The Violence of Humiliation

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - 6:03am

The Violence of Humiliation

Traffic-baiting videos, shallow television punditry more aimed at filling time than increasing public knowledge, reactionary tweets and Facebook status updates — this is the panopticon of our 24/7 media machine and it is powered by the dirty fuel of humiliation. As of late, it’s been focused on an elevator video of professional football player Ray Rice, punching his then fiancée, now wife, squarely in the face. Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, terminated his contract, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

Consequences are critical; they are the raw material of cultural norms and institutional integrity. The NFL is an organization with an outsized influence on American boys and men. Save perhaps NASCAR, no one has the opportunity they do to influence the way their fans think about domestic violence, about masculinity, about love.

So yes, let’s hold the NFL accountable for creating a consistent, clear, and influential policy about domestic violence (a scrappy, innovative young organization called Ultraviolet has taken the lead on this). Let’s push them, not just to create consequences for players who are violent, but also to offer them therapy, and to do so, even when the blinding light of public scrutiny is not shining. As the always-wise Brittney Cooper wrote at Salon:

“The fact that Rice received only a two-game suspension until this video surfaced suggests that the league is more concerned with the optics of Rice knocking Janay Palmer unconscious than addressing the ways that the hypermasculinity of sport perpetuates a culture of violence toward women.”

Let’s push the NFL to go beyond crisis communication or ass-covering policy. Let’s inspire them to think complexly and creatively about what it would look like if they were to leverage their outsized influence on American men to redefine masculinity to be about vulnerability and respect, not toughness and force. (For starters, they could engage organizations like Men Can Stop Rape, who create campaigns like this one aimed at college men.)

So many NFL players, so many men, carry the festering wound of having been abused themselves. As has so often been said, hurt people hurt people. It’s not until we reveal those wounds, examine them, heal them, that we will actually see a shift in male-perpetrated violence of so many kinds.

No amount of humiliation can accomplish that, and in fact, any amount of humiliation will prevent it. People may make themselves feel better as they tweet away about what a monster Ray Rice is, but they are actually increasing injury in the process. A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan revealed that “the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.” In other words, humiliation and isolation are experienced as intensely as physical pain. As has been widely documented by researchers, they aren’t emotions that motivate people to be better; they are emotions that make people feel backed into a corner.

I don’t know the wounds that Ray Rice carries with him, but I know they’re there. That’s not to absolve his actions, but it is to attempt to understand them. Our energy is wasted vilifying him; that only serves to separate out the “good guys” from the “bad guys” — an immature dichotomy.

We must ask ourselves: where do the Ray Rices of the world go to speak their own pain before it explodes? Where do men go to testify to the violence they’ve endured and to the resulting humiliation they carry in their own hearts? Where do they go to learn the difficult art of disentangling love from control?

Truth be told, these isolation-busting, truth-telling spaces are few and far between for men. Sometimes they are created in churches, like Glide Memorial, where a group called “Men in Progress” gathers twice a week to share their struggles around managing heartbreaks, big and small. Sometimes they happen in retreat settings, like “Answering the Call of Spirit,” where renowned storyteller and scholar of mythology Michael Meade guides an intergenerational group of men from vastly different class backgrounds through what he calls “the fog” of alienation. Sometimes they happen online, like, a digital sacred space of sorts where men can type what they haven’t been able to speak. All of these organizations are vastly underfunded. If we invested more time and money in these efforts and less in social media schadenfreude, the world would be a less violent place for everyone.

The emphasis on healing the wounds of male perpetrators and victims is, of course, not to prioritize it above healing women, who are so often forced to reckon with the generational legacies of violence living in the men they love. It is an and/both, not an either/or. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, it seems like a synchronous time to reassert that the personal is political, and to surface the everyday narratives that make what happened in that elevator both less shocking and more horrifying simultaneously. Let’s use this opening in public consciousness to bear witness to the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhenILeft where real women are courageously deepening the conversation, even in just 140 characters.

Just as we are mistaken to vilify or further humiliate Ray Rice, let’s also not use our energy psychoanalyzing Janay Rice or her choices. To pretend we know what’s best for her is disrespectful. She has spoken out. I’d like to believe that even as she doesn’t want to be made into anyone’s symbol, she would support a louder conversation about domestic violence, writ large, if it could protect other women. It’s a way to make meaning of her trauma — a healing prospect in and of itself.

So yes, yes, yes, to consequences. Yes to institutions that think creatively about their opportunity to be a force for cultural transformation. Yes to teaching men how to speak about their own experiences of violence and humiliation, to creating spaces where they can hear one another before they scream with their fists. Yes to victims seizing social media’s power to point out how tragically ordinary this “extraordinary” news story really is. Yes to respecting every woman’s expertise on her own life and her authority to make her own choices.

