You are on page 1of 7

‘Don’t tread on me: humiliation, shame, and embarrassment’

Galen Strawson

Review of Humiliation, by William Ian Miller London Review of Books, Oct 6, 1994

[slightly revised; original]

Are humiliation, shame, and embarrassment ‘the central emotions of everyday social
existence’ [p. xi]? William Ian Miller seems to think so, and he’s not obviously wrong: to
say that these emotions are central is not to say that they are the most often felt (their
centrality may lie in the strength of our efforts to avoid them), and his view has a creeping
plausibility—in the school playground, among teenagers, among midlife colleagues, in the
retirement home. It has, in fact, a serious claim to express a human universal, valid for all
societies, with origins in the deep past of the species and echoes in the social hierarchies of
present-day non-human primates. There is no doubt about the peculiar importance, in human
life, of those negative emotions that are specially (although not unbreakably) connected to
awareness of the appearance of the self to others. The problem, moreover, starts early: one-
year-olds have a startling capacity for self-consciousness, and their grasp of what it is to lose
face or feel foolish is striking for seeming but not being precocious.
Humiliation, shame, and embarrassment interact with each other in complicated ways, and
each of them interacts differently with issues of honour, pride, and guilt. Each of them
connects in different ways with comedy and tragedy, with feeling crestfallen, fatuous,
dismayed, mortified, deflated, demeaned, and degraded; with anger and modesty,
indignation and ignominy, with respect, remorse, resentment, reputation, sorrow,
Schadenfreude, and self-esteem. It is possible to describe these connections one by one, but
it is very slow going. Does shame, or embarrassment, always involve feeling crestfallen?
Each seemingly plausible claim obliges one to stop and think hard about whether or not it is
true without exception. It is extremely difficult to systematise such claims, or to achieve a
sense of general command over the territory, either in a strong form (a synoptic view of the
whole) or in a weaker form (a sure sense of where one is, wherever one is, without any sense
of the whole). The claims don’t seem to build into a single structure.
Nevertheless shame, humiliation, and embarrassment have common borders in the great
maze of moral psychology, and in his discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Miller
makes a good case for the view that the word ‘shame’ once covered much of the ground now
parcelled out between ‘embarrassment’ and ‘humiliation’, two words which have evolved
only relatively recently into their current senses. Miller argues effectively against the
suggestion that the feelings were not fully available before the words were. More generally,
he stops well short of the ‘social constructionist orthodoxy’ that glorifies cultural difference,
trumpets the mutual unintelligibility of human societies across time and space, and
exaggerates the Whorfian view that language rigidly determines experience. ‘As a polemical
matter’, he writes,

[social] constructionists privilege difference at the expense of sameness. Difference is thus what
makes the other culture belong to the other people; sameness becomes an illusion because what looks
like sameness cannot be the same, tied as it is to different structures of meaning. Yet this view
supposes a confidence that our ability to discern difference is much more reliable than our ability to
discern sameness. [pp. 196–7]

The last sentence makes a very good point. One doesn’t have to be a ‘humanist’, in the sense
of that word in which it is now supposed to be a dirty word (denoting someone with an
uncritical belief in a universal and unvarying human nature), in order to trust some intuitions
and experiences of profound cross-cultural sameness.
The fact remains that ‘shame’ was once a very general word, and that ‘humiliation’ and
‘embarrassment’ have since differentiated themselves—at least in common English as
applied to Western society. Chaucer’s Troilus (‘he wex a litel reed for shame’) and
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (‘Sit Coriolanus; never shame to hear/What you have nobly
done’) felt shame when praised, but we now call that embarrassment. Public incontinence
can inspire all three emotions, and the words run into each other in ordinary use, but
distinctions can still be made. In the society with which I am most familiar, for example,

(1) connects more easily than shame or humiliation with inappropriate clothes, wearing the same
dress as one’s hostess, bra failure, open fly buttons, loud stomach noises, wayward snot, involuntary
farts, and (in some cases) reading this sentence.

(2) As a response to public awkwardness or inappropriateness, embarrassment is not an essentially

self-regarding emotion, unlike the emotions of shame or humiliation.

(3) One can be embarrassed by x’s embarrassment even if x has no significant connection with one;
one cannot be similarly shamed or humiliated by x’s shame or humiliation, although one may feel
shamed or humiliated by the behaviour of x, if x has some significant connection with one. (What
constitutes a significant connection can change according to circumstances. In some cases it needs to
be a member of one’s family or clan. In France, it might be any Briton, if one is British. In some
circumstances it might be any person who has the same skin colour or sex as oneself. In a
confrontation with admirable and sophisticated Martians, it might be any human being.)

