Victoria Fontan

Victoria Fontan in Baghdad
Victoria Fontan in Baghdad

The 16-31 March issue of Counterpunch features an article by Victoria Fontan, a scholar in “Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies,” a growing subfield of Peace Studies.  Fontan studies conditions under which people who have been humiliated are more likely than others to become terrorists.  She has interviewed members of several violent groups in Lebanon and Iraq.  In this article, Professor Fontan tells what happened when she taught at Colgate University in upstate New York and a group of right-wingers launched a smear campaign against her.  The smear mongers managed to hound her out of her job and to get her name on an official terrorism watchlist.  A French citizen, Professor Fontan did research in Iraq after leaving Colgate, and now teaches at The University for Peace in Costa Rica.  While Colgate’s campus rightists may consider Professor Fontan to be a stooge of America’s enemies and congratulate themselves on having performed a patriotic service by driving her off campus and out of the country, much of the US national security apparatus disagrees.  Her work is still assigned to cadets at West Point, and the FBI agents who interview her every time she flies into the USA (she’s on a terrorism watchlist, remember) have become her friends, recognizing in her research something indispensible to them as they try to figure out how to look for terrorists without making more terrorists. 

Fontan’s article reminds me of two things.  First, I’ve often thought that in the Aeneid Vergil represents warfare as primarily a matter of humiliation.  One of these days I might get around to developing that idea in a scholarly article about books 7 through 12 of the Aeneid, the “battle books.”  

Second, an idea popped into my head which I don’t believe is original with me, though I can’t seem to find where I may have picked it up.  It doesn’t seem to be Fontan’s idea.  The idea is that the road from “humiliated person” to “terrorist” may tend to run in three stages:  humiliation→ isolation→ radicalization. 

1. Humiliation: A person is humiliated.  The humiliator might be one person, a group of people, or a political entity such as a state or an army.  The humiliating event might take an obvious form, such as rape or some other form of physical torture, or a more subtle form, such as long-term unemployment.  The event might even be something that an outside observer would be tempted to dismiss as trivial, as for example in cases of “humiliation by proxy.”  What sets off the process is nothing inherent in the original humiliation, but the consequent desire of the person who has been humiliated to avoid humiliation.  Having suffered humiliation, a person’s strongest, most urgent wish might well be to avoid further humiliation.   

2. Isolation: The humiliated person may withdraw from others.  Of course, s/he may not; certainly we all know people who have responded to humiliation by building or rebuilding relationships that have enabled them to meet the world head on.  Others do withdraw, however. 

This withdrawal may be a process the humiliated person initiates him/herself, driven by the fear of further humiliation; or it may be initiated by others, who pull away from the person either because the person’s humiliation frightens them or because they side with his or her humiliator.  In either of these cases, the humiliated person has contact with fewer people than s/he was in contact with before being humiliated.  Much of the contact s/he still does have, moreover, may be shallower than it was before the humiliation, drained of the emotional richness that once was available. 

Many humiliated persons are  overwhelmed by the loneliness that comes from this loss of contact.  Some withdraw from all social contact.  Many, too many, turn their hostility inward and end by committing suicide. Others fall into terrorism.  Who are they?

Maybe they aren’t so different from those who don’t withdraw at all.  To whom can the humiliated person turn to relieve his or her new loneliness?  To others who have suffered similar humiliations.  Or, to those who are strong, invulnerable, able to protect him or her from future humiliations.  Certainly not to those who are indifferent to the humiliation, or to those who try to justify the humiliation, or to those who are likely to inflict more humiliation. 

So the humiliated person may form a little circle of fellow sufferers.  To stay in that circle, one will have to continually reassure the other members that one is not about to humiliate them or side with their humilators.  So the circle develops a great many rituals of reassurance.  Along with these rituals of reassurance come ritual displays of hostility toward the humiliators.  Anyone uninitiated in these rituals is suspect.  Anyone who challenges the rituals is an enemy.  As the circle’s rituals become more elaborate, they take up more of the members’ attention.  The members of the circle become less and less able to interact with those outside.  Eventually, the circle provides its members their only emotional support, their only social identity. 

