NPR

Why We Revel In Others' 'Humiliation'

Almost everyone fears being embarrassed publicly. Yet, many people get a thrill from seeing others humiliated. (iStockphoto.com)

Every office, every family and every neighborhood has a gossip — someone who will readily share whispers about a neighbor's transgressions or a colleague's peccadillos.

And while most of us fear becoming the subject of an embarrassing story ourselves, we also get a guilty thrill listening to those stories, even if we're ashamed to admit it.

In his book Humiliation, author Wayne Koestenbaum picks apart the many facets of humiliation through literature, historical references ... and personal experience.

"I've lived with humiliation all my life, as I think all human beings do," Koestenbaum tells NPR's Tony Cox.

As a child, many of those experiences had to do with Koestenbaum's religion.

"I grew up in an area ... without many Jews," he says. "I had no Jewish friends as a kid. I felt humiliated to be a Jew ... humiliated to have such a weird last name."

As a boy, the thought of participating in a bar mitzvah filled Koestenbaum with dread. Watching his older brother's ceremony, he realized he couldn't bear the thought of participating in such a public ritual himself — one that so emphasized his religious identity.

Koestenbaum says that watching his brother "speaking a strange language and wearing strange clothes ... he seemed like an outsider. He seemed not normal."

"I don't think my response was normal," he adds, "but nonetheless ... I didn't want to get in front of the congregation and gesticulate and do those things ... I wanted to opt out of those spectacles of normative behavior."

One's sense of humiliation was once limited to a relatively small circle of people who actually witnessed an embarrassing moment, but today the Internet and reality television have amplified the experience, says sociologist C.J. Pascoe, who studies humiliation among teenage boys.

"We see people losing control of their identity all the time when someone videotapes a faux pas and posts it online," Pascoe tells Cox. "These humiliating rituals are being seen by thousands and thousands of people."

But if most people are mortified at the thought of being humiliated personally, why are they also so titillated by watching others embarrass themselves?

"We live in a society which values power," Pascoe says. "Watching someone else be humiliated gives us a sense of personal power. Because we're not that person; we're not the one being humiliated."

The good news, says Koestenbaum, is that our humiliation often fades with time:

"A lot of childhood humiliations that we feel to be the worst — as an adult, it's possible to look back at those humiliating experiences and say, 'You know ... it wasn't so bad. Everybody wasn't making fun of me; only one person was.

"If you wake up from the experience and you're still alive, and not impossibly scarred and traumatized, there's a little kernel of residue ... left," he says. "It's possible, I think, to rebuild a self from that little shred."

But while a person can eventually live down a humiliating experience, we should all try to check the urge to vilify others — particularly in social media contexts where users are free to post comments anonymously.

"We know that anonymity ... allows people to be a lot more evil," Pascoe says. "We need to think about the way power is used ... and gained in our contemporary culture."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TONY COX, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away. We see it everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, in public. We read about it, and we both fear it and are entertained by it. It is the act of humiliation.

Of course, humiliation isn't a new phenomenon. Literature is filled with examples going back centuries. But today's humiliation seems - well, amplified. For one thing, it's a lot faster, given the viral speed of the Internet.

But what exactly is humiliation, and how and why do we use it today? In Wayne Koestenbaum's latest book, he chronicles humiliation through personal experiences, observation and historical references. We are drawn to it and repelled by it, all at the same time.

Today, we want to hear from you. Have you been a witness to humiliation or a humiliating situation? How did it affect you? Tell us your story. Our number, 800-989-8255; the email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca about the post-lockout football season. But first, humiliation. We'll hear from sociologist C.J. Pascoe in just a moment, but right now we are joined by author Wayne Koestenbaum, who has written a book on the subject. It is called "Humiliation" - simply enough - and he is in our New York bureau. Wayne, welcome to the program.

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Glad to be here.

COX: So what attracted you to this fascinating yet dark topic?

KOESTENBAUM: Well, I've lived with humiliation all my life - as I think all human beings do - from infancy on. And because I'm a writer, I'm drawn to narrate my darkest experiences.

COX: You know, you write about a number of anecdotal instances of humiliation in your book - from literature to media - and some personal experiences that you had. One of the things that you talked about is that humiliation involves what you call a triangle: the victim, the abuser and the witness. How does that work?

KOESTENBAUM: Well, I don't think there can be humiliation unless there is a spectator observing it and registering it as shame, and bringing the news elsewhere. It's possible just to feel shame, say, about being overweight or plain, or just any of the things that make us ashamed. But if nobody sees it, if nobody makes fun of you, it's not humiliation.

