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Confronting and Ending the Politics of Humiliation: Part 1, From the Warsaw Ghetto to Guantanamo Bay

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At this point, to wax rhapsodic over the end of the Bush regime would be a foolishly premature celebration. A lot of damage could be done between now and January of 2009. And, I don't even want to think about the possibility that John McCain could replace the current autocrat-in-chief. But it is not too early to reflect upon the most malignant legacy of the last seven and a half years: an ethos of governing based on the humiliation of others. Nor is it too soon to imagine a very different politics, one founded on empathy and respect, for enemies as well as friends. Over the course of the next few posts I will explore the psychology and history of where we've been, and how we might move our politics to one animated by an interest in the feelings and perspectives of others, even, and perhaps especially, when they threaten us.

Those who comprise the current Republican administration are certainly not the first political rulers to deploy humiliation as a psychological weapon against those it perceives as a threat. Humiliation has been a feature of nearly every society based on domination -- those that rank its citizens in terms of a hierarchy of worth. Many scholars correlate this with the beginnings of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago. But what has distinguished the Bush years has been the near obsession with degrading others, at home and abroad, even in the face of overwhelming and self-defeating blowback. To understand the effect this has had on politics, we have to look more closely at the psychology of humiliation itself -- the motives of perpetrators, and the impact on victims.

Humiliation is a form of psychological violence, a public shredding of self-respect. It can be implemented through interrogation, ridicule, poverty, racism, demotion, torture, incarceration, rape, execution, neglect, rejection, punishment, or genocide. Its purveyors can be parents, bosses, schoolmates, teachers, agents of the state, and enemies of all stripes. It even constitutes an ever-increasing percentage of our entertainment, as evident in the wildly popular spectacles of degradation that comprise most "reality shows."

It is hard to exaggerate the bruising and reverberating impact of humiliation on private and public life. The ordinary, everyday belittling of children by parents, teachers, or peers leaves behind a crippling residue of shame that can last a lifetime. Over the many years of my practice as a clinical psychologist, I have often found that for some of my adult patients, even the experience of being understood can feel like a mortifying exposure. Their dread is that, once known, they will be revealed to be as unworthy of respect as they had always been told they were.

Wielded as a weapon, whether in public or private life, humiliation functions as a psychic projectile, which once lodged in the soft and friable tissues of another's self, continues to detonate long after being launched. It can produce a wound of constantly expanding edges that eats away at the foundations of personhood, like a gangrene of the soul. In a desperate effort to heal this lesion, its victims -- nations, cultures, or individuals -- seek to inflict it on others. Retaliation against real or imagined perpetrators becomes the means for enacting a doomed fantasy of self-repair. But this strategy of counter-humiliation not only fails to restore one's honor, by dishonoring the other, one creates an enduring enemy, or revivifies the vengeance of those adversaries who already existed. In other words, humiliation is the way those who bully children, perpetrate interethnic massacres, and torture prisoners propagate themselves -- just as vampires transform the objects of their blood lust into versions of themselves. Victims get transformed into perpetrators.

Once one becomes a perpetrator, the process of humiliation functions as both a psychological cleansing process and as a way to attack a perceived enemy. When individuals or groups want to get rid of unconscious and despised aspects of themselves -- their own history of humiliation, shameful weaknesses, forbidden longings, or murderous impulses -- another person or group is found who can be used as a kind of psychic toilet. The victims are put in the position where they are depicted, often through mockery or propaganda, as embodying the unwanted aspects of the perpetrator. Often the targets of humiliation are literally forced, through violence and incarceration, to take up the disowned qualities. A striking example of this is the way the Nazis used the Warsaw Ghetto.

Many factors led to the rise of Hitler. But a central one was the humiliation suffered by Germany at the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I in 1918, which featured highly punitive financial reparations mandated by the gloating Allied victors. This was followed by an economic catastrophe severe enough to produce epidemic malnutrition, high infant mortality, and widespread disease. Equally epidemic was a collective sense of shame, helplessness, and depression. But along came the future Fuhrer promising a restoration of German honor, a new global Reich, and a cleansing of all that sullied the erstwhile noble Teutonic soul. Once in power, Hitler and his party set about to identify and eliminate the social impurities that threatened to impede Germany's return to greatness.

A central feature of Nazi cultural psychology was an obsession with shit and its symbolic derivatives -- dirt, filth, impurity, vermin, parasites, and contamination. Its maniacal mission was to purify German literature, music, art, philosophy, politics, blood, sexuality, and gender roles of everything regarded as foul, smelly, and base. However, obsessive public hygiene programs, censorship, and the bonfires of burning books and paintings were insufficient to cleanse the Nazi psyche. They needed human receptacles in which to relocate and thus dispose of the dirty stuff they needed to disclaim. Enter the Jews.

