A worldwide observance of Humiliation Day occurred on January 3, 2017, in an effort to raise awareness of the negative effects of humiliation. Unlike humility, which is a virtue characterized by inner strength, humiliation is a degradation of another human being through intimidation, unwarranted criticism, or mistreatment that results in the lowering or loss of that person’s self-respect. Many times, it is a tactic employed by people to cut other people down in order to feel good about themselves, usually a sign of insecurity. That same insecurity comes through as a defense mechanism if a person feels threatened by the words or actions of another. Often, we defend ourselves automatically to cover our own inadequacies or to avoid having to face our own private demons.
For example, parents feel they have a right, nay, a duty, to “teach” their children, a concept often used to excuse using hateful, hurting words that cut into a child’s mind and heart. Such criticism is destructive rather than constructive, and can linger a lifetime. For example, every time I visit my mother, she asks me why I’m still fat, knowing full well the roadblocks I battle daily, including diabetes, depression, and a sinus arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You would think, being a Registered Nurse, she would at least show her own daughter the same compassion as one of her patients, right? Wrong. Being verbally abused and unloved as a child, she seems determined to repeat the same, horrendous behavior toward yet another generation. What if she had said, “I’m worried about your health. Is there anything I can do to help you with your weight?” To me, that would have been a bouquet of flowers in comparison to hot coals, and instead of being defensive and crushed, I would have felt assured of her love and deep concern.
Recently I was privileged to experience a presentation by author Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, who has written several histories based on the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest and Canada. Her focus has often been on aviation and the overlooked role of women and First Nations pilots during WWII. Also, she is the editor of a book titled In This Together in which she compiled fifteen stories from Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers in Canada, explaining how the history of colonialism impacted society and how the country “might move forward on the path toward reconciliation.” Her words brought to mind my own country’s history of humiliation and degradation toward those not of Eastern European descent. This includes not only the slaughter and subjugation of the indigenous Native Americans whose country was claimed by invading Europeans, but the Japanese placed in internment camps during WWII, the Chinese who built our great railroads, the African Americans, who are still struggling toward reconciliation, the undocumented immigrants who are now being told to go home, and more recently, innocent Muslims caught in the middle of a mad search for terrorists. With our own history of fear-mongering, slavery, and blatant discrimination, the United States may have more to regret and/or apologize for than other countries when it comes to the humiliation of others. And yet, it continues even today, with a lingering fear of those who are considered “different,” and we still give vent to that fear with unwarranted actions and hateful words.
In “The Power of Words” by The Huffington Post, Yehuda Berg says words possess “energy and power” and have the ability “to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” (emphasis added)
The article exhorts us to listen, to think before we speak, to view gossip as trivial and a waste of our attention. It mentions Nelson Mandela and how his years of solitude in prison taught him how “precious” words are. Mohammed Quhtani, a world-renowned speaker, says words, “whether verbally or in writing,” determine how others perceive you, and that they can build or destroy relationships. Perhaps, in our world of social media, we should think before we speak, so as not to hurt ourselves or others? How many times have I humiliated myself by speaking (or texting) before I thought? Humiliation is not something you want to pass on.
As writers with the possibility of reaching a wide range of readers, we need to be continually cognizant of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 quote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proved how words can change an entire society for the better, and Adolph Hitler proved the opposite, leading millions into a spiraling whirlpool of hate, death, and destruction. King Solomon, in Proverbs 18:21, said that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Even more awe-inspiring are the words in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, when God spoke the world into being and the morning stars sang together. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.
In 1624, John Donne wrote a simple little poem called, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” referring to funeral bells being rung when a person dies. His words, often quoted by others, inspired Ernest Hemingway to use it as a title for a book. In his poem, Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man in a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Imagine the beautiful music echoing across the land if, when we humiliated another, we had to toll a funeral bell for causing the death of an innocent spirit? Perhaps, and not just on Humiliation Day, we should harken to John Donne’s parting words, and avoid humiliating others. It only serves to diminish the humanity in us all.