Humiliation is the scene when somebody points the finger, mocks, excoriates - and there's a bystander who is either shocked or titillated. But the bad news spreads, and your reputation is ruined.

COX: So it's like the old saying: If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? So if you're humiliated and no one sees it, you're not really humiliated, are you?

KOESTENBAUM: Exactly. But I think the good news is that humiliating experiences, if you survive them, are capable of being reinterpreted, and that not all humiliating - not all things that feel humiliating at the moment of humiliation, turn out, in retrospect, to be so humiliating.

COX: That works two ways, doesn't it? Things that perhaps weren't humiliating at the time turn out to be humiliating later.

KOESTENBAUM: Oh, God, that's awful. But that is, indeed, the case. But I think a lot of childhood humiliations, which we feel to be the worst, as an adult it's possible to look back at those horrid experiences and say you know, that was kind of cute after all. It wasn't so bad. Everybody wasn't making fun of me; only one person was.

COX: You know, you talked in your book about - again - some of your experiences with humiliation. One of them had to do with the Bar Mitzvah that your family wanted to give you, which you did not want because you said that your older brother's Bar Mitzvah was humiliating. What did you mean? What happened?

KOESTENBAUM: Oh, that's - it's humiliating even to talk about it. I grew up in an area, really, without very many Jews. I had no Jewish friends. And the - I, as a kid, felt humiliated to be a Jew, humiliated to be short, humiliated to have curly hair, humiliated to have such a weird last name, and humiliated to be such a fast talker who asked so many pestering questions.

And so when I saw my older brother Bar Mitzvahed, he didn't really want to do it, either. And here he was, speaking a strange language, wearing strange clothes. He seemed like an outsider. He seemed not normal.

I don't think my response was normal but nonetheless, I thought, I don't want to go - I don't want to have to get in front of the congregation and gesticulate and do all those things. I want to stay private in myself, and normal. And so I just said - you know, just like I didn't want to be in Boy Scouts, I don't want a Bar Mitzvah. I'm going to opt out of those spectacles of normative behavior.

COX: You know, you also write - and I found this curiously interesting - that humiliation has its rewards. How can that be?

KOESTENBAUM: Well, I think that if most of your recognizable personality or sense of self-worth is decimated, and you wake up from the experience and you're still alive - and not impossibly scarred and traumatized - there's a little kernel, or residue, of self left. And that residue is gold. And it's possible, I think, to rebuild a self from that little shred.

The example I use in my book that I find very powerful is Oscar Wilde, who was pilloried in 1895, arrested for sodomy. His reputation was ruined. He lost his family, his career, his name - everything. But in a letter he wrote from prison, "De Profundis," he described that awful experience of losing his identity as a blessing in disguise.

And he identified with Christ. Whether he had a right to identify with Christ or not is another subject, but he felt a kind of queer transfiguration through that kiln of shame and suffering. So, I mean, not everybody can spin their suffering the way Oscar Wilde did, but he offers a model.

COX: It was a way - a road toward redemption, in other words.

KOESTENBAUM: Yeah, and maybe we do it now on TV rather than - or call-in shows; we - or by writing books. We expose ourselves as a way of seeking reparation, and I don't think that's a bad way to go.

COX: Well, let's find out because we do have people hanging on to talk to us. This is TALK OF THE NATION; our number, 800-989-8255. We are talking about humiliation, and we are talking about it with Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the book "Humiliation." He is a distinguished professor of English at the SUNY Graduate Center. He has published several poetry books and nonfiction novels, and he is joining us from our New York bureau. Let's go to Portland, Oregon, where I believe - is it Jacqueline?

JACQUELINE: Yes.

COX: Jacqueline, welcome. What is your story?

JACQUELINE: All right, so this is my story, and thanks so much for taking my call this afternoon. My story is, in fact, in regards to a relationship that I was in back in high school.

I am now 29 years old, and this experience in a relationship still sticks with me very strongly in my mind - in my subconscious and my conscious mind - on a regular basis.

In high school, I had a boyfriend who in fact - it was sort of a rocky relationship. I was very vulnerable in the relationship, being that I was an adolescent. I was at his house one evening with one of my best friends, sitting on the couch.

Me and the boyfriend had been arguing a little bit earlier that afternoon. In fact, he asked me to cuddle with him on the couch, as I was sitting there with my best friend. And I said, I don't want to cuddle right now. You know, I'm hanging out. I just want to be sitting on the couch alone.

He, in fact, turns to my best friend and says, will you cuddle with me? And out of nowhere and to my amazement, she says yes. So in fact, she starts cuddling with my boyfriend in front of me. And I felt absolutely just, you know, the utmost humiliation in my life.

