The Cost of Humiliation: Germany, Israel, China, Trump
Bullying and abuse have a devastating effect on individuals, often leading to serious mental health issues, even suicide. By way of contrast, the cost of humiliation inflicted on tribes or nations is frequently borne through an overwhelming responsive need to assert pride in national or tribal identity, with a fierce determination that this will not happen again. The consequence can be unreasonable justification for aggressive standpoints, even retaliation, conflict, and a continuing cycle of violence.
At the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, the country was saved from the terrible consequences of black humiliation by the grace-filled leadership of its first black president, Nelson Mandela, and the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Unfortunately retaliatory action is more often the norm.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles which concluded WW1 humiliated Germany, especially the clause which impugned ‘war guilt’ and required massive reparation for civilian damage. Piece by piece the treaty unravelled, but the humiliation imposed through the treaty, fed the psyche of Adolf Hitler and all the consequences that flowed from his and his follower belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. Had WW1 concluded with a treaty that built bonds of freedom and prosperity across Europe, would there have been WW2? We will never know.
The consequences of WW2 fell upon the whole world, but none suffered more terribly than the Jewish people. It is estimated that two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, 6 million, were slaughtered along with gays, Romani, and various ethnic groups. Would this cruel search for a ‘pure Aryan race’, unpolluted by lesser humans, have occurred without the national psyche having been first trodden on following the end of the war? We will never know. What is clear is that victors in any dispute, big or small, have a responsibility to enable the vanquished to stand tall. This is a trait frighteningly absent from most global leaders who relish victory and the exultation of self. Australians have paid a high price for the humiliation felt by a succession of political leaders over the last two decades.
We do know that the holocaust has become the defining event in the creation of Israel and its memory is sacrosanct. The celebration of the Shoah is entirely understandable, even necessary. However, is building a national identity out of response to a catastrophe as terrible as the holocaust the healthiest way to build national identity? Israel is determined to ensure it will never again need to rely upon anyone for security. In Israel, ‘security’ justifies everything, walls, checkpoints, land grabs, lockdowns, and leads to the humiliation of others- the Palestinians. Arbitrary identity papers, burdensome checkpoints, limited essential service, restricted movement etc have little to do with security and everything to do with humiliation.
The problem for Israel’s children is that this humiliation, like all humiliations, will continue to fester and one day an account will need to be given for it. The problem for the rest of the world is that in the meantime criticising Israel will be called antisemitic. Could Israel adopt the words emblazoned on the entrance wall to the holocaust museum in Soweto, South Africa, and teach them to its children as boldly as it admonishes them to remember the Shoah: To be free is not to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
Another country to consciously shape itself out of what it perceives to have been national humiliation is China. It perceives its humiliation at the hands of the British, French, and Japanese, in particular, to have lasted for more than 100 years, concluding at the end of WW2. This sense of past national humiliation is fostered amongst the people by the Communist Party and is used to justify unquestioning support for the government and its policies, by its people. Questioning is not to be tolerated, as the people of Hong Kong are painfully being shown.
In the last few weeks, the Australian government has felt the full force of rhetoric from the Chinese government that interprets every communication or engagement through this lens. What is understood to be reasonable to a Western mind is interpreted as insult by the Chinese authorities. Ironically, the sense of humiliation is so deeply entrenched in the Chinese psyche, that even today while the rest of the world considers China a strong and powerful nation, many Chinese still behave as though they are the ones being bullied and mistreated, with a watchful eye for “hostile foreign forces.”
South China Sea expansions, sovereignty sought over Taiwan and Hong Kong, the belt and road programme, are all strategies to engender intense national pride. The Chinse people are even encouraged to see the somewhat belligerent acts of their governing elite as righting the wrongs of the past and swinging the pendulum in the right direction.
How is Australia and the rest of the world to respond to the flawed and bruised psyche of what is now the world’s most dominant power? Is its global responsibility to tip-toe around China’s need to fully requite its sense of humiliation, or is it China’s role to take its place as one of the great peoples of the world, free of past burdens, celebrating extraordinary accomplishments, knowing that ‘setting the record straight’, like a politician’s, autobiography, is almost inevitably diminishment?
And then there is Trump. There can be little doubt he acts out of his constantly bruised ego. The mainline press does not fawn over him and are declared fake. Numerous appointees have dared to present a different perspective and are sacked. His predecessor, President, Obama, for all his shortcomings, was everything he is not, and has become Trump’s paranoid obsession. (The Obama speech at the 2011 correspondent’s dinner probably did not help)!
In 2016 Trump promised his followers they would win so often they would become sick of winning. Winning is relatively easy if you are stronger, hold more resources, or perhaps simply have a bigger megaphone. Creating a better world because of winning is much harder. Above all, if winning means the diminishment of others, this is extremely dangerous. ‘America first’, or any one first. is a very flawed slogan.
It takes a strong person to absorb the slings and arrows of others and not pay back. Forgiveness is the workplace of the strong, not the weak. On this definition the world’s ‘strong men’ Trump, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Erdogan, Assad are in reality the world’s weak men. Covid 19 has revealed the strong, they have been the creative faces of the lockdown, medical workers, shop assistants, carers of various kinds and perhaps a few world leaders exemplified by Prime Minister Ardern. In a post Covid 19 world, may care prevail, and winning diminish as a goal. Most of all, may winning not cause diminishment of others.