Magazine article Tikkun

Humiliation, Retaliation, and Violence

Magazine article Tikkun

Humiliation, Retaliation, and Violence

Article excerpt

The intractability of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is attributable in significant measure to the vicious circle of humiliation, retaliation, and violence that has become entrenched between the two peoples. The Israeli government seems to believe that direct and inevitable retaliation for Palestinian suicide attacks will break the will of Palestinians to engage in such violence, and further, that failure to engage in such retaliatory actions will communicate weakness and lead Palestinian militants to believe that they can realistically achieve their goal of destroying the Israeli state. On the Palestinian side, the idea seems to be that terrorizing the Israeli population will lead Israelis to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

This strategy of retaliation is counterproductive on both sides, because it fails to take account of the fact, demonstrated over and over again in human history, that people are willing and even eager to fight, kill, and die to protect their honor and sense of self-respect. The immediate concrete object over which people fight may be property or land or any other form of material resource, but, psychologically, it is the humiliation of being crushed, overwhelmed by force, and threatened with psychological annihilation that is the most potent stimulus for violence. The psychological counterpart to "kill or be killed" is "humiliate or be humiliated"; in today's Middle East, these two amount to much the same thing. Unfortunately, the reality is "kill and be killed, humiliate and be humiliated."

The driving power of pride in human affairs is, curiously, largely underappreciated in psychological theories. Freud and, following him, most classical psychoanalysts thought of human motivation as deriving basically from sex and aggression. Pride and shame were understood as manifestations of "narcissism," i.e., a self-directed form of sexuality. High levels of self-esteem were thought to reflect self-love, in this sense, while poor self-esteem reflected inadequate self-love. Thus, the power of self-esteem per se was under-estimated, reduced as it was to a variation of sexuality. Since variation in the sense of pride or shame was thought to reflect the extent to which the self-image was invested with sexual energy, Freudian theory turned the attention of Freudian analysts away from how events in the external world could affect people's sense of self-regard.

Helen Block Lewis, in a book called Shame and Guilt in Neurosis, called attention to how psychoanalytic interpretations may shame patients in ways that analysts, intent on providing insight, were prone to overlook. Lewis pointed out that patients predictably feel shame when an analyst interprets sexual or aggressive motivation of which they had been unaware. Much resistance to psychoanalytic insight, according to Lewis, coulcl be attributed to avoidance of a painful sense of shame.

Heinz Kohut was the most effective trail blazer in the study of pride and shame in psychoanalysis. Kohut thought that peoples' sense of self-regard was most powerfully affected by how people felt they were regarded by other people. His writing alerted psychoanalysts to the power of what he called "narcissistic rage." He was able to overcome the psychoanalytic tendency to look only at the internal, unconscious world of patients and see how the feeling of being humiliated by other people elicited rage on both the individual and societal levels. Kohut saw nationalism as a manifestation of people's efforts to regulate self-esteem by identifying with an admirable national entity. He saw war, as well as individual acts of violence, as a response to narcissistic injury.

Common sense psychology, on the other hand, often recognizes the power of pride and humiliation. Euro-Americans, however, tend to recognize the power of these feelings in other cultures while minimizing their power in Euro-American culture. Most Euro-Americans can tell you that Arabs and Latinos react strongly to being humiliated. …

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