3. Radicalization: In his novel Journey to the End of Night, the French novelist and “man of hate” Céline famously speculated that perhaps what we call madness is nothing more than “the ordinary ideas of mankind shut up tight.”   One can see how the members of the sort of circle described above might shut their ordinary ideas up tight. 

Once the circle becomes the members’ only reference group, its members begin to see people outside the circle as abstractions.   Then, the only concerns that are real to any member of the circle are the concerns that affect the circle.  These concerns are defined in terms of the rituals that dominate the circle’s interactions.  So no one outside the circle has any concerns that matter, or indeed a life that is to be valued.  If therefore the circle judges its ritual displays of hostility toward the humiliators no longer adequate and demands acts of violence against outsiders, the members of the circle cannot imagine any legitimate reason to refuse to commit those such acts.  At that point they believe that only cowards, traitors, agents of the oppressor will restrict themselves to peaceful resistance.  If they actually commit acts of violence, the victims who survive those acts will of course be humiliated by them.  Thus the process begins anew, with another set of humiliated and humiliators.   

This schema might apply equally well to a small group, like the terrorist cells Fontan has studied in Lebanon and Iraq; to lone individuals; and to political entities.  Recently I’ve read some reviews of memoirs by people who held senior posts in the G. W. Bush administration in the fall of 2001.  The reviewers have noted the sense of humiliation that pervaded that administration after 9/11.  In command of the mightiest arsenal the world has ever seen and sworn to protect the USA against attack, the Bushies let a ragtag band carry out a spectacular attack against the country.  Their humiliation was shared by Americans everywhere.  The strangely closed political discourse of the USA in the months after the attacks, with its “You are either for us or against us” tone, is what we would expect to hear among a group of freshly humiliated people who were determined to prevent a repeat of the experience.  The crackpot realism of the Washington elite that decided to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003 could then be seen as the outcome of the same process that has given such a grisly character to so many of the Iraqi groups resisting that occupation.


  1. cymast

     /  April 17, 2009

    You may be onto something but I think the initial definition of “humiliation” would have to be clarified. Is this an extreme form of embarrassment? Or it may just be that I have trouble conceptualizing why an abuse survivor would be “humiliated.” I always conceptualize it’s the torturer/rapist/abuser who is humiliated, before, during, and after the abuse, as in a vicious cycle. As a domestic abuse survivor I don’t recall ever feeling humiliated. I felt anger, but not humiliation or embarrassment. I may be an anomaly.

  2. acilius

     /  April 17, 2009

    Certainly abusers ought to be ashamed of themselves and abused shouldn’t. And dictionaries tend to equate humiliation with shame or embarrassment. But I don’t think that equation really fits the way we use the word.

    I’ve heard people say “Im embarrassed” or “I’m ashamed” when they are admitting to having done something wrong, but I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m humiliated” in that context. Every time I’ve heard someone describe him/herself as humiliated it’s because something has happened to that person that has made him or her feel helpless and small. Humiliation seems to be more closely related to anger than to embarrassment. Maybe a combination of anger and despair.

  3. cymast

     /  April 17, 2009

    Hmm . . I’ve never felt “helpless and small.” I don’t see how that would be at all related to anger. At least any anger I’ve ever felt.

  4. acilius

     /  April 17, 2009

    “I’ve never felt “helpless and small.”” Really? Never? That’s extraordinary.

  5. cymast

     /  April 17, 2009

    Not according to my definitions. “Helpless” = without help, specifically, without any access to help. “Small” = not big.

    I’ve never thought I didn’t have any access to help, and I’ve always thought, even as a child, that I’m “big”. Not in weight nor importance but in sense- a sense of “bigness.” Filling a room.

  6. lefalcon

     /  April 17, 2009

    Humiliation is all about people’s feelings and their internal world. It might be more useful to talk about something like diminished social standing (actual or perceived).

