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Why We Revel In Others' 'Humiliation'

Almost everyone fears being embarrassed publicly. Yet, many people get a thrill from seeing others humiliated.
Almost everyone fears being embarrassed publicly. Yet, many people get a thrill from seeing others humiliated.

Every office, every family and every neighborhood has a gossip — someone who will readily share whispers about a neighbor's transgressions or a colleague's peccadillos.

And while most of us fear becoming the subject of an embarrassing story ourselves, we also get a guilty thrill listening to those stories, even if we're ashamed to admit it.

In his book Humiliation, author Wayne Koestenbaum picks apart the many facets of humiliation through literature, historical references ... and personal experience.

"I've lived with humiliation all my life, as I think all human beings do," Koestenbaum tells NPR's Tony Cox.

As a child, many of those experiences had to do with Koestenbaum's religion.

"I grew up in an area ... without many Jews," he says. "I had no Jewish friends as a kid. I felt humiliated to be a Jew ... humiliated to have such a weird last name."

As a boy, the thought of participating in a bar mitzvah filled Koestenbaum with dread. Watching his older brother's ceremony, he realized he couldn't bear the thought of participating in such a public ritual himself — one that so emphasized his religious identity.

Koestenbaum says that watching his brother "speaking a strange language and wearing strange clothes ... he seemed like an outsider. He seemed not normal."

"I don't think my response was normal," he adds, "but nonetheless ... I didn't want to get in front of the congregation and gesticulate and do those things ... I wanted to opt out of those spectacles of normative behavior."

One's sense of humiliation was once limited to a relatively small circle of people who actually witnessed an embarrassing moment, but today the Internet and reality television have amplified the experience, says sociologist C.J. Pascoe, who studies humiliation among teenage boys.

"We see people losing control of their identity all the time when someone videotapes a faux pas and posts it online," Pascoe tells Cox. "These humiliating rituals are being seen by thousands and thousands of people."

But if most people are mortified at the thought of being humiliated personally, why are they also so titillated by watching others embarrass themselves?

"We live in a society which values power," Pascoe says. "Watching someone else be humiliated gives us a sense of personal power. Because we're not that person; we're not the one being humiliated."

The good news, says Koestenbaum, is that our humiliation often fades with time:

"A lot of childhood humiliations that we feel to be the worst — as an adult, it's possible to look back at those humiliating experiences and say, 'You know ... it wasn't so bad. Everybody wasn't making fun of me; only one person was.

"If you wake up from the experience and you're still alive, and not impossibly scarred and traumatized, there's a little kernel of residue ... left," he says. "It's possible, I think, to rebuild a self from that little shred."

But while a person can eventually live down a humiliating experience, we should all try to check the urge to vilify others — particularly in social media contexts where users are free to post comments anonymously.

"We know that anonymity ... allows people to be a lot more evil," Pascoe says. "We need to think about the way power is used ... and gained in our contemporary culture."

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