Public shaming as cruel and unusual punishment

Fron Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:

The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.

The movement against public shaming was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for their outlawing— the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot.

“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death… It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”

—BENJAMIN RUSH, “AN ENQUIRY INTO THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC PUNISHMENTS UPON CRIMINALS, AND UPON SOCIETY,” MARCH 9. 1787

In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it’s worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room—away from the public gaze—and administering “bodily pain.”

To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.

Public punishments were abolished within fifty years of Rush’s paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware whipping critiques I excerpt were published in the 1870s).

The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue the state into change in an 1867 editorial.

“If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the launt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

—QUOTED IN ROBERT GRAHAM CALDWELL, Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post

If the practice of public shaming was abandoned for being a form of cruel and unusual punishment, isn’t it at least a little alarming that it is being used as an instrument of vigilante justice, without trial or oversight?

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