answer is not feeling deep shame or having shame heaped upon you. The answer is getting in touch with the source of your courage. This is not achieved through a torrent of reproach.
It takes a great deal of effort to enhance and build up a culture of guilt. However, firestorms and tsunamis of humiliation can wreck havoc in a very short time, not just to the victim of shaming, but to the whole culture. We are all brought low by an expression of such self-indulgence. It is one thing to win. It is quite another to shame, mortify and humiliate those who do not, but especially those who do succeed but then reveal a fatal flaw. Putting others to shame is not the object of a contest. Encouragement of the highest achievements of all the players is.
If someone esteems shame, embarrassment, mortification and humiliation of another, if one takes secret pleasure in inducing a feeling of self-hatred and the pain that goes along with it, then one is causing harm and injury to the spirit of what it is to be human. Infliction of pain on another goes much deeper than a stab or a bullet wound. Because it plants a seed of self-contempt, a drop of poison that can expand and consume another’s soul.
It is easy to confuse an effort to make another face his or her guilt with subjecting another to humiliation. But the best clue that I know of in discriminating between the two is proportion. When the condemnation is totally disproportionate to any offence that might have been committed, then what we have is an exercise in witch hunting and not a moral or legal trial. If one is caught making a sexist comment or what appears to be a poor joke, the proportionate response is to check whether sexism lay behind the comment. If it does, then the person should be told directly and in person your response. If, however, one’s instigation sends a tidal way of condemnation and stripping of another from all honours and respect, and without checking whether there even was any behaviour to back up the charge that the man was a sexist, then it is clear that it is society that is disgracing itself and not the individual.
If a person is ostensibly caught telling a lie or deliberately misleading another, it is incumbent upon us first to check that it is really a lie deliberately intended to deceive, or whether the inability to be totally open stems from another source. And we do well if we ensure that we ourselves are not dissembling by dressing up our pursuit of humiliation in the name of a righteous cause like honesty, transparency and a respect for those who raised you.
Tomorrow: Part III of V – The Spectrum of Humiliation