Shame and humiliation

Stigma ‘helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.’

‘Humiliations result in suffering, indignation, anger, feelings of injustice and neglect, and distrust of other people and institutions, and silence their victims’
(ATD Fourth World, 2012, p. 40).

shameOver two centuries ago, Adam Smith (1776) pointed to the relevance of understanding not only the material but also the social dimensions of commodities: it is not only necessary to have a specific good, but needs to be a type of good that ‘whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without.’ Failing to secure this, a person ‘would be ashamed to appear in public without’.

This has led Amartya Sen to argue that ‘the ability to go about without shame’ is a relevant basic capability which should figure in the ‘absolutist core’ of notions of absolute poverty (Sen 1993a, p36-3; Sen 1983, p332-3).

Poor people and communities today continue to cite direct experiences of indignity, shame and humiliation as painful components of their deprivation, meaning that shame and humiliation also play a profound role in the daily lives of people living in poverty.

Most of the people who get HIV are the most poor people, so we tend to say they were using their bodies to get food and money…so the stigma is there…that’s why some people are not able to tell anyone they have HIV, and they end up
dying because they can’t ask for help because they are ashamed.
(Focus group participant, South Africa)

If you’re poor then…you can’t be my friend. You’re not gonna be my friend
if you stay in a shack. (OPHI fieldwork, South Africa).

Related papers

Zavaleta, D. (2007). ‘The ability to go about without shame: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators’, OPHI Working Paper 03, University of Oxford. An abridged Spanish version can be found here.