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A Brief History of Public Shaming

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Concerning public shaming, Peter Stearns noted exaggeration in research findings in places like ancient Japan and colonial America, known for public stocks, or in Babylonian law, known for public slaps. Public shaming in Europe accelerated in frequency after the late Middle Ages due in part to Christianity, advances in medicine, and chivalric culture, said Stearns. For example, the concept of manners took shape during the Renaissance, as early modern Europeans used shame to instill etiquette practices at the community and familial levels. For European elites, enforcing manners was meant to control “disruptive emotions, violence, and bodily excess” (Stearns, 2017, p. 42). But shame was understood in other ways as well.

In other instances, not observing the Sabbath was a shameful offense during the mid-1600s, as was forgery and counterfeiting (Stearns, 2017). In Britain, forgers were put in public stocks with a piece of paper on their head, adulterers were paraded around with a mocking crown, and bad musicians were given special flutes (Stearns, 2017). In Europe and North America, dunce caps were given to disobedient students as a form of punishment, while grading and marking rubrics rooted in competition were also used to shame students who received poor evaluations (Stearns, 2017). Those who practiced medicine without the standard qualifications were made to sit backward on donkeys and marched through town, sex workers were carried around in barrels, and perjurers were mocked on wooden horses (Stearns, 2017). At times, the shamed individual wore a bell to draw large crowds, or their face was blackened with soot (Stearns, 2017).

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Western Europe had expanded shame’s range considerably as practices that were once routine were considered shameful if performed in public, like urination of flatulence; “One should make sacrifices, with the buttocks firmly pressed together,” it was said (Stearns, 2017, p. 42). Note that in ancient Greece, men could once attend outdoor parties completely naked, including in front of their servants; this changed in the seventeenth century as nakedness in public began to be considered shameful, and covering up was instituted in law. In this way, shame not only transformed experiences for women and girls but also determined how boys and men performed masculinity.

Terms like “sissy,” which were used affectionately to describe one’s sister in the 1840s, were, by the 1880s, used to shame boys and men who did not perform the physically dominant, emotionally aloof, stoic masculinity mandated at the time (Stearns, 2017). Other terms, such as “crybaby” were used as a show of strength as boys challenged each other while playing (Stearns, 2017). They dared each other in games, shaming and casting out weaker participants. In this way, shame played a role in gaming and sport (Stearns, 2017). The rise in sports intensified this nuanced shame narrative, constructing masculinity in a very particular way that excluded those who performed gender differently than the stereotypical male athlete (Stearns, 2017). American sports like football were said to be the “maker of men,” and excluding women from sports was the norm, as was using scripts like, “throwing like a girl,” or calling those who performed poorly “women” (Stearns, 2017, p. 87). Coaches were key culprits in normalizing the use of shame in sports, berating players for perceived failure, often in front of others (Stearns, 2017). Stearns noted that the association of shame with failure would extend into class, business, and socioeconomic status, as poor and failed business owners were seen as failing, and therefore, shameful.

It was in the mid-eighteenth century, after 1750, that drastic changes to how shame was understood and punished took place (Stearns, 2017). Western innovators believed that shame needed “major reconsideration,” with more emphasis put on human dignity and covering up; an innovation that led to the emergence of the nightgown (Stearns, 2017, p. 43). By the middle to the late eighteenth century, using corporal punishment as part of penal reform, including torture and capital punishment in public settings (Stearns, 2017). Western Europeans, particularly British colonists, instituted some of the harshest public shaming, argued Aaron Book (2014) in Shame on You: An Analysis of Modern Shame Punishment as an Alternative to Incarceration.

Book (2014) shares that the shamed individual was sent to the pillory, bilboes, branks, ducking stools, or stocks.[i] Or they could have their heads, hands, or ears chopped off, their foreheads branded, their bodies mutilated, or their hair shaved off (Aitchison & Mechled-Garcia, 2021; Book, 2014; Garvey, 2014); anything to publicly mark them as shameful. Such practices were a form of what Guy Aitchison and Saladin Mechled-Garcia (2021) call “communicative social practice” (p. 10). Here, shame was used to let the community know that an individual with their head shaved was to be excluded.

Prior to the birth of prisons, penitentiaries, or jails, shame penalties included decapitation, branding on the forehead, or standing naked in public stocks for hours and sometimes even days (Book, 2014; Brooks, 2014; Stearns, 2017). As Aaron Book (2014) explained, “primitive [European] societies wiped out sin by wiping out the sinner” (p. 658), including by death (see also Garvey, 2014). These same European men brought the practice of public shaming with them to colonial North America, where shame was primarily documented in New England, though it was less harsh than in Europe (Books, 2014; Stearns, 2017). Even as colonial officials tried to distance themselves from the British monarchy, they adopted “barbarous and inhuman” shame-based systems much like those used in the Old World centuries prior (Stearns, 2017, p. 43).

In nineteenth-century colonial New England, public shaming was central to controlling people and more favourable than punitive corporal punishment (Stearns, 2017). In the New World, Stearns noted that shaming was tailored to the offense, compared to other forms of punishment. For example, those who were accused of adultery were required to wear the letter A on their body while standing in an open scaffold for hours; a person who stole a pair of pants was required by Virginia law to spend hours in the stocks with a pair of britches on their head (Stearns, 2017, p. 44).

Aaron Book (2014) writes that in Williamsburg, Virginia, a thief could have their ear nailed to the wooden brace of the pillory. How long they were nailed to the wood depending on the severity of their crime. Afterward, authorities would pull them from the pillory without first removing the nail, hence the term earmarked. In other instances, a cleft stick was put on tongues for those caught swearing (Book, 2014; Garvey, 2014). Such practices were a supposed improvement from those enacted in Europe.

With this lineage in mind, we can begin to understand why white conservative anti–critical race crusaders want nothing to do with shame. No one does. But facing their history would be especially challenging given this level of violence associated with shaming in public. I’ll save that for another blog.

Until next time, in solidarity.

Notes [i] In Shame on You: An Analysis of Modern Shame Punishment as an Alternative to Incarceration, Aaron Book (2014) shares, the pillory was a device that restrained the criminal’s head and hands between two boards. The stocks restrained the criminal’s head and feet. Typically, the pillory and stocks were placed in a very public area of the town or village so that the criminal was subject to the most severe embarrassment. (p. 10)

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