Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Humiliating People to Death

Certain episodes stay in my mind.

When I was 16 years old I was walking down the street one Friday night, heading toward a party, when I saw a girl I knew from high school walking toward me. I did not know her personally, but recognized her, as she recognized me.

She was walking her dog. I had mixed feelings about that: surprise and pity. I was going to a party, and knew I was going to have a great time. She, on the other hand, was walking her dog on a Friday night.

She was not an attractive girl. She was fairly tall and chunky and even plastic surgery wouldn’t improve her looks all that much. And even if she lost weight, she’d never have a nice body.

As she got closer to me, I saw something in her eyes that really surprised me to the point of shock: fear. A lot of fear. I intuitively knew the reason why: she thought I was going to humiliate her.

I was so disconcerted by the fact she was afraid of me I walked by her without saying a word or looking at her.

I doubt anyone had ever purposely humiliated this girl. But she knew what she looked like, and was never invited to parties, and had ever had a boyfriend, and had never even been kissed. That’s pretty bad.

In college I knew a girl who one evening, for some unknown reason, told me that in seventh-grade she had been ostracized. She showed me a picture. A little overweight, with glasses set crooked on her face. But not bad; even kind of cute.

But she had been ignored and ostracized. Over the summer she became the proverbial ugly duckling blossoming into a swan. She got taller, lost weight, got contacts. When she got back to school all the kids who had ostracized her wanted to be her friends. She ignored every one of them.

Hers was a case of feeling humiliated followed by revenge. That’s generally what happens. In fact, it’s so common it’s a law of human nature. Just look at the story of Cain and Abel: Cain feels humiliated, so he gets revenge on his (innocent) brother.

The word that means overwhelming humiliation, namely, mortification, comes from Latin roots that mean "to make dead" {mortis, dead, and facere, to make). This is an old truth that is true today, and it’s a universal one: overwhelming humiliation can kill people.

I don’t mean mortification kills their bodies: it kills their selves. The evidence is so overwhelming I don’t even have to quote anything: all know that the overwhelming humiliation of children, for all practical purposes, kills their selves. And how do you resurrect a dead self?

Then they become adults they end up in prison after committing various appalling crimes, ones committed to get their revenge on “society” and to regain some sort of pride and self-respect.

I remember reading a comment from one teenage school shooter: “The world has wronged me, and I could take it no more.” The feeling of humiliation followed by revenge, which is in a sentence the attempt to replace humiliation with pride – and doing it by violence.

It puzzles me how this truth about humiliation followed by revenge (or as the ancient Greeks described it, Hubris followed by Nemesis) is so little-known. The humiliation of Germany after WWI (and England and the other countries, including the U.S., were just as guilty) led to the revenge know as World War II.

9-11 was revenge on the United States for supporting repressive regimes and overthrowing governments in the Islamic world for some 60 years. Yet, not so mystifyingly when you understand propaganda, it was fed to the American people as an attack by the “Evil Ones” on our “goodness.”

When you understand that natural law of humiliation followed by revenge, you can predict the future. It ain’t hard. And when people flunk their history lessons they have to keep going back to class until they pass.

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