Recently, Monica Lewinsky returned to the public eye through an appearance at a TED Talk. In her talk, she spoke about her humiliating experience in the aftermath of her affair with President Clinton. While she focused on the issue of cyber-bullying, one line in her talk stood out. At the 12:49 to 12:55 mark, she said that research indicated that “humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger.”

Humiliation has been cited by many to justify their actions, violent or otherwise. Vladimir Putin cites the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 as justification for his aggressive moves of the last few years.  Islamist radicals have cited humiliation, in part, at the hands of the Western world as the reason for joining ISIS. Hitler cited the humiliation of the “November Stab in the Back” and the resulting Versailles Treaty. The list can go on. Clearly, humiliation is an intensely felt emotion. It can be transitory or long lasting. Some are less emotionally equipped to deal with humiliation than others.

What does this have to do us as human beings and ethical martial artists?

First, let’s start with a definition of “humiliation.” According to Wikipedia, humiliation “is the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled or reduced to lowliness or submission. It is an emotion felt by a person whose social status has just decreased. It can be brought about through intimidation, physical or mental mistreatment or trickery, or by embarrassment if a person is revealed to have committed a socially or legally unacceptable act.”

For many, humiliation is equated with being “reduced to lowliness, submission and whose social status has just been decreased.” For those dealing with these feelings, especially for those who are not emotionally well equipped, this can result in actions and consequences that can be devastating. The consequences can be just as dire for the tormentor.

Case in point, 53 years ago today, Benny “The Kid” Paret, a welterweight boxer, died as a result of a title bout against Emile Griffith.* At the weigh in, Paret taunted Griffith by calling him “maricón“, a Cuban slang for “faggot.”  There had been some rumors about Griffith’s sexual orientation (ambiguously confirmed by Griffith many years later) and Paret took advantage of these rumors. This taunt was considered a grievous insult in both fighters’ cultures. Gil Clancy, Griffith’s trainer, later said that he had to walk Griffith around the Madison Square Garden to calm him down after the taunt. Unfortunately, Paret’s insult, among other factors, resulted in tragic consequences for both boxers. Paret died 10 days after this fight. Griffith was to struggle with the aftermath of this bout for the rest of his life.

It is evident that the “maricón” insult was on Griffith’s mind as he laid into Paret in those last fateful seconds. It is clear that the humiliation of Paret’s insult resulted in terrible consequences for both boxers.

As ethical human beings and martial artists, we have many tools in our tool boxes to defend ourselves. What should be included in the toolbox is an ethical consideration of other human beings. It is obvious that ethical martial artists should not play any role in the humiliation of another human being. The blowback, in any form, can be severe.

What about the other side of the coin though? Included in that toolbox ideally should be an ability to deal with this emotion. If you’ve been humiliated, how are you going to handle this? Will you handle it with grace, albeit with tremendous difficulty and suffering, like Ms. Lewinsky? Or will you allow the humiliation to grip you as in the case of Emile Griffith or those joining ISIS and provoke you to lash out? This is probably the most difficult part of being an ethical martial artist. While we martial artists like to think ourselves as ethical, we are still human beings subject to emotions. Some are better emotionally equipped than others. For example, for those dealing with depression, humiliation can have a multiplier effect as many depressed people deal with feelings of extreme worthlessness. Knowing how to deal with our own emotions is often a critical component of self defence. 

In the end, don’t play with the fires of humiliation, either as a tormentor or as a victim.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic!

*This tragic fight was the subject of one of the best sports documentaries that I’ve seen. Check out “The Ring of Fire: the Emile Griffith Story” on Netflix if you can find it.

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