Evelin Lindner, Mature responses to terror and humiliation

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Mature differentiation as response
to terrorism and humilitation:
Refrain from the language of
'war' and 'evil'



Evelin Lindner, TFF Associate*

Founder of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, HumanDHS


September 22, 2005

The 2005 bombs in London shook the world. They reminded everybody of the Madrid bombings of 11th March 2004, or of what has become known as 'Nine Eleven,' to name only two of the tragedies that currently unsettle the world. Innocent civilians live in fear - not only is the West, also in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, in African countries and other world regions.

In many cases, the West is the "addressee" and we have perpetrators acting as ultimate humiliators of the Western world. Taking down the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, proud symbols of Western power, was a cruel "message of humiliation." Paralysing world hubs such as London and Madrid is another "message of humiliation."

Humiliation has to do with "putting down." The word humiliation has at its core "humus," which means "earth" in Latin. Indeed, the Twin Towers were taken down to the level of the ground, into the dust of the earth. Whatever these towers stood for was cruelly "debased" and "denigrated." And terrorising large cities, Madrid, or London, certainly "takes down" their pride. Debasement, denigration, these words have the prefix "de-," which signifies "down from" in Latin, down from a great height to the ground. Thousands of innocent victims had to pay with their lives for a "message of humiliation" that was "sent" to the mighty masters of today's world in the act of "taking down" their pride.

The response from the targeted victims is "war on terror." In other words, the victims of terror, in New York, Madrid and London, are sending a message back to those who perpetrated this mayhem. It is the message that the victims do not intend to succumb to this humiliation, on the contrary, that they are set on resisting it with proud resilience.

In this situation many ask, "How come that we find ourselves enveloped in violence, war, and terror, or at least in apprehension and fear of it, even though the only thing we yearn for is peace?"


What drives terrorists?

Initially, scholars and experts identified the "Realpolitik" of conflicts of interest (as to natural resources, for example), others deprivation as the main causes of violent conflict. Deprivation may be caused by poverty, for example, or low status or alienation and marginalisation. The argument as to deprivation goes as follows: deprivation represents a "grievance" that leads to "resentment" and "embitterment," and finally to a "backlash."

Nowadays, this line of thought must be refined. Clearly, many "terrorists" are neither poor nor destitute nor lacking a potentially bright future. Why are they choosing death and mayhem?

Poverty, low status, alienation and marginalisation do not automatically elicit feelings of yearnings for retaliation. A religious person may join a monastery and be proud of poverty, low status may be explained as nature's order or God's will, and even marginalisation and alienation may be the basis for pride; not all minorities feel oppressed. Furthermore, poverty may motivate a person to work hard in order to get out of it, parents may sacrifice to enable their children to have an education and a better life, and every small incremental step towards a better quality of life may be celebrated. Finally, we all know that conflict, conflict of interest for example, even if at hand, is not necessarily destructive - even the most severe scarcity can lead to mutually enriching sharing. When handled well, with mutual cooperation, any conflict may lead to personal growth and new creativity, only when managed badly, it brings pain.

The question must be: What is it that creates unbearable suffering of a kind that triggers the urge to retaliate with violence? Is not the probability high that grievances breed depression and apathy, rather than highly organised terror? Thus the question becomes even more complicated: Firstly, what kind of suffering is required for an urge for violent retaliation to develop, and secondly, under which conditions is this retaliation carried out in an organised way?

Feelings of humiliation, is our answer to the first part of the question. Feelings of debasement may lead to acts of humiliation perpetrated on the perceived humiliator, setting off cycles of humiliation in which everybody who is involved feels denigrated and is convinced that humiliating the humiliator is a just and holy duty. As to the second part of the question, we would suggest that leaders are required that channel the sufferings of masses into one single joint project of retaliation. Hitler is not the only master narrator of stories of humiliation that - as he argued in the 1930s - had to be resisted and prevented in a highly organised joint effort. Hitler incited the entire German population to undo the disgrace that Germany had suffered after World War I through the Treaties of Versailles. Not enough, he also engaged Germany in "preventive" extermination of the World-Jewry that he feared was set to dominate and debase the globe in the future, if not stopped. Undoing past humiliation and preventing future humiliation, these were justifications for unspeakable atrocities in Hitler Germany, in Rwanda (1994 genocide), and other mayhem.

