Don’t tread on me

Galen Strawson

  • Humiliation and Other Essays on Honour, Social Discomfort and Violence by William Ian Miller
    Cornell, 270 pp, £20.95, December 1993, ISBN 0 8014 2881 5

Is it true that humiliation, shame and embarrassment are ‘the central emotions of everyday social existence’? It is not obviously false. To say that these emotions are central is not to say that they are the most often felt; their centrality may lie in the strength of our desire to avoid them. William Miller’s suggestion has a creeping plausibility – in the playground, among teenagers, among mid-life colleagues, in the retirement home. It has a serious claim to express a human universal, valid for all societies, with origins in the deep past of the species, and echoes in the social hierarchies of non-human primates. There is no doubt about the importance in human life of the negative emotions that are specially (although not unbreakably) connected to awareness of how the self appears to others. The problem starts early: one-year-olds have a startling capacity for self-consciousness; their grasp of what it is to lose face or feel foolish is striking for seeming, but not being, precocious.

Humiliation, shame and embarrassment interact in complicated ways. They interact differently with honour, pride and guilt. They connect differently with comedy and tragedy, with feeling crestfallen, fatuous, dismayed, mortified, deflated and degraded; with anger and modesty, indignation and ignominy, with respect, remorse, resentment, reputation, sorrow, schadenfreude and self-esteem. It is possible to describe these connections one by one, but it is slow going. Each claim obliges you to stop and think whether or not it is true, or true without exception. It is very difficult to systematise such claims, or to achieve a sense of command, either in a strong form (a synoptic view of the whole territory) or in a weaker form (a sure sense of where you are).

Nevertheless, shame, humiliation and embarrassment have common borders in the great maze of moral psychology, and in a discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Miller makes a good case for the claim that the word ‘shame’ once covered much of the ground now parcelled out between ‘embarrassment’ and ‘humiliation’, words that have evolved only recently into their current senses. He argues effectively against the view that the feelings were not fully available before the words were. The fact remains that ‘shame’ was once a very general word, and that ‘humiliation’ and ‘embarrassment’ have since differentiated themselves. Chaucer’s Troilus (‘he wex a litel reed for shame’) and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (‘Sit Coriolanus; never shame to hear what you have nobly done’) felt shame when praised, but we now call that embarrassment. The words run into each other in ordinary use, but distinctions can still be made. Thus embarrassment connects more easily than shame or humiliation with inappropriate clothes, wearing the same dress as one’s hostess, bra failure, open flies, loud stomach noises, wayward snot, involuntary farts and (in some cases) reading this sentence. As a response to public awkwardness or inappropriateness, it is not an essentially self-regarding emotion, unlike shame or humiliation. You can be embarrassed by X’s embarrassment even if X has no close connection with you; you cannot be similarly shamed or humiliated by X’s shame or humiliation.

Again, in societies where a clear distinction can be made between codes of manners and codes of morals, embarrassment has more to do with breaches of the former, shame with breaches of the latter. Past embarrassments, even when acute, can furnish funny stories to tell against yourself. Past shames or humiliations do not – although both these words have lighter, even comic uses: ‘humiliation’ is now used grossly in newspapers almost every time one sports team beats another. It is fear of embarrassment, not of shame or humiliation, that inhibits some people from giving up their seat in a crowded train, or from helping someone in distress in public. Some find selfishness a puny motive in comparison with shyness or embarrassment. (A helping gesture embarrassingly calls attention to you. It is embarrassingly interpretable as an implicit criticism of others who have failed to act and – even worse – as a public claim to moral goodness.) The phrase ‘crippling embarrassment’ is often accurate. The distinction between ‘shame cultures’ and ‘guilt cultures’ has its uses, but many of us today live in neither. We live in an embarrassment culture, and Rom Harré has recently suggested that ‘shame is everywhere giving place to embarrassment as the major affective instrument of [social] conformity.’

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