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Dignity, Humiliation and Changing the World

humandhslogo.jpgOpen up a typical political science textbook, and you'll see many potential drivers for conflict: contested resources; ideological differences; fears about security; lust for power. What you're unlikely to see is the inclusion of "humiliation." Yet, as we've witnessed in Europe over the last week or so, the belief that one's dignity has been insulted in a way that implies that an individual or group is unworthy of respect can be a powerful catalyst for unrest, anger and violence. Humiliation is an incredibly intense emotion, yet the differences between how different societies and cultures perceive it seem to be poorly understood -- and this lack of understanding can have tragic consequences.

An NGO calling itself Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) seeks to change that. A global network of scholars and social practitioners, HumanDHS is...

...committed to reducing - and ultimately help eliminating - destructive disrespect and humiliating practices all over the world. Our work is inspired by universal values such as humility, mutual respect, caring and compassion, and a sense of shared planetary rights and responsibilities.

Hard-nosed realist types may dismiss this language as fluffy goodness, but HumanDHS recognizes that the emotional manifestation of culture can lead to a starker division between societies than any ideological conflict. Put simply, issues around ideology largely concern our sense of the world around us; issues around dignity and humiliation concern our sense of how we are treated by that world.

The work of HumanDHS, at present, consists of both academic research and an attempt to promote global "intervention" projects related to issues of dignity and humiliation. Of the two, the research side is more fully developed, and numerous reports and scholarly papers are available for download. HumanDHS has a variety of ongoing research projects underway, covering topics such as "Terrorism & Humiliation: Why People Choose Terrorism" and "Refugees & Humiliation: How Dignity is Degraded When You Are a Refugee, or a Displaced or Stateless Person."

At present, HumanDHS seems primarily focused upon describing and analyzing issues of dignity and humiliation, and has little material on how to apply this information. That's both understandable and unfortunate. As an academic discipline, work on humiliation appears to be still working out formal definitions and models, and any attempt to turn the studies into rulesets for diplomats or humanitarian workers is likely to be more anecdotal than systematic.

Nonetheless, it's clear to me that the concept of using humiliation and dignity as a prism through which to examine global conflicts is potentially quite valuable. 20th century models of state behavior are hard to apply to the actions of "global guerillas," "political smart mobs," and the "second superpower." Analysis based on concepts of how individuals perceive their power and position in global culture may have greater success.


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Comments (12)

I don't think this is fluffy goodness, I can definitely see how being humiliated can cause anger, and an intense desire to get even with whoever humilated you. However, do you think in the case of the cartoon that people are feeling like they are humiliated, or that they believe that it is their religious duty to seek revenge on anyone who would mock their God in such a way?

I whole-heartedly agree that humiliation is a huge force behind the anger that drives our many cultural divides. However, I don't think it's practical to have a world without it. Humiliation and anger are symptoms of a cultural divide that not only drives violence but also the most world-changing, peaceful revolutions in consciousness that this world has ever seen (eg. India's independence and the us civil rights movement). Think about it, cultural diversity and differences in value systems are always going to cause humiliation and anger whether it's intended to or not. People will always disagree and this is a "good thing". This tension is often what generates genuine debate, forces the social structure to it's turning point and allows for true cultural change.

Eliminating all potential humiliation essentially amounts to eliminating free speech since there will never be universal cultural harmony. Nor should there be... cultural diversity is one of our greatest resources. Maybe what we need is a framework to redirect humiliation and anger to more peaceful, non-violent methods.

Zaid Hassan:

Jamais, I would suggest that you're wrong in that what happened in Europe re the Cartoons was about humiliation. It was not. It was about being insulted and disrespected.

In contrast, people are humiliated when something one does not like about oneself, some truth that we wishe to keep secret is bought to light.

A tangent but India's independence was not a peaceful revolution. It resulted in the loss of some million lives.


You know, I acknowledge that humiliation is a powerful social force and that we increasingly live in a single world society, but I find the notion of eliminating humiliation absurd. How can they decide what's humiliation and what's not? The idea that these people are somehow experts on humiliation is equally absurd. Humiliation is a feeling, usually irrational and primitive. This just demonstrates that pc hasn't gone all the way the way of the dodo, alas.

The major problem is that Islam has embedded it a historical memory of when it was top dog and it formally employed humiliation against its subject dhimmi people. There are all sorts of traditional humiliations employed, one of which is an asymmetric respect for religion. Christianity/Judaism is relatively protected but Islam is supremely respected. Conversions flow one way only and churches may not be taller than mosques, taxation is at least in part based on your faith, and certain behavioral restrictions on dress and activity were enforced.

In a discussion on humiliation and human dignity involving Islam, ignoring this aspect of the problem dooms things to failure.


