Public humiliation

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South Korean gang leader Lee Jung-jae being shame-paraded by Park Chung Hee's military regime (1961).

Public humiliation or public shaming is a form of punishment whose main feature is dishonoring or disgracing a person, usually an offender or a prisoner, especially in a public place. It was regularly used as a form of judicially sanctioned punishment in previous centuries, and is still practiced by different means in the modern era.

In the United States, it was a common punishment from the beginning of European colonization through the 19th century. It fell out of common use in the 20th century, though it has seen a revival starting in the 1990s.[1] With the rise of the social media, public shaming moved to the digital sphere, exposing and humiliating people daily, sometimes without their knowledge. [2]

Shameful exposure[edit]

Pillories were a common form of punishment.

Public humiliation exists in many forms. In general, a criminal sentenced to one of many forms of this punishment could expect themselves be placed (restrained) in a central, public, or open location so that their fellow citizens could easily witness the sentence and, in some cases, participate as a form of "mob justice".[3]

Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary context, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as "donkey ears" (simulated in paper, as a sign one is—or at least behaved—proverbially stupid), wearing a dunce cap, having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors", for example). Here different levels of physical discomfort can be added, such as having to hold heavy objects, or kneeling on an uneven surface. Like physical punishment and harsh hazing, these have become controversial in most modern societies, in many cases leading to legal restrictions and/or (sometimes voluntary) abolishment.[citation needed]

Black-and-white photograph of two women with shaved heads and blank expressions on their face walking down a street in Paris. The women are surrounded by a group of other people, most of whom are smiling.
Paris, 1944: French women accused of collaboration with Nazis had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets barefoot.

Head shaving can be a humiliating punishment prescribed in law,[4] but also something done as "mob justice"—a stark example of which was the thousands of European women who had their heads shaved in front of cheering crowds in the wake of World War II,[5][6] as punishment for associating with occupying Nazis during the war. Public shaving was applied to (true or alleged) collaborators after the Allied liberated occupied territories from the Nazi troops.[5][6]

Further means of public humiliation and degradation consist in forcing people to wear typifying clothes, which can be penitential garb or prison uniforms.[7][8] Forcing arrestees or prisoners to wear restraints (such as handcuffs or shackles) may also increase public humiliation. In countries such as Japan, France, and South Korea,[9] handcuffs on arrested persons are blurred in media broadcasts and hidden wherever possible to prevent feelings of "personal shame" in the accused and to make the public more likely to maintain a presumption of innocence before trial.[10]

Forcing people to go barefoot has been used as a more subtle form of humiliation in past and present cultures. The exposure of bare feet has served as an indicator for imprisonment and slavery throughout ancient and modern history.[11] Even today prisoners officially have to go barefoot in many countries of the world and are also presented in court and in public unshod.[12][13]

Corporal punishment[edit]

Public foot whipping in Iran
Public flogging in Brazil, Jean-Baptiste Debret

Apart from specific methods essentially aiming at humiliation, several methods combine pain and humiliation or even death and humiliation. In some cases, the pain—or at least discomfort—is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation.[14][15][16]

Public punishment[edit]

The simplest is to administer painful corporal punishment in public - the major aim may be deterrence of potential offenders - so the public will witness the perpetrator's fear and agony. This can either take place in a town square or other public gathering location such as a school, or take the form of a procession through the streets. This was not uncommon in the sentences to Staupenschlag (flagellation by whipping or birching, generally on the bare buttocks)[17] in various European states, till the 19th century.[18] A naval equivalent was Flogging round the fleet on a raft taken from ship to ship for consecutive installments of a great total of lashes.[19][20] In some countries, the punishment of foot whipping is executed in public to this day.[21]

Torture marks[edit]

The 1774 tarring and feathering of British customs agent John Malcolm soon after the Boston Tea Party.

