Humiliated, I Am
At the workplace and beyond, humiliation presents an opportunity to learn and grow.
by Tim Leberecht
In an in-depth main-stage conversation at Concrete Love, this year’s festival of the House of Beautiful Business that I co-curated, philosophers Bayo Akomolafe and Charles Eisenstein spoke about humiliation as a prerequisite of humility, and called for “technologies of humiliation.”
I was struck by this coinage. In 2020, I published a book (in German) right into the first pandemic summer, with the intention to propose “technologies of losing,” but the conversation between the two philosophers made me realize that my book was never about loss per se — it was about humiliation. The loss of face, the loss of integrity, the loss of self. The loss of oneness.
In the book, I claimed that the terminology of winning and losing was a superficial concept imposed on us by a meritocratic, performance-based market society. Bayo Akomolafe and Charles Eisenstein went a step further. Since the logic and rhetoric of the market had secularized our way of being, they argued, only reintroducing more painful terms could shock us back into being alive.
Such as humiliation.
It is what we wish upon our enemies. “It’s not the pain and the wounds that are the worst…The worst is the humiliation,” Pascal Mercier writes in Night Train to Lisbon. Humiliation is to be distinguished from humility. Humility without humiliation is a noble mindset, an appropriate yet distant response to the world. Humiliation, however, is giving this mindset a vulnerable body, a suffering from the world — Weltschmerz.
Take the pandemic: it has been more than a great humbling, it has been a humiliation; a complete dismantling of our defenses, a revelatory “species moment,” as On Being’s Krista Tippett called it, that, on the whole, we failed. Our solidarity never reached beyond our own nation, or own village, our own kin.
We live in an era of relentless humiliation
Humiliation comes with myriad religious connotations, especially in the Judeo-Christian faiths: from the original sin in the Garden of Eden, the feeling of insufficiency before God, to the humiliation of Christ. But all faiths are adept at using the shame of humiliation to push us to keep learning.
At the same time, humiliation can be much more mundane — it is with us and around us all the time: wherever there is competition around merit, image, and status, there is the possibility of social embarrassment.
One could even say we live in an era of relentless humiliation:
We humiliate by diminishing each other via micro-aggressions every day. We humiliate by paying more attention to our phones than to each other. We humiliate by ghosting. We humiliate by shaming. We humiliate by canceling.
In addition to social embarrassment, we are humiliated by nature. We are humiliated by AI or any form of intelligence that supersedes us. And we are humiliated by (the idea of) love. Because it can dissolve and disfigure us.
Humiliation is the ultimate reveal, but it doesn’t mean being exposed as an emperor without clothes or being caught out as an imposter. Humiliation means being rejected precisely because of who we are. For humiliation occurs when the truest self we bring to the table is (considered) not good enough. When our desire to be truly seen as who we are is met with a lack of recognition. Rejection only ever takes place when we show something essential, something that is true about ourselves.
Humiliation cuts both ways though: it does not only reject, it reveals something essential about us, too. In that sense, humiliation is like a smile: a door both half-open and half-closed, to borrow a line from the writer Jennifer Egan. We can go through it or choose not to. If we do, humiliation presents us with a unique opportunity to learn and develop.
Work is a humiliation machine
The workplace may be one big humiliation machine, with the precision of a thousand cuts every day. Every single interaction at the watercooler, in a meeting, on a business trip, or at our desks, is a rejection of who we truly are. Our soul is irrelevant (even if we “bring our full selves”); only our output counts. We are never good enough; in fact, we are not expected to be because the main corporate incentive is advancement, is promotion: is to become somebody we’re not (yet).
And yet, work bends us into new territory. In the best case, it reveals a true aspect of ourselves we haven’t known.
The workplace is where we can hide entirely and not at all. We are seen, if not surveyed, and yet not seen at all. We are lonely, unless we are humiliated together.
Collective action, collective humiliation
At Concrete Love, our festival in Lisbon, we staged and witnessed such an act of collective humiliation. On the eve of COP26, an eight-year-old girl from South Africa, Maya, challenged the House community — the 350 thinkers, makers, and leaders in attendance in Lisbon, and the thousands of spectators online: “You are the House of Beautiful Business, but if your business pollutes the environment, then it’s not beautiful.” Maya’s main complaint: “You adults talk a lot, but there is a little action.” So she bet that “you will not even be able to come up with one single collective action in 45 minutes.”
And it turns out she was right (watch a highlights video of the session here). Even though the action needn’t necessarily be climate-change related, the 45 minutes that ensued became a case study of failed collective self-organization, alignment, and decision-making. Individual agendas overrode the common good; ideas were shouted down; and the props we had mischievously put on the center stage (including water guns) were put to excessive use in the end. Someone proposed “Let’s take a deep breath together,” and was mocked by a fellow attendee: “Seriously, the best action we can agree on as a community is to take breath together,” not considering that sometimes “slowing down” might be the exact right course of action in “urgent times,” as Bayo Akomolafe had suggested just the day before.
Some attendees called the experience an “epic fail” and reported feeling ashamed after the experience, especially after Maya entered the room as a surprise guest to receive and review the action the attendees were supposed to submit. “I understand,” she said.
A week and many social media posts later, we hosted a follow-up online session with the House community to discuss and learn from what had happened. Some observations were that the Western-style, mostly male-dominated leadership — the idea of stepping up and volunteering to facilitate — had not been effective, in fact, turned out to be a handicap. There was too much leadership and not enough followership. None of the individuals who attempted to provide a process to the proceedings was followed, or even heard; neither was the community able to self-organize in some kind of democratic process. As management thinker Margaret Heffernan, reflecting on the experiment (she had not taken part in it), told me, the problem was a lack of intimacy among attendees, which resulted in a lack of trust in each other and the process.
It was embarrassing and painful, but perhaps the act of collective humiliation turned a pseudo-community into a true community.
What if humiliation isn’t dehumanizing but humanizing us?
A couple of weeks after Concrete Love, I saw Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in Lisbon — Rapture — and it was one grand inquiry into humiliation: for one, the literal humiliation that occurs by depriving humans of their humanity, exemplified by the treatment of refugees or the persecuted, but also the humiliation caused by the cognitive dissonance we experience as the observers of such human cruelty. Divided into two parts, juxtaposing Fantasy and Reality, Rapture was simple and material, gritty, self-effacing, and mostly grim.
At the same time, Ai Weiwei’s works instilled hope because of the transcendence of the matter, as if his naming of things, the literal middle finger he showed to iconic sights of the global urban elite in a series of photographs, created negative space for something more profound. Or his marble toilet paper that was on display: our very basic needs becoming a luxury good; abundance turning into scarcity — and art. A shit show indeed. Ai Weiwei knows how to put us in our place and how to remind us of the profanity and the sacredness of being human.
Humiliation sits right at the middle. Psychologists point to research showing that suffering severe humiliation can result in major depression, suicidal states, and severe anxiety states, including post-traumatic stress disorder. So it is not a light matter, and I don’t mean to romanticize it.
And yet, there is an opportunity here: to view humiliation not as the monster but the very face of human dignity. If we want to move from ego to eco, as leaders and organizations and societies, we must “come down to earth,” to borrow a phrase from Bayo Akomolafe. Post-humanism is post-humiliation — and comes before a more beautiful world.
If we reframe humiliation as an important correction of our false social status claims, if we accept the rejection of what we think of our true self as an affirmation of our uniqueness — especially in the context of work — perhaps we can then begin to uncover something more beautiful in the wounds inflicted by demoting, firing, shaming, ghosting, or canceling: you and me.
This essay first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.