Sadly, this kind of research has to compete with so many "hard" discourses that it will take a very long time before the sensitivity bears any effect on people in power or on society at large.
It took anthropology and ethnography a century before its approaches towards engaging with others were appreciated by policy makers and society.

The problem is that trying to understand 'humiliation' as well as other (subconscious) and social emotions, cross-culturally, is a 'deep' science, requiring an ongoing interpretive, ethnographic approach. It doesn't fit well in a technocratic, results-based, competition-driven, capitalist world.

Let's not forget that e.g. NGO's are now entirely caught up in a technocratic universe as well. In most of them, there is no room for any deep criticism or for any interpretive, slow, in depth insights. Everything must be measurable, accountable, 'empowerable', and statistically representable.

Real cultural and social knowledge has become one of the biggest taboos of our times. It is the priviledge of a few academics and intellectuals - and they're getting more scarce every day, while they should be getting more attention than ever before.

I don't have high hopes for increasing our cross-cultural understandings and knowledge, this century.

Zaid, the definition of humiliation used by HumanDHS has a great deal of overlap with the concept of "disrespect." I don't think that humiliation necessarily needs to be the revelation of a hidden truth.

Zaid Hassan:

From what I understand about the word (and what my dictionary tells me) the word humiliation has to do with a person feeling ashamed or foolish. I don't think any Muslims are feeling ashamed or foolish. They're feeling angry.


At the risk of falling into the "clash of civilizations" trap, I'd suggest that the eurocartoon flap is best described as a conflict of blasphemies--of insults to sacred things.

Blasphemy 1 (the obvious one) is the portrayals of Muhammad--blasphemous either because of the disrespect or even blasphemous because it is forbidden to show him in any images at all.

Blasphemy 2 (the one I'm not hearing described explicitly) is the attack on free speech by those offended by Blasphemy 1. The explicit rule set in the west is that we tolerate Blasphemy 1 events in deference to this sacred thing called free speech. The old saw often credited to Voltaire: I disagree with what you say but will defend with my life your right to say it.

By contrast, there are places where blasphemy is not tolerated at all. Some of these people are now your neighbors. Wave hello to the barbarians and outlanders amongst you.

These two oxen have a fair amount of energy and are unlikely to get tired soon. The nature of religion in the west is that we make room for blasphemers and in return expect them to make room for us. Even when they publish their blasphemy. No smiting the blasphemers, please! Let alone beheading!

At the same time, we have implicit rules about picking fights with care. Were the cartoonists careful about the fight they started? I daresay if they'd foreseen the dustup that they might have put their pens away. Or, to amend Voltaire with Ice T: Freedom of Speech, but watch what you say.

You watch what you say when you are the down-dog (there's all that smiting to be avoided) and when you take into consideration the humiliation you will cause--being a good neighbor. Sometimes you need to humiliate someone. Sometimes it can't be avoided and it is a good thing. Consider Alabama in 1962: there's a time and place that needed some humiliating and it got it.


The fact is this is the start of a new row between europe and the middle east. One VERY long in the works and one that has to happen NOW.

All you do by talking things down is delay and delay means greater weapons oF destruction WHEN IT DOES COME.

As I told some friends ww3 wont involve the us and it wont involve russia. It will involve asia europe and the middle east.

As someone I ferget who said when extreemeists attack america its about money when they attack euopeans its about blood.

One of the most intelligent questions I ever heard was asked by a friend:

"What do I need to know about you to do a better job relating to you?"

That question comes from a very different place than declaring or asserting things to be true or false, black or white, I'm-telling-you-it's-going-to-be-like-this, and so on.

It's hard for humiliation and reverence to coexist. It's easy for humiliation and dogma, religious or secular, to coexist.

My friend's question came from reverence. It's as real as any physics, and at least as necessary to a sustainable world.


Wow, this is actually quite cool. Did you know that the International Red Cross sees itself not only as the protectors of the lives and safety of non-combatants in times of war, but also as the protector of their dignity? That's because they believe that human dignity is as fundamental a right as the right to life and humane treatment for non-combattants. "Protecting Human Dignity" was even the theme of their conference a couple years ago (see: http://www.icrc.org/eng/conf28).

All of which is to say, academic study of this topic, if done well, could be highly valuable -- both in raising awareness of dignity as something to value and safeguard and, hopefully, in generating material learnings about how to foster the respect of others in a way that increases dignity and diminishes people's need to humiliate one another.

I agree with Lorenzo that these will be "soft sciences", and he's probably right that it will take a long time before their approaches get integrated into society at large. But who knows, perhaps with the communications technologies we have today (as opposed to 100 years ago), maybe it will disseminate a lot faster. After all, look how fast we learned about it.


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