I was humiliated, embarrassed. I felt like, you know, somebody just stabbed me in my back. Not only was it my boyfriend but my best friend. In fact, I got up to leave, and me and the boyfriend got in an argument. I said to my best friend, let's go. She, in fact, says no, I'm going to stay here with, you know, my boyfriend...

COX: OK. Wow, double humiliation, in a sense.

JACQUELINE: Double humiliation, which in fact, has left me - honestly - for many, many, many years, with distrust of people.

COX: Well, you know what? Let me stop you there because your story is a perfect segue to bring in our second guest, C.J. Pascoe, who is a sociologist and assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College. C.J., welcome to the program.

C.J. PASCOE: Thanks for having me.

COX: I know that you have done research in this area. To hear the story that you just heard, and to hear her talk about - thank you for the call, by the way - to hear her talk about the level of pain that she remembers more than a decade ago, is that the kind of impact that humiliation tends to have on people?

PASCOE: Well, I study humiliation rituals among teenagers, primarily among teenage boys. And it would seem - as I've talked to some of these boys as they've grown older - that indeed, the humiliation does stick with them and leaves lasting emotional scars.

But I am heartened to hear Professor Koestenbaum's sort of recasting of these scars as a way to sort of rebuild the self.

KOESTENBAUM: And I could - if I could chip in here, I would say that hearing this harrowing story of this - three of them on the couch, the one whose humiliation maybe is unrecognized, but still exists, is the boy, who is committing an act of cruelty that seems to reflect prior humiliations of his own.

He seems - now hearing this tale - that he's caught in this kind of hall of mirrors of abuse and humiliation and, you know, seems like a trapped insect.

COX: That's an interesting take - meaning that he was humiliated by his initial rejection by his girlfriend...

KOESTENBAUM: Or no, no, just earlier in life. That somebody would specialize in emotional cruelty of that kind is clearly somebody who has been damaged by love and life and probably to this day, is still doing it or having it being done to him.

It seems the caller has rescued herself, and she can tell the tale. But wherever that boy is now, he seems the one that's terribly trapped.

COX: Well, that's an interesting take on it. We're talking about humiliation, if you're just joining us. Wayne Koestenbaum wrote the book on the subject, though we are all experts, in one way or another, of that experience. Have you been a witness to humiliation or a humiliating situation? How did it affect you?

We want to hear your story. Call us at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We are talking about humiliation - its many faces, how it plays out, and why so many seem to be hungry for public humiliation.

The first chapter of Wayne Koestenbaum's book "Humiliation" is titled "Strip Search." You can read more about that humiliating experience in an excerpt at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Have you been a witness to humiliation or a humiliating situation? How did it affect you? Tell us your story. Our number, 800-989-8255. The email address, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So still with us we have C.J. Pascoe, assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College, and of course Wayne Koestenbaum, the author of "Humiliation." Before I come to you, C.J., with a question about - in fact, I'll do that first, and then Leon(ph) in - let's see, where is Leon? It just says new. So I'm not sure where you are. It's someplace new, Leon, hang on, I'm coming to you in just a moment.

This is for you, C.J. We heard Wayne talk earlier about his description of humiliation. He talked about the triangle: the victim, the abuser and the witness. And he said that you have to have the witness in order for it to take full effect. How do you define humiliation?

PASCOE: Actually, I really like Wayne's definition of it. In my studies of humiliation among teenage boys, I've seen a similar thing play out - where there's one boy who does the humiliating, usually through some sort of homophobic epithet directed at another boy; and the other boy tries to respond, usually can't successfully; and there's usually an audience of boys who then laughs at the boy who's being humiliated.

I think what's really interesting about Wayne's definition is that it can be expanded and applied to humiliation in an age of new media. What we've seen as human interactions have moved online is that this audience that used to have to be physically present for a humiliating act no longer has to.

And so much like the example you gave at the beginning of the show - where a boy videotaped his mother in a bikini on the beach, singing, and it went all the way to national news - we see people losing control of their identity all the time in terms of people videotaping them and putting it online, and these humiliating rituals being seen by thousands and thousands of people whereas historically, the audience would have been just whoever was physically present for that humiliation.

COX: And sometimes even a small audience can hurt. Listen to this. This comes from Holly(ph) via email. She says: I made the mistake of dating a co-worker and when the relationship went south, its demise was talk for the water cooler. I never felt so conspicuous and embarrassed. It was the first and last time I dated interoffice. Live and learn.