    There’s a difference between some “average American” feeling his/her country was diminished on the world stage following 9/11 … versus people in the Bush administration, whose professional reputations were on the line/tarnished by their actual or perceived negligence.

    {Fortunately any possible view of the Bush admin. as negligent was utterly wiped away by their stunning redemptive acts of starting up wars-of-choice across the Middle East and, on the domestic scene, driving the whole country into the fucking ground. [Yay!] Now that we’re under liberal control, [Boo!] I hope the liberals don’t fuck up society too bad before The Wise Ones can reprise their role as solicitous stewards of the public good.}

  7. cymast

     /  April 18, 2009

    Speaking of “starting up wars-of-choice,” it’s looking like Obama thinks that’s OK, as in no prosecution of Bush Jr./Cheney. I didn’t think Obama would be another war criminal.

  8. acilius

     /  April 18, 2009

    “(actual or perceived)”- But perceived social standing “is all about people’s feelings and their internal world” too, so that change wouldn’t get you anywhere.

  9. lefalcon

     /  April 18, 2009

    Truth be told, I really think it would get you someplace. I’m merely saying I think “humiliation” could mean rather different things to different people. It’s an emotion, is inwardly felt. Being so subjective, it’s hard to observe or pin down or “quantify.” But perceptions of social standing really can be pretty consistently and visibly manifested in how people behave with each other. I think it’s an interesting topic and that what you wrote in the post is interesting. That’s just an observation that occurred to me.

    I agree it’s disappointing that Obama’s gonna be just one more face on the rogues’ gallery of US presidential war criminals. But – and I’m sure A is totally down with this remark, as we talked along these lines before – in this day and age, *anybody but anybody* who ascends to the US presidency will come out the other side as a war criminal. People call the US president “most powerful man in the world,” which could be true in some ways; but the pressures must be enormous upon whoever’s in that office to buttress all kinds of bullshit : in a word, Obama must do the bidding of The Establishment. There’s no way out. Even Daniel Webster couldn’t get poor Obama out of this. [= oblique and clever literary reference of the highly-debonair variety]

  10. acilius

     /  April 18, 2009

    That’s true about the US presidency. It’s a terribly destructive institution.

  11. cymast

     /  April 19, 2009

    “Obama must do the bidding of The Establishment.”

    I agree he’s part of a machine, but I also tend to believe he could step up and demand justice regarding Bush Jr./Cheney if he really wanted to do the right thing. I seem to recall something about war crime accountability right around election time. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to hear.

  12. lefalcon

     /  April 20, 2009

    Yeah but even if you re-configured the system and got rid of the president, it’s still a really destructive system. The govt, big business, the mil-indust complex … it’s a machine, a juggernaut, and it’s unstoppable. I’m sure Obama could do more … but look what happened to JFK, Malcolm X, MLK Jr. : Is it a coincidence that whoever dares tell the truth sooner or later gets gunned down in public? What we really need is an Elmer Fudd dressed in a Viking costume with feathers replacing the horns. Then we could really get someplace.

  13. cymast

     /  April 20, 2009

    What type of large-scale governing would you suggest, LeFalcon?

  14. lefalcon

     /  April 20, 2009

    I suggest that the office of president be replaced by a new position called High Priest of Dit-Dot-Jao, to be occupied by a high-functioning chihuahua that does backflips on command, communicates his wishes by Morse Code, and dresses in a snazzy little yellow plastic hardhat. All the real power will, of course, reside in the hands of the vice president, who in turn obeys the bidding of a mysterious entity called “The Eternal Spirit of Christ Jesus.” The Spirit communicates with him through an unexplained psychic bond existing only whilst the v.p. urinates in a manure-filled oil drum that sits perpetually burning in the Oval Office. Plato and Nicholas of Cusa have also argued along these lines.

