What’s wrong with deep humiliation

A civilised society cannot allow maltreatment that involves seeing and treating people as sub-human

November 26, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

Everyone has experienced the feeling of humiliation. In fact, to have a sense of self and to interact with other selves is to be exposed to the possibility of humiliation. Who has not experienced a damaging slur, a demeaning look, a hurtful posture sometime in their life — an affront to dignity and self-respect, a lowering of self-worth? If the act and experience of humiliation is so pervasive, why worry excessively about it? Just as physical injuries are an unfortunate part of life, and in fact, necessary for the cultivation of certain virtues such as courage, why not treat mental injuries in the same way and take them in one’s stride? Is there something intolerably wrong then about humiliation?

There is. At least, certain kinds of humiliation are so grave that they have no place in a decent and civilised society. To help explain, allow me to give some examples.

Maltreating Dalits, blacks

The scholar, Gopal Guru, has given us a horrifying picture of humiliation in 18th-century Maharashtra where Dalits were mostly confined to mahars (internment camps) and allowed to walk on the main street of the village only when servicing the upper castes. In the short span when they were permitted to do so, they had to clean these streets with brooms tied to their waist in order to erase their ‘polluting’ footprints. Even worse, they were compelled to walk the streets only at noon when their shadows were the shortest and therefore had the least chance of falling on and ‘polluting’ upper caste men also out in public. Gopal Guru poignantly points out that “the beautiful mornings and cool evenings” were never available to the “untouchables”.

The African-American experience in the U.S. was hardly different. It was common for blacks to step off the sidewalk when a white man passed him. Could there have been anything more humiliating than to know that because you are black, you have to walk half a mile further than whites just to urinate, receive your food through a window at the back of a restaurant or to sit in a garbage-littered yard to eat?

Occasional offence, insult or disrespect lower one’s dignity but are tolerable, indeed sometimes even productive. One’s ability to restore one’s dignity here is still intact. Humiliation constitutes grave wrongdoing when one’s self-worth is irretrievably lowered. When that happens, people experience what might be called deep humiliation. Here, people are viewed and begin to view themselves as if they have no subjectivity — no thoughts, no viewpoint, no emotions, no sense of self. They are stripped of their humanity, as if falling outside the fold of human species. Of course, the mere fact of not being treated as a human is not humiliating. One may admire, fear, appreciate the power and grace of tigers or the beauty of say, flowers. Deep humiliation is experienced when one is seen not only as non-human, but lower in rank than humans, when one is inferiorised. To deeply humiliate is to contemptuously see and treat people as sub-human.

And, this is why humiliation is a special form of maltreatment, different from a mere denial of justice, freedom or fraternity. For, there are forms of inequality, unfreedom and social alienation that do not involve humiliation. A person may not be denied dignity even when constraints are imposed on his freedom, as for instance when prisoners are treated with dignity or workers, though formally exploited by factory-owners, are still accorded respect through, say, basic welfare rights. But some instances of injustice or un-freedom are accompanied by inhuman, debasing treatment. Such forms of speech, gestures or actions carry a message, express an attitude towards those unequal or unfree that they do not matter at all, that they are entirely worthless, that they fall outside the ambit of humanity.

Structural humiliation

What Dalits and African Americans as a whole group suffered in the past and what many continue to undergo even now is a systematic denial of self-respect and dignity, a continual rejection, a perverted pattern of ill-treatment. They experience a particular form of deep humiliation which is not episodic but structural, a feature of the social order. Here, humiliation is so normalised that neither the humiliator nor the humiliated need even feel that some grave wrongdoing is afoot. Cruelly, this is so routine, so recurrent that people do not even notice it.

Another instance that is not quite the same, though comes close to it, is the belief widespread among conservative Hindus and Jews, perhaps people in other communities too, in the ‘polluting nature’ of the menstrual cycle in women. Though not permanent, it occurs every month for long in their life, and results in such a recurrent exclusion from the life of the community that it must count as part of the same family of maltreatment. And this is what is wrong with disallowing menstruating women from entering the Sabarimala temple, regardless of whatever religion or tradition-related justification that might be offered for it.

This is not the only form of deep humiliation, however. Consider this: a person deliberately throws an object on the street and then demands that it be picked up; the father of an honest police officer is asked to publicly behave like an obedient dog. This is wilful humiliation. The philosopher, Avishai Margalit, writes of Jews being put to purposeless work in concentration camps, only to be subjected to the pointless whim of the subjugator. This work had no tangible benefit for either the Jews or the Nazis. It performed no social function. Yet, for some time, it became a severe form of punishment meted out to a person just for being born a Jew. Not built into the social life of early 20th century Germany, it could not be called structural.

Wilful humiliation

Such acts are designed solely to express the will of the perpetrator; the victim, having abjectly surrendered, has no will. Who can forget the haunting footage of the helpless Tabrez Ansari being mercilessly beaten to death by a mob merely because he was Muslim? Or, consider rape incidents — like in the case of Nirbhaya — many of them brutal acts of disempowerment so gratuitous, so superfluous, that they do not even serve the purpose of accomplishing the sexual act and end up humiliating not just the victim but all women.

In such cases, humiliation is meant not only to disempower people, but to ensure that the humiliating act is stamped forever on their minds, to render the resulting debasement vivid to them with the sole purpose of satisfying the humiliator. In short, the pain arising in the humiliated gives the humiliator direct and unadulterated pleasure in the suffering of others. This makes it malicious.

Take another example. The expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley was grossly unjust. Ways must be found to bring them back to the Valley, and to reconcile communities. But, the dismembering of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is also seen by many Kashmiris as humiliating. Now, there is nothing humiliating per se in the rearrangement of a State into different administrative units. But when accompanied by gloating and triumphalism, does it not border on wilful humiliation?

There are many groups around the world that face a conjunction of structural, wilful and malicious humiliation. But can we call ourselves decent or civilised, if we allow deep humiliation in any form?

Rajeev Bhargava is a political theorist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies

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