Humiliation entails some aspects that are universal and others that depend on cultural-social contexts and on the intentions of the involved parties. In everyday language, the word humiliation is used threefold. Firstly, the word humiliation signifies an act, secondly a feeling, and thirdly, a process: 'I humiliate you, you feel humiliated, and the entire process is one of humiliation.' (In this text it is expected that the reader understands from the context which alternative is the one applied at a given point, since otherwise the language would become too convoluted.)


How do feelings of humiliation come about?

How do feelings of humiliation come about? Based on many years of research on this phenomenon (see www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/evelin.php), I would suggest the following explanation: Feelings of humiliation come about when deprivation (real or imagined) is perceived as an illegitimate imposition of lowering or degradation, one that cannot be explained in constructive terms. All human beings basically yearn for recognition and respect. It is when people perceive that recognition and respect are withdrawn or denied that they may feel humiliated, and this is the strongest force that creates rifts between people and breaks down relationships. Whether this withdrawal of recognition is real or the result of misunderstandings, still, the perceiver is prone to feel humiliated, whether he or she is rich or poor, marginalised or not.

There is a significant literature in philosophy on the politics of recognition and ressentiment. Identity politics is motivated by a deep human need for recognition, with injurious effects of various forms of misrecognition.

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, states, "If I've learned one thing covering world affairs, it's this: The single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation" (New York Times, November 9, 2003).

Aaron Lazare (2004) writes: "I believe that humiliation is one of the most important emotions we must understand and manage, both in ourselves and in others, and on an individual and national level" (Aaron Lazare, 2004, On Apology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 262-263).

Vamik Volkan (2004) has developed a theory of collective violence, which he puts forth in his recent book Blind Trust: Large groups and their leaders in times of crisis and terror. He explains that when a chosen trauma that is experienced as humiliation is not mourned, it may lead to the feeling of entitlement to revenge and, under the pressure of fear/anxiety, to collective regression (Vamik Volkan, 2004, Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing).

To conclude this point, we suggest that the desire for recognition unites human beings, that it is universal and can serve as a platform for contact and cooperation. Consequently, many of the rifts that we can observe stem from an equally universal phenomenon, namely the humiliation that is felt when recognition and respect is perceived as lacking. We do not therefore believe that ethnic, religious, cultural differences or conflicts of interests create rifts by themselves; on the contrary, conflicts of interest can best be solved through cooperation, and diversity can be a source of mutual enrichment - however, cooperation and diversity are possible and enriching only as long as they are embedded within relationships that are characterised by respect. It is when respect and recognition are failing, that those who feel victimised are prone to highlight differences in order to "justify" rifts that were caused, not by these differences, but by something else, namely by humiliation.


Secondary gains can keep cycles of humiliation in motion

And as soon as cycles of humiliation are in motion, they render "secondary gains" that keep them going. The philosopher Avishai Margalit (2002) highlights the significance of the memory of humiliation and suggests that some people may become attached - almost addicted - to this emotion, as this secures the "benefits" of the victim status and an entitlement for retaliation (Avishai Margalit, 2002, The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Jennifer S. Goldman and Peter T. Coleman (2005), posit that a humiliated person might feel morally justified to act aggressively against others: "To give up the status as a humiliated person would mean that the aggression would no longer be morally justified, and no further pleasure or catharsis could be derived from it. It would also mean having to face the reality of one's own perpetration, and one's own responsibility for the other's pain" (Jennifer S. Goldman and Peter T. Coleman, 2005, How Humiliation Fuels Intractable Conflict: The Effects of Emotional Roles on Recall and Reactions to Conflictual Encounters. New York, NY: International Center for Cooperation & Conflict Resolution, Teachers College, Columbia University, pp. 15-16).


The larger context

Cycles of humiliation are affected by historical and cultural changes that frame conflict and emotions in profoundly new ways. The two strongest forces undermining old ways at the current historical juncture are the increasing intercultural interconnectedness of the world (or globalisation) and the human rights revolution (or egalisation, term coined by Lindner). Lindner defines egalisation as the implementation of the ideal of equal dignity for all, including equal opportunities. If we imagine the world as a container with a height and a width, globalisation addresses the horizontal dimension, the shrinking of the world, the shrinking of the diameter. Egalisation concerns the vertical dimension. Egalisation is a process away from a very high power distance of masters at the top and underlings at the bottom, towards a flatter "container" with everybody enjoying equal dignity. Egalisation is a process that elicits hot feelings of humiliation when it is promised but fails.

Nowadays, we no longer make people accept explanations for inequality and deprivation that allude to God's will, or to nature's order, or to punishment for past failings. We live in a world that is permeated by the promise of human rights that indicates that every human being has a right to live in enabling circumstances, that egality is the ruling idea and not hierarchy, that every person has an inner core of dignity that ought not be lowered. International experience indicates that this message indeed is heard.