More can be said.

(4) In societies where one can make a clear distinction between codes of manners and codes of
morals, embarrassment has more to do with breaches of the former, shame with breaches of the

(5) Past embarrassments, even when acute, can furnish funny stories to tell against oneself. Past
shames or humiliations do not, although both these words have lighter uses—even comic uses—that
blur this point, and the word ‘humiliation’ is now used grossly in newspapers almost every time any
sports team beats any other.

(6) It is fear of embarrassment, not of shame or humiliation, that inhibits some people from giving up
their seat in a crowded train, or from helping someone in distress in public. Some find selfishness a
puny motive in comparison with shyness or embarrassment (the phrase ‘crippling embarrassment’ is
often accurate). A helping gesture embarrassingly calls attention to oneself, is embarrassingly
interpretable as an implicit criticism of others who have failed to act, and—even worse—as a public
claim to moral goodness.

(7) The troublesome distinction between ‘shame cultures’ and ‘guilt cultures’ has its uses, but many
of us today in the northern West live in neither. We live in an embarrassment culture. Isaiah Berlin
always liked to say that embarrassment is the fundamental British emotion, or at least the
fundamental British social emotion. More recently Rom Harré [has] suggested that ‘shame is
everywhere giving place to embarrassment as the major affective instrument of [social] conformity’.
He takes this to indicate the ‘collapse of the distinction between manners and morality’ (1990: 181,

Embarrassment is perhaps the most theoretically tractable of the three emotions, followed
by shame, which has been the object of extensive academic examination: not only by
anthropologists of present-day societies, but also by historians, philosophers, and literary
critics interested in the ‘heroic societies’ or ‘honour cultures’ described in Homer and the
Greek tragedies, or in the medieval Icelandic sagas that Miller, a professor of law, has made
an object of special study. Humiliation is harder, and has received much less attention.
Miller’s discussion of it seems much more curious and disputable than his discussion of
shame and embarrassment.
He is clearly right, though, to begin by distinguishing the state of humiliation from the
feeling. The two often go together, but can come apart: on the one hand one can feel
humiliated without actually being humiliated (one may be oversensitive, ignorant of local
standards, masochistically self-absorbed). On the other hand one can be judged to have been
humiliated without feeling it (one may be insensitive, one may reject local standards, one
may know that the people who judge one to have been humiliated don’t know the facts and
one may care little for their opinion). The causes of humiliation also need distinguishing.
Someone can specifically intend to humiliate or do it inadvertently. One can be or feel
humiliated by something one has done (e.g. a mistake one has made) or by one’s ignorance.
One can even feel humiliated by something that just happens.
These are relatively uncontroversial preliminaries, but Miller has stranger views.

(a) ‘Humiliation cannot be avoided’ [p. x]

(b) It ‘inheres in every nook and cranny of the normal’ [p. 10].

(c) ‘Humiliation (or the fear of it) is perhaps the key emotion that supports our self-esteem and self-
respect’ [p. x]

(d) ‘Humiliation’s genre is the comic’ [p. x]; ‘the defining substance of the humiliating’ is the
grotesque, and the ‘dark comic world’ which contains such things as the medieval Icelandic ritual of
corpse dismemberment [p. 162].

(e) ‘If an apology does not look somewhat humiliating to the wronged person or to third parties, then
it isn’t one and it would be utterly ineffective in accomplishing the remedial work it is supposed to
do’ [p. 163].

None of these statements seems true. As for (a), there are lives in which humiliation is a
rare or unknown occurrence, and in which fear of humiliation is not a major consideration.
As for (b), there are many areas of normal life where humiliation is not a serious threat, and
some less normal areas where it is impossible. (It is impossible in the case of sexual love, for
example, though not in the case of sex. Sadomasochistic sexual love is not an exception.) As
for (c), fear of humiliation cannot be a support for self-respect or self-esteem. One’s putative
self-respect wouldn’t really be self-respect in such a case, and it could hardly survive the
realization that fear of humiliation was its keystone.
Moving on to (d), there is something interesting in the idea that humiliation is always less
than tragic; but it seems quite wrong to tie it specifically to the comic. The ruthless public
deflation of legitimate but overambitious aspirations is not comic. Coerced nakedness is not
comic. Malvolio is comic, but his comedy ends where his real humiliation begins. In
advancing his comedy thesis, Miller includes some necessary provisos about the
humiliations of extermination camps and torture rooms, but even after these have been
allowed the thesis seems perverse. His fondness for it may be partly explained by the fact
that he links comedy with something entirely distinct from it—Schadenfreude—and then
supposes, reasonably, that humiliation is a rich source of the latter.
(e) is also wrong. There is (for a start) a big difference between apologising for something
one did intentionally and apologising for failing to do something because one genuinely
forgot to do it. In the case of forgetfulness, it is obvious that apology may be heartfelt and
unconditional without any trace of humiliation. It may be less obvious in the case of
intentional action, but it is still true. My own sense is that apology is devalued, and its
‘remedial work’ weakened or voided, by any appearance of humiliation on the part of the
apologiser. One doesn’t have to agree with this, however, to grant that humiliation is no part
of the essence of apology.
Perhaps Miller is right that