The humiliation can be extended; intentionally or not; by leaving visible marks, such as scars. This can even be the main intention of the punishment, as in the case of scarifications, such as human branding.[22] Other examples of physical torture or modification used as public humiliation throughout history include ear cropping (starting in ancient Assyrian law and the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and extending into the 1800s in parts of the US)[23] and tarring and feathering.[24]

Psychological effects[edit]

Public shaming can result in negative psychological effects and devastating consequences, regardless of the punishment being justifiable or not. It could cause depression, suicidal thoughts and other severe mental problems. The humiliated individuals may develop a variety of symptoms including apathy, paranoia, anxiety, PTSD, or others. The rage and fury may arise in the persecuted individual, themselves lashing out against innocent victims, as they seek revenge or as a means of release.[citation needed]

Historical examples[edit]

  • Crucifixion was used by the Romans to add public humiliation to a death penalty. Josephus describes how the Roman soldiers would crucify people naked, and using different tortuous positions as a way to further humiliate them. Crucified bodies were left to decay on the cross for weeks, and crows would come to feed on the corpses; this can be seen as post-mortem public humiliation. See also gibbeting.[citation needed]
  • The punishment of public humiliation has taken many forms, ranging from an offender being forced to relate his crime, to a 'shame flute' (for untalented musicians), to the wearing of conspicuous clothing or jewelry (such as an oversized rosary (Dutch: schandstenen, "stones of shame") for someone late to church). The offender could alternatively be sentenced to remain exposed in a specific exposed place, in a restraining device such as a yoke or public stocks.[citation needed]
  • In the Low Countries, the schandstoel ("Chair of shame"), the kaak or schandpaal ("pole of shame", a simple type of pillory), the draaikooi were customary for adulteresses, and the schopstoel, a scaffolding from which one is kicked off to land in mud and dirt.[citation needed]
  • In the more extreme cases, being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the crowd could have serious consequences, especially when the hands were bound, preventing self-protection. Some sentences actually prescribed additional humiliation, such as shaving, or would combine it with painful corporal punishments, see below.[25]
  • In colonial America, common forms of public humiliation were the stocks and pillory, imported from Europe. Nearly every sizable town had such instruments of public humiliation, usually at the town square. In pre-World War II Japan, adulterers were publicly exposed purely to shame them.[citation needed]
  • In Liberia, boy soldiers stripped civilian women to humiliate them; this was described with the verb phrase "to naked someone else."[26]
  • In Siam, an adulteress was paraded with a hibiscus behind the ear. Thieves were tattooed on their faces. Other criminals were paraded with a device made of woven cane on the forehead, or lengths of bamboo hung around the neck. Errant Brahmans had to wear a string of oversize beads.[citation needed]
  • Send under the yoke was used in ancient Italy.[citation needed]
  • Some have considered sex offender registries in the United States to be a form of public humiliation as judicial punishment.[27][28] A convicted sex offender's placement on the sex offender registry is public via a state run website in all 50 states.[29][30] In 2018, a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado declared Colorado's sex offender scheme as unconstitutional, citing cruel and unusual punishment.[31] In 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned that decision.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Deardorff, Julie (April 20, 2000). "Shame Returns As Punishment".
  2. ^ Pundak, Chen; Steinhart, Yael; Goldenberg, Jacob (July 2, 2021). "Nonmaleficence in Shaming: The Ethical Dilemma Underlying Participation in Online Public Shaming". Journal of Consumer Psychology. 31 (3): 478–500. doi:10.1002/jcpy.1227 – via CrossRef.
  3. ^ Frevert, Ute (2020). The politics of humiliation: a modern history (First ed.). Oxford New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 48, 103. ISBN 9780198820314.