But no to humiliation. It creates social isolation, perpetuates pain, and keeps violence festering in the hearts of wounded men. That’s dangerous for us all.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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This well written commentary makes several important points. This topic is also one that could benefit from honest, non-judgmental, non agenda-serving discussion. Humiliation and shame may well be at the root of this, but that would best be addressed by the two key players here - he and she. This could be the most important moment in their lives, well beyond (and much harder than) any NFL or other celebrity opportunities. Time for the NFL to stop playing "hear no evil, see no evil. . ." and worrying about their own image and do something to really make a difference.

This is a much-needed balm. My (male) partner and I had a discussion last night about violence, masculinity, accountability, projection, and such, and we touched on some of these same issues. Afterward I saw a news story about the exchanges of Rice jerseys—one restaurant is taking them and giving pizza in exchange, while going on vulgarly about what they'll do with the dishonored shirts. And I see the Ravens are taking them back too. As if one can rewind, return a product and accomplish something—what, I do not know. Anyway, the preponderance of name-calling and even glee at these developments—by that I mean the supposedly anti-Rice developments—is very disheartening. It seems barbaric. One can rue the abundance of so many types of cruelty online, but then, there are also posts like yours. And, thinking of the Raven, here is another:

I guess I am wondering why on god's green earth a woman would go ahead and marry someone AFTER he abused her. Not trying to blame her for his behavior, at all. That's all on him, regardless of his issues or background. He's a grown man. Get some therapy. What I AM trying to comprehend is HER behavior, as a woman, as a person with any self respect. Love doesn't conquer all. Sorry to break that news.

There is a book by psychoanalyst Alice Miller called "Prisoners of Childhood" which offers a lucid and profound discussion of this topic. I think anyone interested will find some light in this book.

The article touches on why the violence happens in the first place. Why there are certain groups highlighted as perpetrators more often. Victims find other victims as you have stated. Let us address the core of these problems Thank you for articulating this so clearly.

Hypermasculinity does not create abuse of women. It is a failure to attain masculinity that results in the kind of weakness that would lead to a man knocking out a women.

Not much to add to this summary of the situation. So much food for thought.
Judge not,lest you be judged.

I agree, no judge and therapy for both of them; clearly they think that violence in the marriage is "normal", pretty sad.

Would you consider "naming" acts of abuse publicly humiliation?

An excellent article and one which truly reflects the need to face the sad realities of domestic violence and approach more effective ways of making change.

I hope someone from the NFL will read this! Thank you Courtney for your insight and thoughtfulness.

Courtney, your insights and words are so welcome. This week we have a new hurting, damaged sports figure in the person of Adrian Peterson who justifiably faces consequences for heinous actions toward his child. For every celebrity we hear about, there are thousands more ordinary, unknown men agonizing and terrorizing in the shadows.

As the child of a very wounded man who sought relief from his own pain, from childhood and from war, by inflicting more pain on his wife and children, I can attest that isolation, humiliation and ridicule only exacerbate the hurt for all concerned and perpetuate the pathologies that deeply damage everyone they touch.

May we begin to understand, by looking at the examples that now seem to come to light so often, what some men in our society suffer in the name of becoming men. We must concentrate not only on stopping their violence but on treating and healing their terribly dangerous wounds. Perhaps most of all we must become determined to transform the social patterns and messages that allow such self-perpetuating damage to be inflicted in the first place.

The American form of football should cease to exist at ALL levels.At the professional level, NFL, would cease to exist. It's a dangerous violent sport. How do you propose to train, brain-wash, and mold these young men into the viscous, violent beings they become in the arena for the entertainment of the public and then expect them to behave in a somber, well adjusted manner in a social setting/arena. Can you expect a wild tiger in the jungle to become a pussy cat in your living room. In Rome, the Gladiators were not allow to roam among the general public. They were kept in cages until the next arena event. The winners were praised and sent back to the cage. The body of losers were carried out of the arena and buried! The Roman general public loved the entertainment much the way today's football fans love the game. Whether they are in the stadium/coliseum or on the couch in front of their TV at home. Usually it's the "HIT" that is most satisfying to these fans. No thought is given to how much PAIN is inflected. Some of these young men started in little league with the hope of a ticket into the the big league (NFL). How much suffering to get there, mentally and physically?! Lets not judge Ray and Jayna Rice. Let's just get RID of the system that endorses and perpetuates barbaric behavior in our young men. I have adult sons and three young adult grandsons. Two played football, one on a scholarship. I attended every game I could. I counseled every opportunity the value of their God-given brain. I prayed none would pursue the sport beyond college. My prays were answered!!!!!

Humiliation and Isolation. These are forces used by both sexes and emphasis on this particular form of suffering is important to emphasize. I have not seen this emphasis before and welcome it.