By Martijn Icks
Social media have made public shaming all too easy. With great frequency, cries of moral indignation resound on the Internet, aimed at persons who have allegedly misbehaved or uttered disgraceful statements. These people suddenly find themselves beleaguered by digital torch-and-pitchfork mobs, ready to slaughter their good name. They are lambasted in furious tweets. Scathing memes are posted on Facebook and message boards. Soon their inbox starts to overflow with hate mail and death threats.
Many of these targets are public figures, such as politicians and celebrities. However, even the conduct of private individuals can raise a storm of moral outrage that reaches national, if not global, proportions. Famous examples include Walter Palmer, an American dentist who ignited the ire of online communities by shooting a lion, and Justine Sacco, an American woman whose jocular tweet on catching AIDS when travelling to Africa unleashed a fury of angry responses.
Whole websites are devoted to the naming and shaming of people who are accused of marital infidelity, fraud, or other forms of unacceptable behavior. The names and pictures posted on these websites may not reach an audience of millions, but they can still destroy careers, reputations and even lives.
Yet public shaming is not just an online phenomenon. Long before the rise of the Internet, the extramarital affairs of royalty, MPs and pop stars were exposed by tabloids, their gaffes relentlessly mocked by cartoonists and TV comedians. Even earlier, the high and mighty faced jeering crowds and mocking songs.
Ordinary people, too, have always been subjected to public shaming, although their disgrace tended to be limited to their own communities. However, that did not mean they could count on a merciful treatment. On the contrary, sexual deviance, infidelity, betrayal and other alleged crimes and vices were often dealt with harshly. An almost 2,000-year-old example is provided by the Roman historian Tacitus, who records how men from ancient Germanic tribes treated their unfaithful wives:
Having cut off the hair of the adulteress and stripped her naked, he expels her from the house in the presence of her kinsfolk, and then flogs her through the whole village. (Germania 19)
It would be easy to dismiss this custom as typical of barbaric people, but public shaming was hardly more subtle in “civilized” societies. The practice of tarring and feathering was a beloved form of mob vengeance from the medieval period to the days of the Wild West. After Europe’s liberation from Nazi occupation, women who had associated with the Germans had their heads shaved bare and were paraded through the streets. Presumably, the culprits thought that what they were doing amounted to justice.
In many historic cultures, public shaming was part of the repertoire of punishments doled out by the authorities. The best-known device used for this purpose was the pillory, consisting of a wooden framework with holes for the victim’s head and hands. Thus secured, the unfortunate man or woman was displayed in the town square, where angry mobs could pelt them with fruit, dirt or stones.
The Chinese equivalent to the pillory was the cangue or tcha, a thick wooden board that was fastened about the victim’s neck, sometimes for weeks on end, so that their hands could not reach their mouth and they had to rely on the mercy of others to eat and drink.
In medieval and early modern Germany, those convicted of minor crimes sometimes had to wear the “mask of shame”, usually an iron construction in the shape of an animal’s head. (See the titular image for an example.) Although this device wasn’t as potentially deadly as the cangue, its wearers were still in for heaps of merciless ridicule.
All these punishments, and the numerous other methods of public shaming dreamed up throughout history, served to imprint on the victims that they had overstepped a moral boundary that was not to be crossed, while simultaneously signaling to the rest of the community what the consequences of such actions were. Thus “good” and “bad” behavior were defined in unmistakable terms.
Undoubtedly they also served another purpose, namely to create an outlet for the emotions of volatile crowds, providing a target for their anger, frustration and contempt. After all, the last thing kings, nobles and magistrates wanted was that the unwashed mashes turned their fury against them and started a revolt.
Nowadays, public shaming does not feature prominently in the law books of Western democracies. Still, it is not unheard of for judges to convict and sentence people to display signs describing their misbehavior. Compared to the pillories and cangues of the past, this form of punishment seems almost humane, yet we should not underestimate its devastating effects. Few things are harder to repair than a damaged reputation.