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Journalists Discuss the “Politics of Humiliation”


Analysts of conflict resolution and of the ethnic wars of the 20th and 21st centuries have observed a psychological phenomenon that pervades some of these conflicts and, in fact, conflicts throughout history. They call this phenomenon the “politics of humiliation.” Going back at least to the Roman practice of humiliating vanquished chiefs by leading them through Rome in chains, humiliation has long been used to connote inferiority. And for the victim, it becomes a cause for seeking revenge.

Israeli journalist Ori Nir, who is also a peace activist, says the so-called politics of humiliation is a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Nir says that humiliation involves an event that demonstrates “unequal power in the relationship,” and often this painful experience is remembered for a long time. In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, Ori Nir suggests, on the Israeli side, “we’re dealing with the Jewish Holocaust of World War II,” and on the Palestinian side with al-Naqba, or the “Catastrophe,” of 1948.

Ori Nir says what compounds the tangled roots of humiliation in that relationship is that the two are “connected,” at least on the level of perception. On the Palestinian side, he suggests that the ruin of numerous Palestinian communities and the displacement of hundred of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 was the result of what many Israelis see as their “revenge over the humiliation that they suffered in Europe by the Nazis.” However, this explanation does not define the entire dynamic of the conflict, and critics say it is an over-simplification. And, in point of fact, the Palestinians had no role in the suffering of the Jewish people in World War II. But Ori Nir says, “We are dealing with crude, ugly gut feelings,” which not only drive the outbursts of individuals but also the collective behavior of large segments within certain societies. Looking back at Jewish history, he explains, it goes much further back than the Holocaust. But in terms of the “Israeli ethos,” the Holocaust is the “culmination of the humiliation the Jews suffered in the Diaspora.”

According to Ori Nir, what has happened since the first intifada – and especially in recent years – has led to a “spiraling dynamic of humiliation and revenge,” which naturally makes the resolution of the conflict more difficult. Take the question of the so-called “right of return,” which Mr. Nir says is a “pivotal concept” in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Many Palestinians acknowledge that they “know full well” that their insistence on the right of return to Israel, thus remedying their displacement in the 1948 war, “would never actually be realized in practice.” However, he urges, that some kind of Israeli recognition that “harm was done” could go a long way toward finding “even a modicum of resolution.”

In South Africa, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to deal with the wounds of the long period of apartheid rule by white South Africans. An essential part of that process, Ori Nir says, was the white leadership’s “public recognition” of the violence of the period. He suggests that “any kind of sustainable political accord” should include a formal recognition of the “other’s national aspirations.”

Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says many Germans see a historical parallel in their humiliation under the terms of the Versailles Treaty after their defeat in World War I.

But Mr. Rueb says it is not automatic that in times of humiliation people will “turn to nationalism,” as the Germans did, which contributed to the rise of Nazism. He says other “ingredients” must be present. For example, “If you dwell on the past, and if you’re really looking for scapegoats, and if you have irresponsible leaders,” then all the ingredients are there to prepare for another catastrophe.

In another conflict, Matthias Rueb suggests that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic used a historical event – the 14th century defeat by the Ottoman sultan – to justify his actions that ultimately led to four wars and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. But Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor-in-chief of Politika in Belgrade, takes issue with the idea of applying that humiliating defeat to the national identity of modern Serbia. She says she is “uncomfortable” with the notion that Serbs, unlike other nations, are “obsessed with defeat,” and they have turned their defeat in the Battle of Kosovo, where they were “unable to stop the Turks from conquering this part of the world” into their main collective memory. Ms. Smajlovic argues that Serbs are not “particularly prone to the sense of grievance and whining over what they’ve lost.” She suggests instead that Serbia’s bitterness at the way it has been treated by its Western friends is not a “signal of the ultranationalist feelings of its population” but rather a “result of the fact that Serbia really has received a raw deal.” According to Ljiljana Smajlovic, even in these circumstances, half the population is “squarely in favor of going forward with European integration.” And, she says, the recent elections in Serbia suggest that President Boris Tadic will play a role in Serbian politics similar to the constructive role played by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer after World War II.

That example points to the importance of moral leadership in overcoming the Machiavellian tendency to instill fear in one’s enemy. The journalists agree with scholars on the subject that the risks inherent in the politics of humiliation outweigh the probable benefit. They note that the cure for this ploy requires two things – humility and mutual respect.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.

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