    On a [slightly] more serious note, I’m not exactly proposing that the US adopt a completely new form of government. It’s been observed that back in pre-modern times, governments controlled the populace through physical force, but in more recent history, indoctrination and mind-control (by means of massive, unrelenting propagandization) are the tools of choice. The bulk of the American electorate is bought and paid for: a life of cheap and easy access to almost every material comfort imaginable, in exchange for surrendering our entitlement to any meaningful role in decision-making. Marx was correct: Everything comes down to the material. And the country will never awake from its pathetic zombie-like haze unless and until its physical luxuries start to seriously evaporate. Until then, the credo of every good American is:

    “Who cares if the power-wealth nexus drives most of us into a permanent underclass, rains down bombs on other countries, and pollutes and rapes the environment … as long as I can tool around in a big SUV I can’t afford, stuff myself full of Pizza Hut pan pizza and frappuccinos at Starbucks, and watch a sitcom featuring someone like Rob Schneider [no offense to Schneider; I honestly think he’s one of the better comedians around] on my big-screen TV.”

    No, friends, make no mistake: That *IS* the credo of today’s Americans, and the problem with it is: it’s so long. Why couldn’t something shorter have been chosen?

    In conclusion: All hail the High Priest of Dit-Dot-Jao!

  15. cymast

     /  April 20, 2009

    1. “I suggest . . along these lines.”

    Isn’t that what we already have in the USA?

    2. Rob (THE ANIMAL) Schneider? The “You can do it!” guy from THE WATERBOY starring comic genius Adam Sandler?

    3. Wow, Dit-Dot-Jao is rare.

    4. I believe humans are incapable of ANY kind of sustained, ethical self-government. The destruction we cause to ourselves and Earth, and now beyond Earth, is mind-boggling. We didn’t naturally evolve, we had to have had some extra-terrestrial evolutionary influence- I find that much obvious. We are a failed science experiment that has been left to burn itself out.

  16. lefalcon

     /  April 20, 2009

    Already have? We’ve already got the High Priest in the Oval Office? Then I sincerely hope they’ve got somebody patrolling the WH rose garden with a pooper scooper. He may be small, but word’s out he can really “put away” the Purina.

  17. cymast

     /  April 20, 2009

    Oops. It’s a Portuguese Water dog, not a Chihuahua.

  18. lefalcon

     /  April 21, 2009

    I’m sure that “Bo” will influence the course of events during the Obama admin to approx the same degree as Reagan did during the Reagan admin.

  19. lefalcon

     /  April 21, 2009

    That’s right… Rob Schneider was in Waterboy. [I think he was supposed to be Cajun.]

    I admire Sandler’s comedic talent but God, his career has been filled with junk. Waterboy may have been his best film ever? It does contain the greatest line of cinema history: “Now that’s some high-quality H2O!”

  20. lefalcon

     /  April 21, 2009

    A few years ago I was seriously interested in finding a “Now that’s some high-quality H2O!” bumpersticker. Just to show my support for Bobby Boucher.

  21. cymast

     /  April 21, 2009

    “You can do it!”

    “Now that’s some high-quality H2O!” bumpersticker- I think you can make stuff like that at

  22. acilius

     /  April 22, 2009

    That montage was the most complete history of the 2008 Obama campaign I’ve seen yet!

  23. cymast

     /  April 22, 2009

    Good call, A!

    OK now back to the Bush Jr./Cheney war crimes- I am by no means at all knowledgeable about international political law stuff (in the here and now as generally conceptualized by the general public using myself as the general definition of what the general public is, especially in terms of international political law stuff. (For a more specific definition of international political law stuff, see above sentence.) Obviously Obama’s gonna let bygones be bygones. But can’t the U.N. go after them? Can’t ANYBODY go after them? Are they truly impunified?

  24. acilius

     /  April 23, 2009

    Dunno. But if I were John Yoo, I’d take my next vacation in Yellowstone.

  25. cymast

     /  April 23, 2009

    Ahhhh ya got me again! The naked chick piggybacking Branson finally gave it away . . so Huffington is all Oniony now?

  26. acilius

     /  April 23, 2009

    Oh, the part about Baltazar Garcon is real. So is the naked chick, I believe.

  27. cymast

     /  April 23, 2009

    I went back and looked around. Talk about the twilight zone . .

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