(f) ‘humiliation is the emotion we feel when our pretensions are discovered’ [p. 10]?

Again this is too narrow. One can feel silly or foolish without feeling humiliated, and if (f)
were true it would raise further serious problems for the claim that humiliation is
unavoidable and ubiquitous. It’s true that humiliation is connected with presumption and
pretension in a way that shame is not. But some people are very unpretentious. They have a
very good idea of what they can and can’t do, and are ready to be wrong. This is not so
In general, Miller’s view of life seems too bound up with the ‘honor culture’ of ‘saga
Iceland’, in which ‘at root honor means “don’t tread on me”’, and is ‘above all the keen
sensitivity to the experience of humiliation and shame’ [p. 84]—together with a readiness to
avenge anything perceived as an affront. Such a view of honour is remarkably impoverished,
even if it is historically accurate. Honour is a subtle matter. There are times when it requires
something more difficult than retaliation—inaction and silence. It seems particularly
perverse to connect it above all with sensitivity to the experience of humiliation. I have no
doubt that honourable (and passionate) people may go through life without ever really
experiencing the feeling of humiliation—as opposed, say, to feeling angry, hurt, or silly.
Is this really impossible? Miller is ambivalent. He reports Richard Rorty’s view that there
is, in spite of all the supposedly unfathomable differences between cultures, at least one
social-psychological universal: ‘the humiliatibility of human kind’. At the same time, he
writes of those who are ‘unhumiliatable’, judging them to be ‘unenviable souls of whom it
could be said [with Bob Dylan] that “when you got nothing you got nothing to lose”’ [p. 11].
This is wildly inadequate—but Miller is right to say that sheer stupidity or insensitivity, as
well as material and spiritual destitution, may protect against humiliation.
Are there more positive forms of immunity? It seems that humility ought to be a good pre-
emptor of humiliation. Correct—but the word ‘humility’ is tainted by soggy-Christian
employment and difficult to use, and Miller is very suspicious of this suggestion, arguing
more than once that ‘the strategy of being humble often leads to pride in one’s humility’ [p.
11]. This misstates the point, because genuine humility can’t be a strategy. Nor can it be a
source of pride—whether pride is understood as a virtue or a vice. But it is clear enough
what he means, and he indicates a real danger.
Miller is generally suspicious, and suspicion is always sensible in this area. But one also
needs to be suspicious of one’s suspicion, and Miller seems insufficiently aware of this: his
methodological misanthropy goes deep. It does not prevent him from conceding, eventually,
that there are ‘genuinely humble people’ who have a ‘near airtight defense against being
humiliated and, for the most part, against feeling humiliated too’ [p. 148]; but it spoils his
description of them. Such people, he says, are ‘decent, patient, strong, even tough’. If they
are self-aware they are ‘rather limitedly so. They pretend to nothing that they do not have
and they genuinely do seem to possess a modest way of self-presentation which does not
have the least air of the strategic about it’ [p. 148]. This is an attempt at balance, but it is
grudging and wayward. It is simply not true that patience is necessary for humility, or for
unhumiliatability; nor is limited self-awareness. Such mistakes are extremely revealing.
Miller has very little feeling for the idea that there are positive forms of immunity to
Putting humility aside, one can continue his description of the humiliation-resistant in
other terms. Thus it helps (as he says) if one is not predisposed by temperament to fear
humiliation (this can be first a cause of humiliation-resistance, and then an effect). It helps if
one possesses an accurate sense of one’s limits and abilities (a certain amount of
underestimation does no harm). It helps, again, if one is deeply unoffendable; but even those
who are ordinarily offendable may feel angry or hurt rather than humiliated, in situations
which Miller regards as paradigmatically humiliating.
It also helps, no doubt, if one is tolerant, kind, aware of the difficulties of human life, well
equipped with the Weilian, Murdochian ego-suppressing moral virtues of realism and
imagination. But it may be just as good if one simply doesn’t care very much about what
other people think (a virtue in combination with some characteristics, a vice in combination
with others).
There are other powerful sources of humiliation-resistance. Some human beings are
profoundly uninterested in the business of hierarchy and public status that is desperately
central to the life of others. Some are absorbed in their work or their god. Some find that
gratuitous insults simply rebound into the face of their perpetrators. There is a way of
accepting oneself that is a moral achievement, involves no trace of self-indulgence, and
