On humiliation

Sara Gon writes on the outrage triggered by the coffin assault video

The “Coffingate” video shows two middle-aged, white Afrikaans men threatening a cowering young black man with death for trespassing by forcing him into a make-shift coffin, and threatening to douse it with petrol and set it alight.

The outrage has been so vocal that some black radio callers have vowed to kill whites or at least hate them as a group because “whites hate blacks”. However, once the video went viral the system has moved swiftly in having the two men arrested and charged. They withdrew their bail application possibly in the knowledge that they were safer in jail than out.

There were many aspects of this video that were stark: the apparent racial dominance of well-built, white men over a skinny black youth, the image and symbolism of the coffin with death, and a young man cowering and pleading for his life.

However, the overwhelming emotion coming from this crude video was humiliation: humiliation being perpetrated by the white men on the black man, and the utter helplessness and humiliation being experienced by the black man.

Humiliation may be at the root of what ails this society so intensely at the moment. The writings of Evelin G. Lindner are instructive. Linder belonged to a family displaced by the horrors of World War II. The author’s experience and research indicates that the dynamics of humiliation may be at the core of wars, genocide and global terror.

It may well be the genesis for the terrorism in the Middle East - humiliation imposed or perceived. But that is for another article.

“Humiliation” comprises three elements - the perpetrator’s act, the victim’s feelings and the social process. Different cultures, different groups within cultures and different individuals within groups may disagree as to whether an experience is humiliating. As this is a subjective assessment, each side will of the dispute will insist on applying the word to their own experience and deny it to the other.

According to Lindner a single core feature is the pushing down and holding down of a person. In Coffingate this is both literal and figurative. This involves two contradictory scripts which permeate world cultures: honour humiliation and dignity humiliation. Honour humiliation is the process Hitler employed using the Treaty of Versailles after World War I as a reference point for the humiliation of the German people.

Dignity humiliation, which is a modern concept, is based on the human rights ideal of dignity for all. The first paragraph of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 reads: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Human rights, therefore, makes the formerly legitimate humbling of underlings illegitimate. The more a victim is aware of human rights values, the more likely they are to feel humiliated. When one is acted upon in a way that undermines one's sense of equal dignity, as it is enshrined in human rights, the psychological damage of humiliation is being inflicted.

Lindner says that it is this damage that is particularly hard to recover from. Importantly Lindner believes that humiliation is the necessary concept for defining victimhood as “victimhood". As such it has to be considered the key ingredient to what makes conflict comprehensible and thus preventable and manageable. According to Lindner, "victimhood at the hands of fellow human beings must entail the notion of humiliation, otherwise it would not be seen as victimhood but as a pro-social event or natural disaster.”

In contrast to Hitler Lindner refers to the path of enlightenment of Nelson Mandela. She goes on to say that strong leaders are needed to prevent the escalation of violence and bloodshed.

Lindner warns that human rights defenders need to do more than nurture and teach a sense of violation. Such feelings not only lead to depressed apathy or noble empowerment, but also to violent backlashes.

Looked through this prism may help to explain much of what South African society is currently experiencing. Apartheid was a formidable form of humiliation, or intended to be one. In many respects the humiliation was overturned by the fight against apartheid in its various forms. Opposition to apartheid often enhanced dignity because the object of the fight was so morally and legally repugnant. It also encouraged cohesion.

Ultimately the fight against apartheid culminated in the Constitution which provides:

“10. Human dignity

Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

The difficulty with dignity is it is impacted upon both by outside forces and by the individual response.

And this may explain the current malaise affecting South Africa. Democracy in 1994 went a long way to restoring our dignity - both as victims and perpetrators. The person of Mandela embodied that dignity. Our economy grew, employment grew. We won the rugby world cup in 1995 and the African cup of nations in 1996.

The African National Congress (ANC) built houses, brought infrastructure to many communities, helped people to progress into the middle class and the consequent affluence. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action lifted some people into positions of status and authority, but may have negatively affected feelings of dignity as being seen as “not having earned” positions or simply not being part of the favoured group.

But then came the premiership of Jacob Zuma and the ANC that has supported him since 2007. Although his ascendancy has coincided with a global economic downturn, an era of poor policy-making has decimated the growth of businesses and the consequent creation of employment opportunities. It has perpetuated an education system that has left many black children woefully underprepared for tertiary education and the adult world of work.

Lindner says that leadership is crucial to the enhancement of a sense of dignity and yet Zuma has not just not enhanced it,he represents a system that is systematically destroying it.

Zuma is corrupt, dishonest and incompetent. Many if not most South Africans want to see the back of him. He is the embodiment of our indignity. He exacerbates it every time he pretends that we do not know what is going on. He insults our intelligence and treats us as expendable. And yet the ANC is too compromised to deal with him, his acolytes and those who he has allowed to capture state institutions. Government exists to serve the people and yet the people are not listened to or are ignored when they demand accountable leadership. The humiliation is profound.

And it is manifest in an anger reflected in protests and expression of racism from all sides. A Julius Malema can feed into this feeling of inadequacy by appealing to the hatred of whites whose former privileged position means that they remain economically, if not politically, strong. Whites then become the embodiment of a black sense of indignity to the exclusion of all else. It becomes very difficult for the individual to reassert his or her own dignity when there is so much out there that increases it.

In the case of the student protests we may also be witnessing the additional culpability of Left academia by what Lindner refers to as merely nurturing and teaching a sense of violation, leading to violence.

There is probably a reason why the Institute’s research into what is the biggest problem South Africans experience: unemployment as the primary ill that has to be tackled - feeling useful and contributing to society enhances dignity hugely.

All of us, but particularly those in government, need to do more to enhance the dignity of South Africans, or face the consequences.

Actor Pierce Brosnan said something truly trenchant about humiliation:

Oh, humiliation is poisonous. It's one of the deepest pains of being human.”


Chapter 20 on TRAUMATIZED IN TIMES OF GLOBALIZATION - Transforming Humiliation into Constructive Meaning by Evelin G. Lindner in Mass Trauma and Emotional Healing Around the World: Rituals and Practices for Resilience and Meaning-Making edited by Ani Kalayjian and Dominique Eugene Praeger an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Beyond Intractability - Humiliation by Sarah Rosenberg based on the work by Evelin G Lindner