Appetite for Humiliation

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Appetite for Humiliation

What seems to be part of the digestive process of the American psyche is both the witnessing of and the participation in the spectacle of humiliation. The programming of networks and certain marching orders in foreign engagements have in common the verb - humiliate.

Large audiences watch the pained faces of contestants being insulted by Simon Cowell and a dais of other questionable types. Trump telling an eager beaver, "You're fired" collapses the face and hopes of the applicant and it sells. The Jerry Springer show has marketed joyful humiliation - audiences participate in pushing the face of another human being into the nearest pool of mud. Judge Judy snaps like a petulant and indignant terrier at the unfortunates in the dock looking for justice. And an audience giddy with delight watches as the "wise and sassy" arbiter of justice spits at the people in front of her.

The crude insult has an iconic place in the American contest. But it has become epidemic, and organized as the need to have no sympathy for losers becomes both convenient and hip. Howard Stern and Don Imus tapped into the sophomoric glee at hearing another person being slapped down. The befuddlement and hurt on the face and in the voice of the victim is gold to the programmers.

Feeding the appetite makes the appetite for humiliation grow. More and better variations at the practice of humiliating are in development.

From Columbine to Virginia Tech. to suicide bombers - humiliation runs the risk of eventually being answered. None of it is right, justified or pretty but humiliation is itself born out of primitive savagery. It has murder in its nucleus.

The song "Pirate Jenny" from Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill tells the tale of a woman humiliated by the people she waits on - "You gentleman can smile while I'm scrubbing the floors - and I'm scrubbing the floors while you're gawking - maybe you can tip me and it makes you feel swell." They shout at her - "what's wrong with you - earn your keep here." And all the while she fantasizes about a swarm of pirates from a black freighter coming to shore to murder all the men who have slowly murdered her with words and looks. Her rescuers round up the offenders and then they ask her, "Kill them now or later? Asking ME - kill them now or later?" She responds with deep relish - "Right now. Right now." She completes her fantasy - "And they'll pile up the bodies...and I'll say - That'll learn ya."

"That'll learn ya" is the moment of satisfaction the humiliated hunger for. Some will do whatever is necessary to have that moment - even if it's their last.

Humiliation is a natural risk for any life gamble - from getting married to creating a work of art to running for office. But the culture of hyper acquisition and mammoth footprints necessitates humiliation becoming a weapon. It keeps competitors and aspirants in their place. It discourages interference from anyone wanting the same things the dominant forces have. The purpose of humiliation is to destroy the inner libido of the other. It's meant to stop the desire to try.

The collective appetite to watch the moment of humiliation is a dangerous sign.

The impulses that were evident at Abu Ghraib have a reality here at home. The smiles on the faces of the guards were as grotesque as the offenses. They are the smiles of an audience feeling safe and delighted at the miserable plight of another. But it would be unwise not to realize as the appetite for humiliation is being fed that there will always be a percentage of the humiliated, like Pirate Jenny, who will want to wipe that smile off the collective face - even if it's - and it often is - the last thing they do.

Bill C. Davis

Bill C. Davis

Bill C. Davis is a playwright.  Archive of his Common Dreams' articles here. His personal website here.

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