Humiliation as Punishment
Punishment by public humiliation has been around since the dawn of time. To some extent, one could argue that our first parents experienced public humiliation at the hand of God as they felt great shame in their nakedness. There were no other humans around, but Adam and Eve knew God’s eyes were wide open, seeing everything without and within.
Over the years, magistrates of all kinds have used public humiliation rather creatively as a form of punishment. Throughout the Renaissance and the later Puritan era, things like stocks, the pillory, the scaffolding, and a whipping post were employed in the public square to humiliate the lawbreaker. Those who sentenced the offender to such disgrace typically did so for the purpose of deterring others from taking the same path of disobedience.
How effective this was is anyone’s guess. No doubt some witnesses thought twice about carrying out certain crimes upon watching others suffer great humiliation. However, I can only imagine that those who suffered the ignominy burned with anger and vengeance both during and after the event. One can only wonder how many of the guilty went on to continue their lawbreaking ways.
I’m writing about this as I recently came across an article about a man who was made to hold a sign up to passing cars at a major intersection in his town. The sign read, “I am a bully.” As I read the article, I found myself sickened by the actions of this man as he was found guilty of harassing disabled children. However, I’m not altogether sure that making him bear a scarlet letter in the form of a cardboard sign is the answer. I find myself questioning this strategy. For starters, I wonder about the purpose. Is this meant as a deterrence? If so, for whom? Is it suppose to reform the 62 year old bully? Or is it suppose to make others re-consider their bullying ways?
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the creativity as I don’t think spending time in jail will do much to stop this man’s cruelties (though he is being made to spend 15 days in jail). Nevertheless, I’m not at all convinced that humiliating him will positively affect the situation either.
So what to do?
Well, what if judges employed creativity with an eye to affecting change rather than manufacturing humiliation and shame.
In other words, what if the man in this instance was sentenced to reading one letter a day written by a disabled child who in their own words told him what life was like living with a disability? Or, what if the man had been sentenced to spend one day a week visiting and serving disabled children and their parents in some way? Or what if he had to write a letter a day for six months to a different disabled child explaining why he had been cruel.
I’m sure judges can come up with even better ideas.
I know that sometimes punishment is all about deterrence, but I also know that the only thing that humiliation does is to stoke the fires of hatred, vengeance, and retaliation.
At the end of the day, I believe that love, grace, and mercy are the most powerful means of bringing about genuine, lasting change. Maybe…just maybe, employing these together with some creativity could change the meanest of bullies into the humblest of sinners.
It worked on St. Paul.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1.15, ESV).