However, it has not, at least not in the short term, had the effect that many human rights advocates hope for, namely to decrease suffering around the world. On the contrary, in the first instance, it augments feelings of debasement, because inequalities and deprivation that were accepted before turn into unacceptable acts of humiliation perpetrated by the powerful on the less powerful. The promise of human rights, the promise of equal dignity for all, if unfulfilled, creates an expectation gap that can translate into wounds of humiliation if it is being perceived to be inflicted by perpetrators, either intentionally or through negligence. And, as mentioned already, acts of debasement create feelings of humiliation that in turn have a potential to lead to retaliating acts of debasement.

Terror attacks indicates - at least to our understanding - that the entire world community is caught in cycles of humiliation. Men such as Osama bin Laden would never have any followers, if there were not a pool of sullen feelings of humiliation somewhere, feelings that are so intense that young intelligent men, who could found families and have satisfying careers, are willing to follow such leaders and lose their lives in destroying other lives.

The example of Nelson Mandela shows alternative ways out of feelings of debasement, towards constructive social change rather than turning the cycle of humiliation another turn by retaliating with acts of debasement as response for feeling debased. Nelson Mandela shows that there is no automatic link between feeling humiliated and retaliating with acts of humiliation. Mandela shows that wounds from debasement cannot serve as a "justification" or "excuse" for mayhem. Mandela's example proves that strong constructive leadership is what remedies the agony that emanates from being forced into indignity, not inflicting wounds in return. Thus, studying the dynamics of humiliation in no way lends itself to condoning mayhem. On the contrary. Mandela is immeasurable proof.

Gandhi disliked the words and ideas of "passive resistance." The term Satyagraha (non-violent action), is a combination of satya (truth-love) and agraha (firmness/force). Satyagraha precisely encapsulates the intertwining of coercion with respect. Equally, studying the phenomenon of humiliation does not amount to "soft" sympathy for perpetrators of mayhem. Quite the opposite. Human dignity is only safeguarded by differentiation. Understanding does not automatically mean condoning, listening does not necessarily mean agreeing, and reaching out for dialogue has nothing to do with appeasement. The world needs Nelson Mandelas who are capable of mature differentiation that is both inclusive-respectful and tough.


A case study

How is humiliation played out? Here is a case study.

Julius Paltiel, a Norwegian Jew, was imprisoned in the "SS Strafgefangenenlager Falstad" during World War II. Falstad is situated in the midst of a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, in the middle of Norway, not far away from Trondheim (something like the latitude of Anchorage, albeit much milder, because of the Gulf Stream). Falstad is a large building almost forlorn in this lovely nature, wrapped around a rectangular courtyard; it was once a special school for handicapped boys. However, in 1941, it was taken over by the German occupying power and turned into the "SS Strafgefangenenlager Falstad," a detention camp for political prisoners. I met Julius Paltiel in October 2002. He lived through a deeply gripping and thought-provoking episode that I would like to narrate to you here.

Once, one of the prisoners was asked to sing. SS officers and prisoners, including Julius Paltiel himself, stood in the courtyard, listening. The prisoner who was to sing was very knowledgeable and had an extremely beautiful voice. He was able to recite several deeply reflective songs from the German cultural heritage, in German. He sang these songs so wonderfully and touchingly that the SS officers were taken in to a degree that they stood still and listened in silence; in complete silence. Julius Paltiel explained that this had never happened before; the SS officers never used to be silent, on the contrary, they continuously shouted insults and orders.

After about a quarter of an hour of beautiful sounds filling the air, a dog began to howl, trying to "accompany" the song. This "woke up" the SS officers. They immediately set out to "cover up" for their vulnerability with an excess of humiliation. They ordered the prisoners to go to the tree in the middle of the courtyard and shake off its leaves; it was autumn. Then they ordered the prisoners to lie down on their stomachs and crawl to the leaves, take them up one by one with their mouths and bring them to one of the corners of the courtyard, all this while dragging themselves ahead on their stomachs. Thus the prisoners had to lie on the ground and use their mouths to "clean" the courtyard from the leaves that they first had been ordered to shake off the tree!

