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.’

Embarrassment is perhaps the most theoretically tractable of the three emotions, followed by shame, which has been the object of extensive academic examination: not only by anthropologists of present-day societies, but also by historians, philosophers and literary critics interested in the ‘heroic societies’ or ‘honour cultures’ described in Homer and the Greek tragedies, or in the medieval Icelandic sagas that Miller, a professor of law, has made an object of special study. Humiliation is harder, and has received much less attention. Miller’s discussion of it seems much more curious and disputable than his discussion of shame and embarrassment.

He is clearly right to begin by distinguishing the state of humiliation from the feeling. The two often go together, but can come apart: on the one hand, you can feel humiliated without actually being humiliated (you may be oversensitive, ignorant of local standards, masochistically self-absorbed). On the other hand, you can be judged to have been humiliated without feeling it (you may be insensitive, may reject local standards, may know that the people who judge you to have been humiliated don’t know the facts and you may care little for their opinion). The causes of humiliation also need distinguishing. Someone can intend to humiliate you, or do it inadvertently. You can be or feel humiliated by something you have done (e.g. a mistake you have made) or by your ignorance. You can even feel humiliated by something that just happens.

These are relatively uncontroversial preliminaries, but Miller has stranger views. 1. ‘Humiliation cannot be avoided.’ 2. It ‘inheres in every nook and cranny of the normal’. 3. ‘Humiliation (or the fear of it) is perhaps the key emotion that supports our self-esteem and self-respect.’ 4. ‘Humiliation’s genre is the comic’; ‘the defining substance of the humiliating’ is the grotesque, and the ‘dark comic world’ which contains such things as the medieval Icelandic ritual of corpse dismemberment. 5. If an apology does not appear to the wronged person or third parties to be somewhat humiliating for the apologiser, ‘then it isn’t one and it would be utterly ineffective in accomplishing the remedial work it is supposed to do.’

None of these statements seems true. As for 1. there are lives in which humiliation is a rare or unknown occurrence, and in which fear of humiliation is not a major consideration. As for 2. there are many areas of normal life where humiliation is not a serious threat, and some less normal areas where it is impossible. (It is impossible in the case of sexual love, for example, though not in the case of sex. Sadomasochistic sexual love is no exception.) As for 3. fear of humiliation cannot be a support for self-respect or self-esteem. Your putative self-respect wouldn’t really be self-respect in such a case, and it could hardly survive the realisation that fear of humiliation was its keystone.

There is something interesting in the idea (4) that humiliation is always less than tragic; but it seems wrong to tie it specifically to the comic. The ruthless public deflation of legitimate but over-ambitious aspirations is not comic. Coerced nakedness is not comic. Malvolio is comic, but his comedy ends where his real humiliation begins. In advancing his comedy thesis, Miller includes some necessary provisos about the humiliations of extermination camps and torture rooms, but even then the thesis seems perverse. His fondness for it may be partly explained by the fact that he links comedy with something entirely distinct from it – schadenfreude – and then supposes, reasonably, that humiliation is a rich source of the latter.

As for 5. it is also wrong. There is a big difference between apologising for something you did intentionally and apologising for failing to do something because you forgot to do it. In the case of forgetfulness, it is obvious that apology may be heartfelt and unconditional without any trace of humiliation. It may be less obvious in the case of intentional action, but it is still true. My own sense is that apology is devalued, and its ‘remedial work’ weakened or voided, by any appearance of humiliation on the part of the apologiser. You don’t have to agree with this, however, to grant that humiliation is no part of the essence of apology.

Finally, according to Miller, ‘humiliation is the emotion we feel when our pretensions are discovered.’ Again, this is too narrow. You can feel silly or foolish without feeling humiliated, and if this claim were true it would raise further serious problems for the claim that humiliation is unavoidable and ubiquitous. It’s true that humiliation is connected with presumption and pretension in a way that shame is not. But some people are very unpretentious. They have a very good idea of what they can and can’t do, and are ready to be wrong.

In general, Miller’s view of life seems too bound up with the ‘honour culture’ of ‘saga Iceland’, in which ‘at root honour means “don’t tread on me,” ’ and is ‘above all the keen sensitivity to the experience of humiliation and shame’ – together with a readiness to avenge anything perceived as an affront. Such a view of honour is remarkably impoverished, even if it is historically accurate. Honour is subtle. There are times when it requires something more difficult than retaliation – it requires inaction and silence. It seems particularly perverse to connect it above all with sensitivity to the experience of humiliation. I have no doubt that honourable (and passionate) people may go through life without ever really experiencing the feeling of humiliation – as opposed, say, to feeling angry, hurt or silly.

Is this impossible? Miller is ambivalent. He reports Richard Rorty’s view that there is, in spite of all the supposedly unfathomable differences between cultures, at least one social-psychological universal: ‘the humiliatability of human kind’. At the same time, he writes of those who are ‘unhumiliatable’, judging them to be ‘unenviable souls of whom it could be said’ – with Bob Dylan – that “when you got nothing you got nothing to lose.”’ This is wildy inadequate, but Miller is right to say that sheer stupidity or insensitivity, as well as material and spiritual destitution, may protect against humiliation.

Are there more positive forms of immunity? It seems that humility ought to be a good preemptor of humiliation: but the word ‘humility’ is tainted by soggy-Christian employment and difficult to use, and Miller is very suspicious of this suggestion, arguing more than once that ‘the strategy of being humble often leads to pride in one’s humility.’ This mis-states the point, because genuine humility can’t be a strategy. Nor can it be a source of pride – whether pride is understood as a virtue or a vice. But it is clear enough what he means, and he indicates a real danger.

