Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Tom Friedman on Dignity and Humiliation

Tom Friedman writes that instead of Foreign Affairs Columnist, his official title, he often refers to himself as the Times' Humiliation and Dignity Columnist:

Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you. 

By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of humiliation in foreign policy: Vladimir Putin’s macho act after Russia’s humiliation at losing the Cold War; Iraqi Sunnis who felt humiliated by a U.S. invasion force that pushed them out of Iraq’s army and government, stripping them of rank and status; Israeli Sephardic Jews who felt humiliated by Ashkenazi Jewish elites, something Bibi Netanyahu has long manipulated; Palestinians feeling humiliated at Israeli checkpoints; Muslim youth in Europe feeling humiliated by the Christian majority; and China questing to become the world’s dominant power, after what Chinese themselves call their “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. . . .

In a much talked-about new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel says “the politics of humiliation” is also at the heart of Trump’s appeal.

“Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer,” Sandel notes. These grievances “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”

Unless Biden finds a way to speak to the sense of humiliation felt by many working-class voters, Sandel warns, even Trump’s failure to deal with the pandemic may not be enough to turn these voters against him. The reason? “Resentment borne of humiliation is the most potent political sentiment of all,” Sandel explains.


David said...

The real question, it seems to me, is: Is there a way to speak to the humiliation of the White working class--which is what you're really talking about when you talk about Trump voters--while also speaking to the humiliation of non-Whites in our society? I wonder if there is a way to do it, convincingly and consistently. Or perhaps doing so is the province of saints, not presidents.

If the White working class finds the removal of Confederate flags a humiliation, and Black folks find keeping them a humiliation, what can one do? Some circles cannot be squared.

In the same vein, it is to be remembered that many Iraqi Sunnis would have been humiliated and enraged even without the Americans' offensive missteps, because the mere fact of the elevation of Shi'ites to a position of equality in Iraq was, to Sunnis, a grave insult.

John said...

Yes, and the same can be said of some Friedman's international examples; Putin tried to undo Russia's humiliation by humiliating Chechnya and Ukraine etc. Some circles are very hard to square.