undermines susceptibility to feelings of humiliation. It is arguable that the feeling of
humiliation is never an appropriate response to a situation, however natural it is. Generally,
there is a whole group of traits of character that can, mixed in varying proportions with each
other and with all sorts of other talents and failures, lift people partly or wholly out of
Miller’s humiliation-world, and in a positive way.
Why does Miller go wrong? Probably because he generalizes too quickly from his own
case. He may make the same mistake that many people make when they generalize about
sex. Their sexual experience has a feeling of fundamentality that convinces them that the
way it is for them must also be the way it is for others (of the same sex). This is a wonderful
source of error. Obviously there are important commonalities of experience, when it comes
to sex or humiliation. But they are far harder to express than many theory-happy individuals
suppose. Here as elsewhere, there isn’t any single basic human thing. Instead there are large
and interesting generalizations that require delicacy and qualification, tolerance of the sort of
fiddly, fascinating complexity that spoils sweeping theory. More generally, there isn’t some
single human type of moral personality, even within a single culture. Instead there are a
number of basic and profoundly different types of moral personality. This fact is of great
importance in philosophy and in life. (It raises some of the same problems that pluralism
raises in the domain of political theory. Thus some varieties of moral personality are
intrinsically tolerant, and are therefore tolerant of other intolerant varieties in a way that is
not reciprocated.)
Millerians now have a final sceptical defence. If I (GS) claim to be unfamiliar with the
feeling of humiliation, that may be because I am ‘gendered as masculine’. Humiliation, by
contrast, ‘is . . . richly gendered as feminine’. One year Miller ran a legal anthropology
seminar called ‘Violence’; the following year he moved on to ‘Humiliation’. In the first
seminar there were two men for every woman, in the second, six women for every man.
‘Even before the seminar met’, he writes, ‘I had gotten as useful a piece of information out
of it as I could have hoped for. Women can admit to an interest in humiliation without loss
of face. Men suspect that they can only lose face’ [p. 168]. They will ‘type themselves
feminine if they admit to being humiliated’, and as ‘immoral . . . if they admit to
humiliating’ [p. 169].
Having made this suggestion, Miller quickly distances himself from the fringe-feminist
belief that (standard heterosexual) sexual intercourse ‘can only humiliate women in the eyes
of men and often in their own eyes as well’. But he then produces some equally weird views
of his own, arguing that ‘courtship and humiliating oneself seem to be intimately
associated’, and that men ‘find it nearly impossible to avoid looking foolish to the women
who finally accept them’ [p. 169]. Here he goes off the wall, and he does not distance
himself from the view that he attributes to Dostoyevskyan ‘underground man’, according to
which ‘humiliation (of males) is a necessary condition to the reproduction of the human
species’ [p. 169]. He predicts that these claims will annoy, but not that they will raise doubts
about his mental stability. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the population
can find any truth in them.
Formally speaking, Miller’s position is indefeasible. Faced with those who deny the
‘humiliation in every nook and cranny’ thesis, he can classify them off the court: as mired in
self-deception that is ‘typed masculine’, as humble but lacking in self-awareness, as stupid,
insentient, boorish, or complacent. But indefeasibility is a crippling defect in a theory, as
Miller knows, and he faces the challenge that he too is mired in self-deception: that he has
succumbed to theoretical hyperinflation, that he has been beguiled by his cynical heuristic,
that he is too quick and narrow in his extrapolation from his own embattled ‘ordinary
everydayness’. (‘In one view, how we go about avoiding humiliation is us, is our very
character’ [p. 140].) His dampening attitude to excessive claims about the
incommensurability of cultures is good; but he is perhaps too confident of sameness within a
culture. The most interesting human differences are the deep differences that exist between
members of a single culture, rather than between different cultures.
Above all, Miller needs to think harder about positive forms of immunity to humiliation. It
would be good if he did, because Humiliation and Other Essays on Honor, Social
Discomfort, and Violence is a very worthwhile book. It is not short on false statements, but it
is consistently interesting. Its principal claim is not easily refuted. It is quite hard going, but
for three good reasons: it is interdisciplinarily adventurous, it discusses some difficult
questions, and it does so with intensity and intermittent subtlety.