AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
A major cause of socio-political violence is the social process of humiliation, whose main elements are closely related to central aspects of the cultural repertoire of complex societies. This paper presents the outlines of a theory of humiliation, showing that the capacity to humiliate and be humiliated are aspects of a dense web of "hot" filaments wired into the tissue of culture, giving it a potentially explosive character that is too little recognized. This paper probes this dense web and explores how it acquired its present character. I will argue that our conceptualization of humiliation has changed as our sense of human dignity has grown. Humiliation should be understood as not simply an extreme or marginal condition, but a central feature of the social order. Viewed within this broader context, the elements that constitute humiliation should be recognized as fundamental mechanisms in the formation of modern society. Such a recognition is central to understanding the relationship between humiliation a nd violations of human rights.
The streets of Mogadishu
One of the defining images of the late twentieth century is a dead American soldier being dragged by a triumphant crowd through the streets of Mogadishu in Somalia. This was an overt act of humiliation. The Somali crowd was wreaking vengeance upon America and the United Nations. In the words of a former Somali diplomat," the UN came with the agenda that they know what is good for the Somali people [,]...got entangled in the fight with [General] Aideed...spent so much money on that...[and] caused the death of no less than 10,000 Somalis!" The Somalis felt humiliated by the apparently well-meaning intervention of the UN and reacted with an act of counter-humiliation.
American troops serving with the UN had to fight for their lives in Mogadishu and were forced out of Somalia. The impact upon American public opinion of this humiliating experience was so great that in subsequent years the American government was unwilling to commit ground troops in similar situations. Humiliation has been a potent force in domestic politics and international affairs. The case of Somalia reinforces one of the great lessons learned from the two world wars during the first half of the twentieth century, which is that if people feel humiliated they strike back when they can. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I included the now infamous war-guilt clause which assigned complete responsibility for the war to the Germans and demanded that they "make complete reparation for all...loss and damage" caused.  The Allies' demands were ruinous and humiliating and the consequences are well-known: the hurt of humiliation created a hunger for retaliation. Hitler promised to restore Germany' s power and pride and put it beyond the reach of enemies who wished to impose further humiliations upon it.
After Germany's defeat in 1945, care was taken not to repeat the mistakes of 1918. Instead of facing draconian demands for reparations, Germany was given help to rebuild its industrial economy and was brought into NATO and the European Community (now the European Union). The clear intention was to avoid another world war with all the terrible costs that it would entail. The two world wars provide evidence for the proposition that humiliation can lead to war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. At present, these very issues are high on the world's political agenda as a result of gross violations of human rights in Rwanda, Burundi, the former Yugoslavia, East Timor, and other places too numerous to mention. The freedom to travel abroad of Americans and, more generally, of people from the more advantaged parts of the world is often limited by the fear of terrorist attack. Not even humanitarian workers such as Red Cross and Red Crescent staff are safe from kidnapping incidents, such as the one that occurr ed in Somalia in April 1998, when eight Red Cross and Red Crescent staff were kidnapped at the airport in Mogadishu North.
I would like to offer the general hypothesis that deeply damaging experiences of humiliation are a major cause of the widespread occurrence of genocide, terrorism and kidnapping in the world today. Indeed, this humiliation is structured into the very fabric of social relations between individuals and institutions.
In spite of the centrality of humiliation, it has hardly been studied at all and certainly not in a systematic way. William Ian Miller's book, Humiliation and Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence,  links humiliation to honor as understood in the Iliad or Icelandic sagas and explains that these concepts are still very much alive today, despite a common assumption that they are no longer relevant. Two leading journals have dedicated issues to the topic in recent years.  Humiliation has been addressed in such fields as international relations, love, sex, social attractiveness, depression, society and identity formation, sports, serial murder, war, and violence. A few examples from history, literature, and film illustrate humiliation. There is a significant literature in philosophy on "the politics of recognition," claiming that people who are not recognized suffer humiliation and that this leads to violence.  The German sociologist Max Scheler explored the dynamics of humiliation and resentment and their relationship to social action in his classic book Ressentiment. 
Recently, however, more systematic work has been undertaken on the different ways in which humiliation processes contribute to armed conflicts, genocide, and terrorist activity. The main focus has been on the cases of Somalia and Rwanda.  In the case of Rwanda, in 1994 Rwanda's Hutu-led government orchestrated a genocidal onslaught against the Tutsi minority during which at least half a million people were slaughtered in a period of eight weeks.  In the case of Somalia, President Bane ordered attacks upon the Isaaq clan in the north during the 1980s. The military implemented a scorched-earth policy in rural areas between Hargeisa and the Ethiopian border.  Tactics included "extra-judicial executions of unarmed civilians, detentions without trial, unfair trials, torture, rape, looting and extortion...the burning of farms, the killing of livestock, the destruction of water-storage tanks and the deliberate poisoning of wells." 
The aim of this research is to clarify the part played by humiliation as a factor in two relationships: first, in the relationship between opposing parties and/or perpetrators and victims in instances of mass killing and, second, in the relationship between third parties--states, the United Nations, and international humanitarian organizations--and parties in conflict.  This research began by investigating social-psychological factors that find expression in particular feelings and emotions. It became clear that these feelings and emotions were closely related to the development of distinctive cultural repertoires within the societies concerned. The following questions inspired the research: What is humiliation? What happens when people feel humiliated? What is it that they experience as humiliating? Under what conditions are those particular experiences defined as "humiliating"? What does humiliation lead to? Which particular perceptions of justice, honor, dignity, respect, and self-respect are connecte d with the feeling of being humiliated? How is humiliation perceived and responded to in different cultures? What role does humiliation play in aggression? What can be done to overcome the violent consequences of humiliation?
Both the relevance and the complexity of feelings of humiliation are shown by a private letter which I received from Sam Engelstad, the UN's Chief of Humanitarian Affairs and on several occasions Acting Humanitarian Coordinator in Mogadishu in 1994. He wrote:
During my own time in Somalia in 1994, humiliation was never far from the surface. Indeed, it pretty much suffused the relationship between members of the UN community and the general Somali population. In the day-to-day interaction between the Somalis and UN relief workers like ourselves, it enveloped our work like a grey …