The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History by Ute Frevert (Translated from German by Adam Bresnahan) - review by Thomas W Laqueur

Thomas W Laqueur

The Sense of Shame

The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History


Oxford University Press 352pp £25 order from our bookshop

No emotion stands nearer to the foundational myths of the human social order than shame. In the beginning, Adam and Eve stood together ‘both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’. And then they ate of the tree of knowledge; their eyes opened; they knew they were naked; they covered themselves with fig leaves. Their shame was what told God they had fallen and become humans of our sort. Protagoras tells Socrates that after Prometheus had distinguished humans from other animals by giving them fire, Zeus gave them both shame and justice so that they could live together in harmony.

Shame is the emotion that signals to us that we have done something wrong or dishonourable; it is also what leaves us vulnerable to being made to feel dishonoured, degraded, disgraced or ashamed by the actions of others – that is, to be humiliated. Here Ute Frevert follows Protagoras: ‘power is … clearly at stake whenever shaming occurs.’

Her work is about how and in what circumstances this all too human emotion is mobilised in three arenas: in the punishment of those who offend against the public order, in classrooms and online, and in international relations. Frevert begins with the story of a 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi, who in December 2010 set himself aflame in front of the mayor of Sidi Bouzid’s office after a female police officer slapped him and confiscated his goods. He had had enough of humiliation. His actions set off the ‘revolt of dignity’ that began the Arab Spring.

This book is in one respect a history of how this became possible. It is the story of the democratisation of the right to dignity and honour, which at different times were regarded as belonging only to the aristocracy and not to commoners, to adults and not to children, to men more than women, to a sovereign and not to a people. It is in part about the rise of polities based not on the power of the strong to shame the weak but on a capacity to create self-governing subjects who do not need noisy and disorderly rituals of public humiliation to live in peace together. But it is also about the many ways in which shame still functions today.

The first part of Frevert’s history is well known but also well told. Prisons and fines replaced the pillory; more dignified punishments replaced beatings in schools and in the military; pedagogy came to favour positive incentives for good behaviour and academic achievement over the shaming of failure; rituals of sovereign equality came to govern relations between nation-states so that kowtowing, for example, became paradigmatic of the old order. This is a history of progress, in which Bouazizi’s self-immolation serves as a milestone.

However, the most valuable parts of this book are the accounts of the ways in which the timeless emotion of shame has been mobilised, negotiated and regulated in the more recent past, and still is today. National Socialism made public humiliation – of Jews, of course, but most prominently of ‘dishonourable women’ – a matter of state policy. But in the face of widespread criticism of double standards (women who had relations with Jewish men were publicly shamed, while men who had relations with Jewish women were largely left alone) and distaste among Germans for ‘medieval’ rituals that humiliated their neighbours, Hitler ordered that the ‘cutting of hair, public exposure, the parading around with signs’ should cease. Even for the Nazis, the old popular pleasures of the pillory had their limits.

Over time, teachers came to be forbidden to beat or humiliate students, but the rise of peer subcultures and of novel technologies of shaming, most significantly the internet and social media, has opened fresh arenas of shaming. New semi-autonomous youth organisations like fraternities and revitalised old ones – English public schools, for example – have invented ingenious and ever crueller rituals of humiliation to distinguish the ins from the outs. Ancient, gendered forms of shaming, most notably rape, are still practised: the wars in the former Yugoslavia are an example. Frevert also surveys new ways of counter-shaming, including the kind of publicity generated by the #MeToo movement for sexual transgressions and the public self-shaming that takes place on television shows that thrive on the consensual degradation of contestants.

Then there is humiliation as an instrument of foreign policy. Kaiser Wilhelm II insisted that the Chinese emissary who was to come to Berlin to ‘expiate’ for the murder of the German ambassador during the Boxer Rebellion kowtow. The emissary refused and the world diplomatic community worked to convince Kaiser Wilhelm to accept something less. He resisted because to give up the right to demand humiliation would look like a capitulation to British entreaties. Finally, someone got to him with the argument that kowtowing was a form of blasphemy and not suitable to be performed in a Christian nation.

Frevert also draws our attention to the fine normative balance between humility in the face of wrongdoing and humiliation – between shame as righteous and shame as abject. When the German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in front of Nathan Rapoport’s memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, many took it as a moving sign of repentance and mourning for the crimes of the Nazis in Poland: the taking upon himself of the well-deserved shame of a nation that had sinned grievously against another. Within Germany, the conservative press took it as a national humiliation and as a politically inappropriate emotional gesture. His proposed diplomatic rapprochement with Poland was pronounced a ‘treaty of shame’.

Frevert shows that humans cannot live together without shame, however much this primal emotion is abused or rejected in favour of a more decorous alternative – reason, for example. But one might say of shame what is said of hypocrisy: it is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. For most of us, it is an emotion we could do without: ‘aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ are not welcome words. But given that some of us live in a country where shamelessness in high places is the order of the day, we ought to welcome the capacity to feel shame. Without it hubris triumphs.

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