Here's another. This is from Michael(ph) in Tucson, Arizona: We all experience humiliation, and it can be a great teaching tool for our children. I have one particular incident from my high school years - I will spare you the details, he goes on to say - that I can use to show my kids that these things happen to all of us.

They understand it gets better with time, and we can grow from them as human beings. Most importantly, they don't define us as individuals.

So let me now come to you, Leon. I understand you are in New Orleans, which is a great place to be. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LEON: Yes, hello, thank you very much.

COX: Your story?

LEON: My story - well, to begin, I'm an attorney, and I think that the humiliation of being an attorney begins in law school. And I think the story about Oscar Wilde is probably the most relevant in this situation because you get humiliated the first time in law school in front of an entire class, by a professor.

And eventually you learn to grow from it, but that humiliation continues. It continues into courtrooms; it continues into any adversarial situation, but it isn't necessarily from your adversaries. It is always from an authority figure, such as a judge. And you start to wonder about the statement just now, that was made just a few seconds ago, about some sort of homophobic episode. You wonder - and I'm not saying that it has anything to do with any type of sexual bearings, but you wonder what has happened to a judge who not only rules against you but also adds onto it that level of humiliation. Because there's a way to say no, and then there's a way to continue beating that no into someone's head.

And eventually, as an attorney, you just get used to it because you either see it happening to peers, or it happens to you. But it's always - the world is round and when it turns, your day, your number's up.

COX: Leon, thank you very much for the call. Let's go now to Peter(ph), who is standing by in Portland, Oregon. Peter, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PETER: Thank you very much. My situation, to continue with it, is that I'm a registered sex offender. The humiliation that goes on with that is just nonstop. It's put up on the Internet. There are tracking services that track registered sex offenders.

I want to point out that this took place almost 19 years ago. The girl was 13, and I was passed out drunk, and she came to lay down with me on the couch. I sat up, told her this is wrong. She put her blouse back on. Her mother came home at that point, and she just continued with her own (unintelligible), like nothing was going on.

And I said no, I've got to talk to your dad about this. All right, so that's that and - however, this case was dismissed...

COX: Well, you know what? Let me interrupt you only because we don't have the time to hear all of what happened in your case. But you raise a point that I'd like to ask of both of our guests, and it's this: Is humiliation, in your opinion - opinions - ever justified or deserved? C.J., you first.

PASCOE: I think a society that's based on humiliation, or thinks that humiliation is an appropriate punishment, is a society in which power is being abused. And I think the case with a sex offender is an interesting one.

Sex offenders are really the only criminals who we require to be publicly humiliated for the rest of their lives that way, and I think that's something we need to think about as a nation.

COX: Well, you know, Wayne, as you answer the question as well, you know, literature is full of the so-called scarlet letter, in terms of people being vilified for their behavior and being trotted out for the community to ridicule.

KOESTENBAUM: Exactly, but you know, I would want to stick a little bit more to contemporary culture, and one of the major catalysts for me in writing this book was the - call it the martyrdom of Michael Jackson.

When Michael Jackson was accused of sex crimes - sleeping with underaged boys - I noticed - whatever he had done, I noticed that nobody could stick up for Michael Jackson, or speak on his behalf. And he had gone, overnight, from being this lionized, adored child prodigy, dancer extraordinaire, to a pariah because of the nature of his alleged crime.

And I thought any society that takes a certain category of people, a certain category of criminal or alleged criminal, and turns them into scapegoats and outcasts, is going through a very scary operation.

I think it also in - say, the case after World War II, when women who in, say, occupied countries like France had their heads shaved if they had slept with Nazis during the war. You could say that maybe France was humiliating these women for a good political cause, but there was an extra dose of sadism and cruelty which made that action ethically unjust and unsupportable.

COX: Went beyond the pale for you. Let me take another call. This is Pam(ph) from Berkeley, California. Pam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAM: Thanks. I'm glad that you took my call, and I'm glad that you all are talking about this issue. I am bipolar, which is a difficult disease to have as far as humiliation is concerned, because when you have a manic episode, you act in ways that you wouldn't in any other circumstance, and then you have to deal with the repercussions afterwards. And during one manic episode a few years ago, someone videotaped me while I was out on the street, and posted it. And I found out about it from a friend of a friend. But during the time that I was trying to get that video taken off - and some of it was, you know, bordering on sexually explicit - it was amazing the comments that were posted underneath it.

And they were everything from - unmixed(ph) - and there were comments that were about my race, about what they would like to do to me sexually. It was - and conversations that people were having. And I realized when I was trying to get that taken off that there's a whole like, sub - I don't know - topic on YouTube about crazy people, about going out and videotaping people that are obviously not OK, that are sick right then, and about watching it and enjoying, you know, discussing them in the most humiliating and demeaning ways possible.

