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Humiliation and Assistance:
Telling the Truth About Power, Telling a New Story1
Linda M. Hartling, PhD
Jean Baker Miller Training Institute
Wellesley Centers for Women - Wellesley College
One of the most challenging aspects of studying humiliation is that it requires us, as researchers
and activists, to tell the truth about the operations of power. This means we must tell the truth
about relationships, specifically dominant-subordinate relationships in which some people hold the power to humiliate, degrade, or dehumanize others. If we hope to find effective ways to heal humiliation, this paper proposes we must uncover the disordered operations of power that sustain dominant-subordinate relationships and tell a new story about relationships that acknowledges and upholds the dignity of all people.
Power: Who’s Telling the Story?
Making the operations of power visible may seem like a relatively obvious and straightforward demand of this work, but, as we all know, it is far from easy. Bestselling author and psychiatrist
Jean Baker Miller (2003) observes:
Many of us in this society (and in some others too) are mixed up about power. Yet power is very real and is operating right in front of us all the time. Quite amazingly, those who have the most power in our society almost never talk about it and even more amazingly induce many of the rest of us not to recognize it either. (p. 1) It is difficult to map the operations of power when we have internalized knowledge, beliefs, values, and practices that divert attention away from these operations. For example, most theories of psychological development have obscured the operations of power by focusing primarily on internal traits and individual experience. Power is fundamentally relational; it requires interaction. While more and more psychological theories are exploring relational behavior, the consequences of dominant-subordinate relationships continue to be neglected (Jordan & Hartling, 2002). In another example, the American ideals of equality, equal 1 Parts of this paper are based on an earlier manuscript by Hartling, L. M., & Miller, J. B. (2005).
Moving beyond humiliation: A relational reconceptualization of human rights, Summer Advanced Training Institute: Encouraging an Era of Connection (pp. 38). Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA: Jean Baker Miller Training Institute.
1 opportunity, independence, and autonomy can camouflage the operations of power that protect the privileged with little regard for the most vulnerable members of society (Cushman, 1995;
Lane, 2000). The recent natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, revealed America’s hidden humanitarian disaster of countless people living in abject poverty in one of the riches nations in the world.
Internationally, humanitarian tragedies like Darfur are brutal reminders that politicallyconvenient dissociation and denial are still acceptable ways to obscure the operations of power that permit unspeakable humiliation and destruction, and the annihilation of millions of people (Lindner, 2001b, 2001g; Powers, 2002). Even if we recognize that power is operating around us all of the time, the disordered operations of power can be difficult to detect because the most powerful members of society can present these operations as normal and necessary (Walker, 2004).
Telling the truth about the operations of power is a daunting endeavor; yet, members of the
Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network and others are forging a path:
Don Klein (1991a, 1991b, 1992) told a truth about power when he named the “conspiracy of silence” that enables the proliferation of humiliation and the fear of humiliation, which infects the lives of millions of people.
Evelin Lindner (2001b, 2001g; also see papers from 1999-2004) told a truth about power when she described the terrifying connection between humiliation and violent conflict.
Victoria Firmo-Fontan (2003) told a truth about power when she documented the polarization of the occupiers and the occupied in the Iraq war, a situation that intensified feelings of humiliation on both sides.
Paul Stokes (2004) told a truth about power when he observed that the conflict in Northern Ireland is due to profoundly damaged social bonds, bimodal alienation, and the loss of personal identity.
Eric Van Grasdorff (2003) told a truth about power when he described how an information age, fueled by Western technology, spreads Western ideology as truth.
Arie Nadler (2002) told a truth about power when he investigated the operations of power and social dominance underlying helping relationships.
These are some of the truths about power made visible through the study of humiliation. But how do we foster a keen awareness of the operations of power as we develop effective methods to heal humiliation? Psychologist Maureen Walker (2005) proposes that we can begin by asking ourselves two simple, but revealing questions: “Who is telling the story? Whose interest does the telling serve?” As a practitioner of Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT)—a theory of development emphasizing the centrality of relationships—Walker uses this approach to unearth
the operations power that shape theories of Western psychology. Walker observes:
Practitioners of RCT commit themselves to identifying and describing the hidden social, cultural, and political narratives that drive the operations of power. Aren’t we also doing this when we study humiliation? Clearly, whether or not an interaction is perceived as humiliating depends on who is telling the story. Scores of Americans still believe that the current conflict in Iraq is about liberating (not humiliating) the Iraqi people, but many Iraqis would strongly disagree.
U.S. political leaders claim that military action is helping Iraqis, but is it really helping? It seems more likely that it is an example of Arie Nadler’s (2002) research finding suggesting “high status groups may give help to members of lower status groups not only out of caring and concern but also to maintain their social advantage” (p. 490). If we want to develop the most effective ways to provide assistance, we need to intensify our awareness of who is telling the story and whose interests are being served.
Legitimizing Myths: The Story Behind the Story Tellers
Once we identify who is telling the story, how do we uncover the story behind the storytellers?