Miller is generally suspicious, and suspicion is always sensible in these matters. But you also need to be suspicious of your suspicion, and Miller seems insufficiently aware of this: his methodological misanthropy goes deep. It does not prevent him from conceding, eventually, that there are ‘genuinely humble people’ who have a ‘near airtight defence against being humiliated and, for the most part, against feeling humiliated too’; but it spoils his description of them. Such people, he says, are ‘decent, patient, strong, even tough’. If they are self-aware they are ‘rather limitedly so. They pretend to nothing that they do not have and they genuinely do seem to possess a modest way of self-presentation which does not have the least air of the strategic about it.’ This is an attempt at balance, but it is grudging and wayward. It is simply not true that patience is necessary for humility, or for unhumiliatability; nor is limited self-awareness. Such mistakes are very revealing. Miller has little feeling for the idea that there are positive forms of immunity to humiliation.

Putting humility aside, his description of the humiliation-resistant can be continued in other terms. Thus it helps (as he says) if you are not predisposed by temperament to fear humiliation (this can be, first a cause of humiliation-resistance, and then an effect). It helps if you possess an accurate sense of your limits and abilities (a certain amount of underestimation does no harm). It helps, again, if you are deeply unoffendable; but even those who are ordinarily offendable may feel angry or hurt rather than humiliated, in situations Miller regards as paradigmatically humiliating.

It also helps, no doubt, if you are tolerant, kind, aware of the difficulties of human life, well equipped with the ego-suppressing moral virtues of realism and imagination. But it may be just as good if you simply don’t care very much about what other people think (a virtue in combination with some characteristics, a vice in combination with others).

There are other powerful sources of humiliation-resistance. Some human beings are profoundly uninterested in the business of hierarchy and public status that defines the life of others. Some are absorbed in their work or their god. Some find that gratuitous insults simply rebound in the face of their perpetrators. There is a way of accepting yourself that is a moral achievement, involves no trace of self-indulgence, and undermines susceptibility to feelings of humiliation. It is arguable that the feeling of humiliation is never an appropriate response to a situation, however natural it is. Generally, there is a whole group of traits of character that can, mixed in varying proportions with each other and with all sorts of other talents and failures, lift people partly or wholly out of Miller’s humiliation-world, and in a positive way.

Why does Miller go wrong? Probably because he generalises too quickly from his own case. He may make the same mistake that many people make when they generalise about sex. Their sexual experience has a feeling of fundamentality which convinces them that the way it is for them must also be the way it is for others (of the same sex). This is a wonderful source of error. Obviously there are important commonalities of experience, when it comes to sex or humiliation. But they are much harder to express than many happy theorists suppose. Here as elsewhere, there isn’t any single basic human experience.

Instead, there are large and interesting generalisations that require delicacy and qualification, tolerance of the sort of complexity that spoils sweeping theory. More generally, there isn’t some single human type of moral personality, even within a single culture, but a number of basic and profoundly different types. This is of great importance in moral philosophy and in life. (It raises some of the same problems that pluralism raises in the domain of political theory. Thus some varieties of moral personality are intrinsically tolerant, and are therefore tolerant of other intolerant varieties in a way that is not reciprocated.)

Millerians have a final sceptical defence. If I claim to be unfamiliar with the feeling of humiliation, that may be because I am ‘gendered as masculine’. Humiliation, by contrast, ‘is ... richly gendered as feminine’. One year Miller ran a legal anthropology seminar on ‘Violence’; the following year he moved on to ‘Humiliation’. In the first seminar there were two men for every woman, in the second, six women for every man. ‘Even before the seminar met,’ he writes, ‘I had gotten as useful a piece of information out of it as I could have hoped for. Women can admit to an interest in humiliation without loss of face. Men suspect that they can only lose face.’ They will ‘type themselves feminine if they admit to being humiliated’, and as ‘immoral ... if they admit to humiliating’.

Having made this suggestion, Miller quickly distances himself from the fringe-feminist belief that (standard heterosexual) sexual intercourse ‘can only humiliate women in the eyes of men and often in their own eyes as well’. But he then produces some equally weird views of his own, arguing that ‘courtship and humiliating oneself seem to be intimately associated,’ and that men ‘find it nearly impossible to avoid looking foolish to the women who finally accept them’. Here he goes right off the wall, and he does not distance himself from the view that he attributes to Dostoevskyan ‘underground man’, according to which ‘humiliation (of males) is a necessary condition to the reproduction of the human species.’ He predicts that these claims will annoy, but not that they will raise doubts about his stability.

Formally speaking, Miller’s position is indefeasible. Faced with those who deny the ‘humiliation in every nook and cranny’ thesis, he can classify them off the court: as mired in self-deception that is ‘typed masculine’, as humble but lacking in self-awareness, as stupid, insentient, boorish or complacent. But indefeasibility is a crippling defect in a theory, as Miller knows, and he faces the challenge that he, too, is mired in self-deception: that he has succumbed to theoretical hyperinflation, that he has been beguiled by his cynical heuristic, that he is too quick and narrow in his extrapolation from his own embattled ‘ordinary everydayness’. (‘In one view, how we go about avoiding humiliation is us, is our very character.’) His dampening attitude to excessive claims of intercultural incommensurability is good: but he is perhaps too confident of sameness within a culture. The most interesting human differences are the deep ones that exist between members of a single culture, rather than those between different cultures.

Above all, Miller needs to think harder about positive forms of immunity to humiliation. It would be good if he did, because Humiliation and Other Essays on Honour, Social Discomfort and Violence is a worthwhile book. It is consistently interesting. Its principal claim is not easily refuted. It is quite hard going, but for three good reasons: it is adventurous, it discusses some difficult questions, and it does so with intensity and intermittent subtlety.