COX: Well, I appreciate you sharing your story with us. Thank you for calling, and I'm sorry that you had to endure that.

She raises, C.J., two very critical points, I think. One has to do with what Wayne described in his book as the Internet being the highway of humiliation; and the other part that she said, that I'd like for you to respond to, is that this form - this is entertaining for people to watch others suffer. Why is that?

PASCOE: Well, I actually have two responses to what she said, and the first - something to keep in mind is that we know that anonymity breeds - or allows people to be evil. Dr. Zimbardo at Stanford pointed that out to us in the prison experiments. When people are anonymous, as many of those posters were when they were commenting on her, quote-unquote, crazy video, we know that allows people to be a lot more evil. And as for why it's entertaining, again, I'll go back to my comment about power and the role of power in humiliation.

I think we live in a society which values power, and watching someone else be humiliated gives us a sense of personal power because we're not that person. We're not the one being humiliated. So therefore, we get a sense of power from that. And again, I'll return to this idea that we need to think about the way power is used and exercised and gained in our contemporary culture.

COX: Well, you know, not every - I'm - this is not to dispute at all what you're saying. It's just that I know that there are people who are uncomfortable sometimes with witnessing humiliation. And here is an email that sort of speaks to that. It's from Terry. Can you address sympathetic humiliation? This is her question. My daughter and I both cannot bear to watch funny movies that humiliate the characters.

Wayne, you're a person who has studied this in media, and you've written about it quite a bit. What about that? There are - all of us aren't always happy to see someone else's suffering, are we?

KOESTENBAUM: Well, I think that there are forms of entertainment - say, the films of John Waters - where the flamboyant bizarreness unto madness of the characters is seen as a form of ennobling charisma. And I think that there's a whole flock of spectators - and I'm one of them - who likes to see that kind of flamboyance played out. And in terms of - I think that what happened to the woman who called in, who was filmed while manic and that that was - went viral, that is, indeed, painful.

But I think the behavior of the so-called mad has often, throughout history, been the source of entertainment and tragedy, even - from the mad scenes in opera to the raving King Lear in Shakespeare. And there's a fine line. I think that if it's a - I don't think a character can be humiliated.

COX: Well, hold that thought for a moment, because I want to let people know that we are talking about humiliation. This is TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests are Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the book "Humiliation," and C.J. Pascoe, an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So to follow this point up with you a little bit more, Wayne, let me read this one. Actually, let's do this.

Let's take this - I'm going to read one. We're going to take a call. Then, I'm going to come back to you to get your response to it. The first one is from Laura in Boulder, Colorado. Laura writes: I spent seven years in an English girls' boarding school during the '60s. Public humiliation was a constant daily strategy, perhaps to make us grow and change. What it has left me with is a constitutional inability to do anything approaching public humiliation in my work as a teacher. I find I do not really have a strategy to replace my own experience.

And she'd like to know what your comments are. But before you give those, I'd like to bring Mike from San Diego into the conversation as well. Mike has suffered from a DUI, I understand. Is that correct, Mike?

MIKE: That is correct.

COX: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE: So I'm a Phoenix local, and a graduate student at Arizona State University. I'm a graduate student in mechanical engineering. And a little over five years ago, my first semester in college, I got a DUI. And this was right after a deployment. It's probably one of the most humiliating things that ever happened to me. I almost dropped out. I had to seek counseling to keep things together, you know; seek the counsel of a counselor, and then the support from my family.

And from it, the - how Wayne was talking about, there was a triangle, like a humiliator with almost like myself. So there was a lot of self-loathing that was happening at the same time. And what really spoke to me, and encouraged me to call in, was when Wayne said that if you're able to come back from an experience like this, that little seed that's left is real gold, from real strong characteristics. And I got involved in community service. I got involved with like, student leadership stuff.

I bounced back completely. I got involved with the Yellow Ribbon Program, that helped other military members coming back from deployment so they didn't have to go through the same experience that I had. I wound up getting, for the first time in my life, Fulbright - I got a Fulbright scholarship to ASU.

COX: Mike, congratulations. I'm interrupting you because I'm humiliated a little bit to have to say this, but our time has run out. The clock says I must say goodbye. And thank you to Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the book "Humiliation"; also to C.J. Pascoe, assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College.

Up next, the NFL lockout is over. Players are back in training camps and signing new contracts. What about the fans, though? Did the lockout change your interest in the game; 800-989-8255. Or by email: talk@npr.org. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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