On the path that began with discriminatory laws and ended with death camps, the Warsaw Ghetto was a crucial stopover. Denied adequate food (10% of the calories allotted for non-Jewish Poles), medicine, and hygiene, the Jews confined to the Ghetto began to look like the diseased, derelict, and filthy caricatures of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. They also resembled the humiliated and starving condition of post-World War One Germans. By forcing Jews to enact a repudiated German history, the captors brought to life their own primitive projections. To give this whole process the status of a discovered scientific truth, scenes from this manufactured waking nightmare were used in the Nazi "documentary," The Eternal Jew. Shots of desperate, unwashed, and emaciated captives were intercut with scenes of frenzied rats scrambling over bags of grain in a warehouse. The images were thus used to illustrate the timeless and subhuman nature of Jewish racial degeneracy.

As lice-infested vermin, the Jews were the very embodiment of everything that good, clean Aryans were not. And, like rats and insects, Jews would bring filth and disease to everyone else if some (final) solution were not found. That remedy, as we now know, was Zyklon B, a pesticide. Unfortunately, Germans would not be the last people to attempt to antidote their national humiliation with a lethal and racist strategy of counter-humiliation directed against helpless and captive victims.

Had 9/11 occurred on the watch of a different administration, we might have seen profoundly different political sequelae. But these events were filtered through the psyches of a White House staffed from top to bottom by fundamentalist, grandiose, and sadistic warmongers who were caught up in the delirious wet dream of global empire. In addition, there were centuries old collective attitudes, still held by many Americans, which profoundly influenced the response to this devastating trauma.

Like individual adults, nations can often be plagued by unrelinquished childhood fantasies that impede their maturation. From this perspective, the United States has had an enduring national self-image, dating from its early years, that has made its people especially vulnerable to humiliation. We Americans have a long history of seeing ourselves as the special beneficiaries of God's grace. "Manifest destiny" has been but one of many expressions of our special entitlement to the world's resources. Our fantasy of absolute mastery over animal, plant, and human life can take benign forms, such as the notion that "American ingenuity" can solve any problem. Or, it can manifest itself in more malignant ways, such as slavery, genocide of native peoples, global warming, species extinction, and wars of choice. Not surprisingly, this deeply held delusion of our omnipotence sets us up for a big fall.

Along with the collapse seven years ago of the World Trade Towers, we witnessed the crumbling of America's fantasy of invulnerability. Low-tech terrorists rendered the world's preeminent "super power" helpless, and its arsenal of "super weapons" useless. This symbolic castration by a handful of Middle Eastern men with box cutters was itself, to some extent, an effort on their part to manage a collective Arab history of humiliation at the hands of the West. These events, in turn, led to a strategy of deliberate counter-humiliation by the US government, one that found its most stark expression in the carefully staged sadomasochistic depictions found in the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, and the grisly tales of torture and humiliation at Guantanamo.

The torture relationship has a special attraction to those trying to avenge an experience of humiliating powerlessness. It provides an opportunity to assert absolute control over a helpless other. As we know from various military whistle blowers, the first step in the induction of prisoners into America's various concentration camps abroad is to make them dependent on their captors for everything -- food, water, sleep, medical care, and comfort. When this capacity to create absolute dependency is coupled with the ability to torture, humiliate, and terrify captives, a profound regression is often induced in the victims. In fact, this is precisely the dynamic of child abuse.

When the torture relationship is then photographed, filmed, and distributed, the humiliating exposure endures long past the original experience -- a visual captivity from which there is no escape. With distribution across the Internet, as well as other media, a permanent wound of shame results.

When the Abu Ghraib photos first appeared, the images in some cases were used as forensic evidence against the torturers. But in many instances they circulated across the global media-scape as a kind of pornography of domination, such as when they were swapped among the members of the Army's 320th Battalion who used them as computer screen savers. The ultimate irony, as we have come to appreciate, is that these photos became the recruiting posters for the next generation of avenging terrorists, who were inspired to distribute there own images of abducted, humiliated, and tortured victims. And on it goes.

In Part II of this series, I will explore how the politics of humiliation that has so marked the last seven and a half years can be supplanted by a politics of empathy. Since I have (reluctantly) tortured you, patient readers, with these tales of horror, my first foray into compassion will be to leave you with something a bit uplifting.

Sometimes, against all odds, there are those who rise out of psychic rubble of the humiliator's "Shock and Awe" with their humanity intact, and who refuse to be slave or master, victim or perpetrator. Such was the case of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian Muslim abducted in Pakistan and sent on an odyssey of excruciating physical and mental torment that ultimately brought him to Guantanamo, from where he was eventually released. At the end of one of the final and most brutal interrogations, Mr. Habib leapt to his feet and shook the hand of his abuser, whose jaw dropped in astonishment. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Habib said, "It makes me proud of myself. It gives me victory. I have my dignity." He has returned to Australia to run for Parliament, where he hopes to challenge his government's complicity with those who sought to bludgeon his psyche as well as his body.