Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rejecting Humiliation

With this post, I return after a three year absence to the Third New York, my first blog, to kick off the New Year. This piece is only peripherally related to New York, but a guy has to start somewhere. 

In the New Yorker this week, Adam Gopnik writes the lead Talk of the Town piece about two alternate futures for the United States and the world, one leading to disaster, the other an uneventful but deeply satisfying voyage to peace and well being. Comparing the fate of two great and identical ocean liners from 1912, the Titanic and the Olympic, one destroyed on its maiden voyage, the other entirely successful, Gopnik wonders which ship we are traveling on today, conceding unhappily that there is not only no way to know for sure;  there is little that can be done to ensure passage on one over the other. 

Yet he does offer one ray of hope, one thin sliver on which to build a more humane future. It is simply to reject honor and fear of humiliation as the motivation for our actions. As he says, trying to retrieve lessons from the burgeoning literature on the causes of World War I, "the relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak" echoes through the decades and has led again and again to the deepening of conflicts without clear purpose or a basis in common sense.

I, for one, find this advice, however tentative and uncertain, to be a good message for 2014. It will be extremely difficult to practice it, but it will be made easier by a citizenry that insists on decision making that is free of hubris and quests for domination.

We probably can't make much progress on this goal, however, without committing to a society whose internal, everyday institutions are free of humiliation as well, the kind that Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit talks about in his 1996 book "The Decent Society." What Professor Margalit has in mind is captured early on in this work when he says that "a society is decent if its institutions do not act in ways that give the people under their authority sound reasons to consider themselves humiliated," or, as he says elsewhere, giving them sound reasons to believe that their self-respect has been injured.

In at least one example employed by Margalit, even someone whose rights are honored, may be suffering from humiliation if he lacks the conviction that he is entitled to those rights, that there is a rational basis for demanding them or actively working for their full and uncompromised application. Here Margalit is referring to any person whose self-respect has been so relentlessly and systematically undermined that he develops a sense of internalized inferiority in which he feels he is not deserving of key rights. He calls this example "Uncle Tom," but it would refer to anyone who has been persuaded that he is less worthy than others, for entirely irrelevant reasons such as race, gender or even social class.

At the heart of Margalit's claims is the idea that a person who is shown respect, who is free of humiliation, sees himself as enjoying an open future, who has the capacity to change his life at any time for the better "through action or a reevaluation of the past." Or to put it another way, that the institutions governing this person's life operate in such a way as to give each person the freest and least oppressive path toward an open and unrestricted future. 

Note here that when these institutional conditions are in effect the need for people to dominate others, to demonstrate that they are better than others, more worthy than others, etc., is greatly diminished for they are enjoying the sort of recognition, respect, and dignity that makes such demonstrations unnecessary, even redundant.

Which is why I invoked Margalit to begin with. We cannot hope for a society or a world in which nations eschew honor and credit in favor of compromise and common sense unless the people who inhabit those countries also have experiences which show them full respect and are largely free of humiliating circumstances. 

It occurs to me, as it might anyone, that schools are a particularly hopeful site in which to begin such a change in social practices, and, appropriately enough, that the new call to curb bullying is largely an attempt to denounce and proscribe behaviors that humiliate children. But, of course, campaigns against bullying are only a small part of this larger effort to create a decent society. All of us must consciously and diligently work to eliminate humiliating behaviors from our lives, and to develop much greater sensitivity toward those actions which tend to diminish people, robbing them of the dignity and self-respect that are so central to a decent society.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back, and thank you for bringing the New Year in with such a good and needed call.