The Psychological Ramifcations Of Public Humiliation

The recent controversy surrounding Sandra Fluke compels a dialogue about the emotional impact of public, widespread humiliation on an individual, those surrounding the individual and those that are simply witnesses (i.e. society). What does this pointed degradation do to the psyche of the individual targeted? Equally important, what does it do to the collective psyche of our culture?

Sandra Fluke was targeted by Rush Limbaugh after she made a series of statements to a congressional committee about her oft-controversial belief that contraception should be covered by her student health insurance plan. Obviously leaning towards the left, Sandra advocates for the notion that the government should pay for her birth control plan, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted pregnancy for those who otherwise might not be able to afford this option. In return, Rush Limbaugh eviscerated Fluke on his nationally syndicated radio show. Calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute” who should “post videos of herself having sex” as a sort of “thank you” if the government is going to pay for her sexual activities, Limbaugh did not stop there. He went on to further slam her character by stating that she’s “having so much sex that she wants us to pay for it”.

There are several heavy, critical issues that are raised by this sequence of events. To be sure, this dialogue raises a controversial political and policy issue that should undoubtedly be debated and examined. This part of it will be vehemently evaluated over the coming weeks and months. The dialogue also raises the question of whether or not Mr. Limbaugh crossed the line with his comments. This will also be repeatedly debated in the coming weeks and months. An issue that will likely receive much less attention is the fallout of public humiliation and its impact on the targeted individual and the collective psychology of this nation.

I think it must be said, that Mr. Limbaugh did not break any laws. This country allows for the freedom of speech and Mr. Limbaugh passionately and aggressively exercised this right on those days. But there is an ethical question that is necessarily raised. What is the impact? WHAT IS THE IMPACT?

From a psychological standpoint, the impact of public humiliation can be chronic and severe. Take Mark Madoff, the scorned son of Bernie Madoff. He wore the shame and indignity of his fathers’ actions like a scarlet letter. Although none of us could possibly know his state of mind when he chose to take his own life, it is very possible; even likely, that the dishonor brought upon him by the actions of his father was unbearable, and literally fatal. Unfortunately, there are countless more examples. A number of CEO’s humiliated by their public wrongdoings or business failures have also taken their own lives in the last several years. In September, 2011, Jeong Gu-haeng, the CEO of a South Korean savings bank, committed suicide after his firm was suspended Sunday due to flagging funds. In November 2011, Adrian Kohler, CEO of the confectionery business Ricola, confessed to fraud, believed to be of the magnitude of several hundreds of thousands in francs. Two days later he took his own life.

The point of recounting these sad tales lies in reviewing the psychological toll public humiliation can take, not in any way justifying the alleged illegal and immoral actions of these particular CEO’s. However, experiencing shame in public can and often does create tremendous depression and anxiety. Those targeted often feel isolated, alone, panicked, and hopeless. They imagine that their lives and relationships have been irrevocably damaged. One’s very own self-identity can be clouded and in peril in the wake of this kind of experience. One no longer feels grounded in who they knew themselves to be or how other people see them. This experience can literally create an emotional breakdown. This severe emotional distress can lead to a downward spiral that can include loss of focus, work, relationships and self worth. The mind can be so wracked with pain that it becomes psychologically sick. Without professional and familial support and intervention, the worst can occur.

The impact of society witnessing someone’s public humiliation also seems quite relevant. Of course the friends and family of those shamed are devastated. They see “both sides” of the disgraced individual and are flattened by the emotional toll of their loved ones being publicly torn down. And what about the impact to society as a whole? Sadly, society is somewhat used to witnessing people get criticized, judged, or even trashed publicly. There is a sort of collective numbness around this kind of event from some pockets of society. People may feel emotionally disconnected from other people’s suffering. Even worse, individuals may feel somehow “invited” to also publicly shame people in their own lives…in their workplaces, at their school playgrounds, college campuses. This is also knows as bullying.

A good long look at how we use words is warranted here. This type of rhetoric does cause damage and can have unwanted ripple effects on the psychological mind of this country.

Hopefully, the case of Sandra Fluke does not garner this kind of psychological damage. The support that she is mobilizing from various outlets and individuals in the wake of these events will likely bolster and strengthen her psychological skin so she can ride this particular scenario out.

I know that at its core the case of Sandra Fluke is a case of public policy. But, in my view, it’s also a case of personal policy. Let’s watch how we speak to each other. Words do hurt. Especially in the current cyber and media focused environment in which we dwell. Stick to the policy points. Stay away from the personal ones. It does matter.


Dr. Hillary Goldsher, Psy.D, MBA is a licensed clinical psychologist who has a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA.