The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In the spring of 1863 Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed that April 30 should be set aside as “a day of national humiliation.” America, he argued, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success… too self-sufficient… too proud.” The civil war that had blighted the country had been God’s retribution for this arrogance. Only penitence, prayer, fasting, all leading to a collective feeling of humility, could prevent similar atrocities in the future.

Few of us want to be humiliated on a regular basis—unless, of course, we’re requesting it and latex is involved. For the most part, humiliation is something unwelcome, something punishing rather than actively sought out. Like EMBARRASSMENT, humiliation happens before an audience; like SHAME, it makes us want to shrink from sight. But crucial to humiliation is its CLAUSTROPHOBIA, its sense of being trapped in a diminished position. It’s there when we are the object of another’s CONTEMPT: as in the playground when all the other kids laugh at your braces, or when you discover that everyone in the village knew about the affair before you. So when we speak of feeling humiliated today, we are speaking of a feeling of degradation—and often the start of a cycle of dangerous retaliation. For Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Laureate and former UN Secretary-General, “all the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual.” It’s for this reason that humiliation has been called the “nuclear bomb of the emotions,” fueling a desire for revenge at all costs (see also: RESENTMENT).

This is all a long way from Lincoln’s “day of national humiliation” with its call to curb dangerous pride. At the time of his speech, ritualized acts of penance were encouraged in some Christian communities, and might involve wandering the streets wearing sackcloth and ashes, or eating morsels of stale bread while others dined on lavish meats. Humiliation made you modest and respectful, and reminded you of your final destination—in Latin, the prefix of humiliare (to humble) is humus (earth). The practice of humility is still part of many of the world’s religions. For example, the Jains’ commitment to extreme nonviolence is a daily reminder of their equality with all living things. To give up our elevated status isn’t always easy, though. It was perhaps through bitter experience of trying to impose humility on his brethren that the twelfth-century French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux warned: “Many of those who are humiliated are not humble. Some react… with anger.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment humiliation and humility began to part ways. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” is Article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” is Article 5. Deliberately humiliating a prisoner is seen as a gross violation of their human rights. But a request that we be humble? There is one sense in which this is back in vogue, though it still provokes anger. The demand made by some bloggers and on Twitter to “check your privilege” has been criticized for stifling debate. But perhaps in the spirit in which it was originally intended, it is a call to practice a kind of humility, to recognize the ways in which our own happiness and achievements can be the result of class, family, gender, race, global position and luck, as much as hard work. This is not the oily, ingratiating humility of Charles Dickens’s Uriah Heep (he’s “ever so ’umble”) or the false modesty of a celebrity, but a recognition that the good things in our lives are not always all of our own making, but depend on other people too.