In RCT, this often involves investigating commonly accepted beliefs, values, or practices that mask and perpetuate existing dominant-subordinate arrangements in relationships. For instance, a primary principle of RCT is that growth-fostering relationships (i.e., humiliation-free relationships) are a central human necessity; as a result, practitioners of this theory are particularly interested in exposing the forces that undermine the formation of these essential connections. Specifically, RCT practitioners critically assess the social-cultural-political messages that breed separation, oppression, and social stratification, rather than authentic, empathic engagement. Researchers Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto (1999) might call these messages “hierarchy-enhancing legitimizing myths,” that is, self-apparent truths that maintain and enforce social stratification. Whether we are practicing RCT or studying humiliation, we can begin to tell the truth about power by investigating the story behind the storytellers, we can uncover the legitimizing myths that perpetuate unequal relationships.
Here is one example:
Western ideology (the story), supported by many theories of psychological development, suggests that the outcome of healthy development is “autonomy.” According the Webster’s
Unabridged Dictionary (2001), autonomy means:
1. independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions: the autonomy of the individual.
2. the condition of being autonomous; self-government or the right of self-government;
3 Based on over 25 years of clinical observation and research (Hartling et al., 2003), RCT questions whether or not autonomy is the apex of psychological development. How did the story of autonomy gain prominence and power? In the U.S., some might say the founding fathers (the story tellers) promoted the ideology of autonomy and independence (the story) in reaction to their feelings of humiliation they experienced under the oppression of British rule, e.g., “taxation without representation.” Undoubtedly, America’s drive for autonomy has generated positive developments, such as a new form of government. Ideally, self-governing independence in a democratic society encourages greater political participation, which leads to feelings of personal empowerment. Nevertheless, the notion of autonomy has its limitations. Law and Society
Professor Martha Albertson Fineman (2004) observes:
…our particular way of thinking about the desirability and attainability of autonomy for individuals and families has seriously limited the ways in which we think about equality. (p. xiii) …we give lip service to these ideals in a society in which policy and law protect and perpetuate existing and historic inequality, a nation where some individuals are subsidized and supported in their “independence,” while others are left mired in poverty or burdened by responsibilities not equitably shared. (p. 3) When does the ideology of autonomy become a problematic? Social domination theory (Pratto et al., 1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1994, 1999) suggests it is when it becomes a belief system that advances the superiority of one group over another, in other words, when it becomes a hierarchyenhancing legitimizing myth. At times in American history, the ideology of autonomy appears to have had the opposite effect. For instance, it was used as a “hierarchy-attenuating” story to legitimize the founding fathers’ efforts to overthrow British domination. In addition, the story of autonomy provided a foundation for developing a representative system of government, a government that honored independence, in which “all men are created equal.” But looking beneath patriotic rhetoric, we see that this story of autonomy never told the whole story. In reality, some men were not as equal as others, the majority of people were left out of the equation (women, people of color, indigenous peoples), some people were not considered human, and the founding fathers, in particular, were not representative nor were they autonomous. They were an elite group of men who depended on the work of women, servants, and slaves. In fact, “half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners” (Loewen, 1995, p. 146).
Could the story of autonomy be a social myth heralded to obscure the operations of power that allow privileged members of society to capitalize on the work of others? Martha Fineman (2004) asserts that the American “myth of autonomy” conceals the reality that “all of us live subsidized lives,” we all rely on others—locally and globally—for necessary resources, e.g., food, water, health care, energy, education, etc. It conceals the truth that the most powerful members of society depend on extraordinary support to maintain their “independence,” while others are begrudged assistance for the bare necessities of life. Moreover, it conceals the truth that it easier to represent oneself as “autonomous and independent” when one has, perhaps has always had, social, political, and economic advantages.
4 From a RCT perspective, the ideology of autonomy has real social and psychological consequences (Stone Center, 1981-2004). In effect, it generates a society of separation, a society that not only minimizes the value of human relationships, but also, even more importantly, grossly neglects the care of these relationships (Fineman, 2004; Lane, 2000). Autonomy implies that psychological health means “standing on one’s own,” without depending on others. This notion emboldens people to look down on and degrade those who must depend on others, e.g., the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the injured, etc. (Crandall, 2000). However, the landscape is changing. A growing body of research challenges the logic of autonomy, providing evidence that we are all healthier—socially, psychologically, and physically—when we are connected (Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002; Hartling, 2003, 2004; Hartling et al., 2003; Putnam, 2000;
Ornish, 1997; Resnick et al., 1997).
This discussion illustrates that even one of the most sacred assumptions of a society can be legitimizing myth that conceals the disordered operations of power. But where do we go from here?
If we are going to help heal humiliation, it seems clear that we must tell the truth about the operations of power by examining the legitimizing myths behind the stories that perpetuate dominant-subordinate relationships. These efforts will open the way for us to co-create new stories, new systems of thought and practice that will uphold the dignity of all people in a global community.
For example, RCT has moved beyond conceptualizing human development in terms of autonomy and independence vs. dependence. RCT is telling a new story, a new story about relating and relationships. This story notes that healthy development involves movement toward mutuality. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver (1997) define mutuality as emotional and cognitive action that benefits both or all people in the relationship. Judith Jordan (1986), codirector of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute and lecturer in psychology at Harvard
Medical School, goes on to say that mutuality is the experience of: