Humiliation, Steven Kotkins writes in his historical biography Stalin, does often serve as the wellspring of savagery. Here, we see the young Stalin, whose real name was Josef Jugashvili, as a boy oppressed by the orthodox seminary who lived constantly at the receiving end of a drunk, abusive father. Raised on the outskirts of the Russian Empire in the small town of Gori Georgia, Jugashvili seemed torn by an unusual family dynamic of an exalting mother, an aloof father, and several childhood accidents, as well as illnesses, that lead him to become rather effortlessly, despite his peculiarly small stature, tougher than the average boys of the region. This would serve as history’s best reflection of the future dictator’s ruthless seedbed, leading to the violence that would later ensue upon Russia.
However, accurate or not, it does speak to a greater truth, particularly in our way of raising children that rings with me as a father, and should force any morally serious person to question the effect of humiliation on others, that the effect may remain potent with the individual years after the fact. Linda Hartling, Ph.D. shows us in her Humiliation Inventory ((Hartling, 1996; Hartling & Luchetta, 1999) “ I found that those with high scores on the scale described their experiences of humiliation as if it had happened yesterday, even though the experience may have occurred many, many years in the past. Their experiences remained painfully fresh and vivid in their minds. Since then, I have wondered what mechanisms contribute to the potency of humiliation. What keeps humiliation present in our lives?”
The grim nature of humiliation on the brain is more startling. The way you feel derives from the way you think, according to the cognitive theories of emotion. When one is lowered in status in front of others, he/she is likely to feel humiliated and, according to Linda Hartling’s study, they will clutch these feelings for years as though it had happened the day before. This causes one to be susceptible to triggers, as it will remain so fresh in the mind if the pattern of thinking isn’t changed. But could humiliation lead to the same spring of vengeance and violence seen under Stalin’s reign? It would appear the answer rests in the chemistry of the brain. Hartling goes on to cite other studies which observe that “ social pain triggers some of the same mechanisms and responses in the brain as physical pain.” Additionally, a study was conducted which involved participants who were under the belief that they were playing a virtual ball-tossing game. “In actuality, there were no other players involved. To create the illusion of an interactive game, a computer generated the actions of the other players to include the participant in one round and to exclude the participant in another round.
Excluded participants showed increased activity in the dorsal ACC, which was strongly correlated with the participants’ self-reports of social distress—“how rejected, excluded, meaningless they felt.” ACC refers to the Agenesis of the corpus callosum, which also seems to activate in response to physical pain. These studies indicate a direct correlation in the brain, a lingering presence humiliation has in one’s recollection, and the profound effect exclusion may have on humans socially. Imagining for a moment, the numerous childhood incidents when you were excluded from a group, and these feelings of degradation, justifiable as they are, have remained with you your whole life. Are they linked to lack of self-awareness, leading to violence? Hartling explains, “Based on these studies of social exclusion and the brain research on social pain, we can hypothesize a pathway along which humiliation progresses toward aggression. In theory, humiliation may trigger social pain activating the alarm system of the brain leading to decreased self-awareness in the form of a deconstructed state, which includes emotional numbness.”
She goes on to reflect the experience of the individual by referencing the alienation of Muslim immigrants in France, leading to riots and racial lash-outs. It’s sobering to imagine the circumstances in schools and communities, and the social pain absorbed by adolescence. These circumstances aren’t left without a solution, as Hartling hypothesizes “Humiliation is a relational violation that profoundly damages one’s sense of connection and triggers social pain,” and that violence is a direct result of the loss of self-awareness, and this occurs through social pain caused by exclusion. The human connection seems to be the key to breaking the cycles of social pain. So although violence isn’t the inevitable end for the individual experiencing humiliation, it does inflict damage to he/she and should be understood by today’s leaders, teachers, and parents that social connection and inclusion are key to disrupting the patterns of social pain, especially in youth.