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Public punishment and humiliation has taken different forms in different societies over the years; from the pillory and stocks in mediaeval England, through chain gangs in the American South to amputating thieves’ hands in countries which operate strict forms of Shari’a Law such as Saudi Arabia. The ultimate form is of course public executions – twenty three countries carried out capital punishments in 2010 according to Amnesty International.

Anyone who has read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” (Surveiller et Punir) will not be able to forget the description of the public execution of the man who tried to kill the French king in the mid-18th-century. Robert-François Damiens was tortured with red-hot pincers; the hand which held the knife in the attempted assassination was burned using sulphur; molten wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. After several hours of agony, horses were harnessed to his arms and legs, but didn’t succeed in pulling him asunder –  the executioners had to finish the job with an axe. Finally,  his torso was burnt at the stake.

Foucault’s seminal text is about the birth of the prison which he argues was not so much driven by humanitarian concerns as by a desire on the part of the ruling classes to discipline and control the poor across society. He argues that public executions were becoming counter-productive as the convict’s body would sometimes become the focus of sympathy and admiration. In this way, he describes the move away from punishment in the public gaze towards locking people up in prisons.

However, in recent years, the public shaming of offenders has become more popular again in both the United States and the UK. There has been a trend in the US – particularly in state courts – to allow offenders to avoid all or part of their prison sentence by publicly renouncing their crimes in a humiliating way. A young man convicted of stealing mail was sentenced to just two months in prison on the conditions that he apologise to those whose post he had stolen and stand in front of the Post Office for eight hours wearing a sandwich board stating: “I stole mail; this is my punishment”. This trend for justice where the punishment fits the crime (recalling Dante’s Inferno) has caught on. Another example is the man convicted of mistreating his young stepson by forcing him to sleep in a doghouse. A judge in Texas offered him the choice of 30 days in jail or 30 nights in a doghouse. Both these examples are featured in; Wrightsman’s Pyschology and the Legal System 7th edition. In a similar fashion, several US cities have publicly broadcast the names of men caught soliciting prostitutes on “John TV”.

In the UK, there has been increased public appetite for public punishment with offenders performing community payback (previously community service,  community punishment and unpaid work) in high visibility jackets, normally with the logo of the supervising probation service on the back. This practice has been popular in the US for years as Boy George can attest:

The advent of social media has brought the possibility of cheaper and easier ways of public punishment and humiliation. Police departments and probation services increasingly use Facebook to find and monitor offenders. Recently, I wrote about the way that many offenders are drawn to boasting about their criminal exploits online. Now, it seems that some police departments want to boast about their successes in arresting criminals on social media and subject those arrested to public humiliation at the same time.

Last year the township of Evesham in New Jersey took to posting photographs on its Facebook page of people who had been arrested for drunk driving  (interestingly, photos are posted on arrest as opposed to after conviction despite the risks of breaching legal rights andjeopardising any eventual trial). A similar proposal in Huntington Beach, California was defeated when the city council voted it down.

Proponents of the scheme would argue that it is not so different from having your name listed in the local paper and that the public shame of driving under the influence of alcohol has been a significant factor in greatly reducing the incidence of this dangerous offence. However, a Facebook photo, like everything on the Internet, is much more permanent than newsprint because it can be distributed and re-distributed for years. While it is true that the fear of having to admit drink-driving to family, friends and work colleagues might be a positive deterrent, having the photo tagged and distributed, for example around the school which your children attend, would seem to be a disproportionate extra punishment.

However, it is clear that many police departments and local authorities who want to appear tough on crime  are keen to try out this approach. If posting photos of offenders on Facebook becomes common practice, there are endless possibilities for using social media to shame criminals. Will LinkedIn insist that criminal convictions are displayed alongside your CV? Will contributions to Wikipedia and Quora be asterisked to inform readers that the author is a convicted criminal and the article should be considered less reliable?

At least offences against Twitter etiquette are only self-policed by twitchfork mobs.


3 Responses

  1. Interesting post – obviously though there is the issue of online ‘shaming’ content being available long after convictions become legally ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. If convictions continue to be publicised when spent this might (in theory) then be construed as malicious and become subject to legal proceedings and awards of damages.

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