It seems fair to say that the beautiful songs and their touching appeal had undermined the hierarchy of "Übermensch" und "Untermensch" that the SS officers otherwise attempted to maintain. In their minds they were not "supposed" to feel and be touched in the same way as other people. Being merely human beings among other human beings, this was not their world; they believed to be "higher" beings. However, the songs confronted them with a truth they did not want to know, namely that they, indeed, were mere human beings like anybody else, and no more. When they "woke up," they remembered the ideological frame they had subscribed to, namely a hierarchy of lesser and higher beings where they were supposed to occupy the seat of the master. Interestingly, they did not beat the prisoners "mindlessly" or treat them with mere physical brutality, no, they perpetrated a highly symbolic and intelligent "message" to both prisoners and themselves: they reinstated physically, mentally and emotionally the hierarchy of "Übermensch/Untermensch" by sending the prisoners literally "down," down to the ground and let them carry out "services" that were so "low" that there could be no doubt as to who was their master!

What do we learn from this story? We could conclude that the beauty of the songs performed by the prisoner elicited humility in the SS officers, at least for a few minutes, a humility that is at the core of the human rights message of equal dignity for every human being. Humiliation, on the contrary, characterises a world of inhuman inequalities and brutal rankings of human worth and value in "higher" and "lower" beings. It seems that humankind's current task is to avoid such rankings, and avoid cycles of humiliation where victims turn into humiliators.

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Concluding remarks - decency and the global village

What we learn is that we have to introduce humility - humble awareness of our shared humanity and our joint responsibility for sustaining our planet, socially and ecologically. We need to refrain from language of "war" and "evil." These labels might give us the feeling of control and pride over our own heroism. However, "war" needs to be won "against" "enemies," and "evil" calls for "extermination" and "flushing out." In an interdependent world - rather than rendering peace - this strategy risks fuelling ever new cycles of humiliation, because hearts and minds can only be won and not "flushed out."

Sharon Ellison (2003) asks us "to take the war out of our language" (Sharon Ellison, 2003, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing). We recommend the language of policing - rather than war - for those extremists who commit mayhem and a language of inclusion for the potentially moderate rest. Ralph Summy writes (in a personal message, 24th July 2005): "Your research [on humiliation] is very much needed in today's violence-prone world where a failure to empathise with THE OTHER, looking at a situation from the other's perspective without necessarily condoning it or the response, lies at the root of much of the violence problem."

Avishai Margalit (1996) wrote a book entitled The Decent Society, in which he calls for institutions that do not anymore humiliate citizens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Decency reigns when humiliation is being minimised, humiliation in relationships, but also humiliation inflicted by institutions. Decency rules when dignity for all is made possible. Decency does not mean that everybody should like everybody; decency is the minimum that is necessary to keep a neighbourhood functioning - coexisting without mayhem - even when neighbours dislike each other.

I wish to extend the call for decency from national to global levels. The vision of a decent global village is spelled out in detail in the United Nations Millennium Declaration of September 2000. As mentioned earlier, another relevant key term is sustainability, sustainability both ecological and social. However, on the way to a decent and sustainable global village, we have to be alert to dynamics of humiliation and heal and prevent them. Particularly the danger emanating from the current lack of egalisation must be taken seriously. Lagging egalisation threatens to fuel feelings of humiliation, and feelings of humiliation in turn entail the potential to lead to violence.

This danger has to be heeded, since feelings of humiliation represent the "nuclear bomb of the emotions" (term coined by Lindner). Former masters must learn new humility and former underlings develop new self-empowerment so that all can cooperate as equally dignified players of a global team. And all have to learn the mature handling of conflict, in the spirit of Mandela's ability of differentiation. Even the gravest humiliation does not have to lead to mayhem; we can jointly foster constructive change.

All, the international community, its men and its women, carry a particular responsibility in the current transition period. People who are caught in cycles of humiliation may not be able to exit from them on their own; they need the support and sometimes even pressure from outside. The international community, if they wish to extinguish local fires that might inflame the globe, need to take up this responsibility. The international community has to learn from people like Nelson Mandela and M. K. Gandhi - and several others - how to stand up and not stand by. Humiliation should best be avoided and prevented, however, even if present, it can be translated into beneficial social transformation. Fuelling cycles of humiliation-for-humiliation does not lead to peace and justice.

To conclude, therefore, we call for a world-wide Moratorium on Humiliation in order to facilitate the building of a decent global village.


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© TFF & the author 2005  

* Evelin Gerda Lindner, M.D., Ph.D. (Dr. med.), Ph.D. (Dr. psychol.) Social scientist, founding manager of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) and anchored at the Columbia University Conflict Resolution Network, New York. Furthermore affiliated to the University of Oslo, Department of Psychology. Senior Lecturer at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Department of Psychology and affiliated to the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris.  


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