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People being humiliated

Returning to Basics of Humanity, Connection and Care

Rebecca Buell | Sep 18, 2020

It’s been said that most of the things we need to know in life we learn in kindergarten. While primary school doesn’t teach us calculus or chemistry, it does teach us skills more readily and widely applicable in daily life.

It is during this introduction to schooling that we learn valuable things like listening, standing in line, being the line leader, taking turns, occupying our own space, keeping our hands to ourselves, not to hit, bite, or yell at our friends, and to speak to one another kindly, not calling people names other than their own. 

It is the opposite to what we learn watching the daily news. It is the opposite of what we observe from social media stages and political platforms. Friends from every part of the societal kaleidoscope and governmental aisles have shared with me how weary and tired they are of the mudslinging, the name-calling, and the ire that occupies the dialog of our day.

Empowered by entitlement, our national narrative has become one of cutting others down and stating what they’re not as opposed to introducing ourselves, stating our own names, owning our space, and saying who we are while sharing with care the passions or principles upon which we stand. 

It has become, Thomas Friedman writes, a culture where people spout shame on others instead of caring and connecting as humans. Last week the journalist, author, and expert on both political and international relations wrote this in his New York Times article, Who Can Win at America’s Politics of Humiliation? 

"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. As Nelson Mandela once observed, “There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.

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." 

Author, professor and communications expert Dr. Carol Bruess summarized Friedman’s thought-provoking dialog: “Deep listening is the antidote to, and the antithesis of, humiliation.”  

Thoroughly geeked-out and inspired by Bruess’s summation, I shared it with my 18-year-old Wednesday evening while on an evening trek through a park in St. Louis. His response, “Mom, seriously. I know what two of those words mean.” So, in my “we’re on a hike and there’s no Webster’s Dictionary around here in the woods” -type of way, I made up the following mom-definitions, which seem to be pretty functionally spot-on: 

Antidote—it is the medicine for. It is the cure, kiddo; 

Antithesis—exact opposite of, arch enemy to;  

Humiliation—shaming someone, bringing them dishonour/disgrace for your own gain 

Listening deeply gives space for understanding, leaving room for the feelings, perceptions, and assumptions of others to matter. In this space we can celebrate differences and diversity of thought or practice without requesting assimilation. We accept one another, and, my friends, it is then at the crossroads of acceptance and understanding that we find respectful relationships and peace. 

“Deep listening” can reduce the current polarization we often find in politics, religion, ideologies, nations, communities, cultures and even families. And, reducing that polarization, can then in turn reduce the humiliation and unrest.  

As we’re living in an increasingly polarized world, we have choices to make. We are surrounded by unrest and differing opinions, and we can either take time to understand through listening deeply, seeking understanding, and creating a space for shared respect, or we can puff up our ego-laden chests and dogmatically insist on the humiliation of others for the sake of our own ideological self-promotion. 

In that choice, perhaps in simpler terms, we have the opportunity to return to the foundational skills we learned decades ago in our first foray into organized community: Listening. Taking our turn. Respecting others. Keeping our hands to ourselves. Be kind. Be honest and fair. Speak for yourself, don’t call names, and care for the people beside us.  

I wonder where our world, our nation, our social strata or political structures would be if we returned to these basic skills, leaving behind the politics of humiliation, and, as Friedman suggests, we choose to deeply listen.  

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