  4. ^ "Article 87 ... shall be sentenced to flogging, having his head shaven, and one year of exile..." Archived 2017-08-26 at the Wayback Machine, Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  5. ^ a b Beevor, Antony (5 June 2009). "An Ugly Carnival". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  6. ^ a b Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, ISBN 978-1-85973-584-8
  7. ^ "Public Humiliation". Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  8. ^ Vinciguerra, Thomas (1 October 2000). "The Clothes That Make The Inmate". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  9. ^ "Why the media in Japan, France and South Korea blur the handcuffs on the hands of suspects". ORDO News. 9 April 2022. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  10. ^ Borowiec, Steven (3 November 2017). "South Korean Perp Walks: What's Up With the Blurred Handcuffs?". KOREA EXPOSÉ. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  11. ^ "Cape Town and Surrounds". Government of South Africa. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  12. ^ Olarn, Kocha (23 January 2013). "Thai court sentences activist to 10 years in prison for insulting king -". CNN.
  13. ^ "Extradition hearing for arms dealer postponed". Taipei Times. 29 July 2008.
  14. ^ Rodogno, Raffaele (2009). "Shame, Guilt, and Punishment". Law and Philosophy. 28 (5): 429–464. doi:10.1007/s10982-008-9042-x. ISSN 0167-5249. JSTOR 40284681. S2CID 144526838. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  15. ^ Perlin, Michael L.; Weinstein, Naomi M. (26 December 2014). ""Friend to the Martyr, a Friend to the Woman of Shame": Thinking About the Law, Shame and Humiliation" (PDF). Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice. 24.
  16. ^ Vellaram, Sandeep; Jayarajan, Sreedevi (1 July 2019). "22 injuries, 'Falanga' torture used: Shocking autopsy of Kerala custodial death victim". The News Minute. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  17. ^ Scott (19 December 2013). History Of Corporal Punishment. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315828367. ISBN 9781315828367.
  18. ^ Frevert, Ute (20 January 2021). "The history of humiliation points to the future of human dignity". Psyche.
  19. ^ "Cat-o-nine tails, United Kingdom, 1700-1850". Science Museum Group. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  20. ^ Horan, Leo F. S. (1 September 1950). "Flogging In The United States Navy". U.S. Naval Institute. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  21. ^ UN Committee Against Torture. "Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Decision No. 551/2013" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 20 May 2023.
  22. ^ Patra, Pratap Kumar (2016). "Branding in children: a barbaric practice still exists in India". Pan African Medical Journal. 23: 62. doi:10.11604/pamj.2016.23.62.7968. eISSN 1937-8688. PMC 4862791. PMID 27217887.
  23. ^ Corlew, Robert Ewing (1990). Tennessee, a Short History. Univ. of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-0-87049-647-9.
  24. ^ Sieber, Karen (8 February 2021). "The hidden story of when two Black college students were tarred and feathered". The Conversation.
  25. ^ Cox, James (Spring 2009). "Bilboes, Brands, and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments". Colonial Williamsburg Journal.
  26. ^ McBride-Ahebee, Octavia (2011). Where My Birthmark Dances. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-59924-827-1.
  27. ^ McAlinden, Anne-Marie (2005). "The Use of 'Shame' with Sexual Offenders" (PDF). The British Journal of Criminology. 45 (3): 373–394. doi:10.1093/bjc/azh095. ISSN 0007-0955. JSTOR 23639325. Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  28. ^ SULLUM, JACOB (25 August 2020). "The Onerous Burdens of Sex Offender Registration Are Not Punishment, the 10th Circuit Rules. They Just Feel That Way". Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  29. ^ Shim, Jane (13 August 2014). "These States Stick People With a Lifetime of Restrictions for Decades-Old, Nonviolent Sex Offenses". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  30. ^ "50-State Comparison: Relief from Sex Offense Registration Obligations". Restoration of Rights Project. Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  31. ^ Mitchell, Kirk (1 September 2017). "Colorado sex offender registration act is unconstitutional, federal judge declares". The Denver Post. Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  32. ^ "Registration not cruel and unusual punishment, says Tenth Circuit". 23 August 2020.

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