Many who have read of it will never forget the gruesome account of one man’s execution as retribution for the attempted murder of an eighteenth century monarch. Using red-hot pincers, the executioner struggled to tear off chunks of flesh from the reprobate’s chest, arms, thighs and calves. The offender’s hand, holding the knife used to commit the offence, was burned with Sulphur. Then molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and Sulphur were poured into the raw wounds. Next, he was to be drawn and quartered but the horses, having never torn a man apart before, were inept and after forty-five unsuccessful, torturous minutes the executioner rolled up his sleeves and hacked away at the tough sinews still holding the screaming man together and then finally, mercifully the horses ripped him apart. When the executioner tossed the condemned man’s head and torso on to the pyre where his parts were to be burned to ash, spectators witnessed his jaw still moving, as if speaking.
Over the past two weeks I’ve engaged with three individuals, unknown to one another, and for some bizarre reason, perhaps one psychic collective conscience, all were complaining about the same issue – the release of the names and addresses of people charged with a criminal offence into the public arena, and more specifically, the media’s eagerness to pick up and publish the information as a newsworthy item.
So what does any of that have in common with the grisly disastrous execution of some French guy? Why You of course (and Me too)!
Public executions, the gallows, pillorys and social media all require an audience- spectators if you will, to accomplish the two-fold task of humiliating the offender and reinforcing the authority of the law.
And where people gather there is an opportunity for profit. As a matter of fact, in days of old, gory executions often took on the atmosphere of a carnival or a rock concert. Wealthy folks would travel from afar and rent accommodations that offered the best view of the execution platform, vendors would set up carts at execution venues to sell food, drinks and other wares, and minstrels and jugglers entertained the crowds. The poor fated sap, once upon the gallows, would give his final speech. Beginning at the top of the 16th century, his final soliloquy would be printed and sold for profit.
Does it all sound a little familiar yet?
Perhaps the more pertinent question to be posed – Is the daily police beat, or on occasion in Sault Ste. Marie- the Wanted Wednesday profile, newsworthy? Well of course not, or at least rarely- but you already knew that. However, does that swill sell newspapers? Absolutely- but you already knew that too.
Let’s be honest, the majority of us get a little thrill when we read about our loathed former math teacher picking up a DUI or that the mouthy skinny broad that lives next to your cousin was arrested for nicking a box of chicken nugget tenders from the Walmart.
That’s called Schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, and we all experience it.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the efficiency of humiliation as a deterrent, such as publicly announcing a DUI charge. We can all get behind that one I’m sure. Some studies even suggest that in the case of white-collar crime shaming and humiliation serve as a greater deterrent than financial restitution or ‘vacays’ in cushy white-collar lock-ups.
But there is a certain demographic where name shaming through police beats and media platforms are counter-productive and the call-out is worn as a badge of honour and the rabble-rouser is slapped on the back by their peers.
And what of the potential to induce greater harm all in the name of the shame game?
Back in May 2013, then Chief of Police, Bob Davies, announced an end to the public release of the personal information of sex trade workers and information about crimes associated with sex trade. It was an important step in re-humanizing women, children and men affected by the violence, poverty, addiction and lack of choice often associated with prostitution. And for those that wanted to exit the trade, it kept the door open for ‘fresh starts’.
Davies, and I’m sure his colleagues, came to the conclusion that there was an ethical obligation to exercise discretion when they decided not to release the names of sex trade workers- not unlike their practice of protecting the names of minors from the public. Their decision to not toss prostitutes into the public arena, spared those individuals of a virtual scarlet letter that would be fixed to their identity in perpetuity byte by byte by byte.
Two hundred years ago, a shaming in the town pillory lasted only a few hours and the unfortunate soul would take it in the face as gloating villagers’ pelted rotten fruit, eggs and poop at their head- piece of cake. Today the World Wide Web has changed everything and 15 minutes of fame has turned into a lifetime of infamy.
Long before a jury of your peers –or the Court, determines your culpability, society at large has convicted you as a guilty and if twenty years later nobody can remember what all the hoopla was about, well they can just dial up the forgotten memory via the internet. And if you really are found guilty of a crime and despite the possibility that you might turn your life around and demonstrate a real change of heart, your negative reputation will always proceed you because nothing that makes it into the public domain can ever really be deleted.
It was the point of harm and permanency that struck me when I opened up my computer last week, and clicked -of my own free will, on the latest update about what our local constabulary had been up to the night before. Some unfortunate soul was apprehended, whilst shooting up in a public washroom, for swiping some drug cooking paraphernalia – obviously a person with a severe addiction. And there was his name hoisted up on to the gallows for ridicule. I wondered how this helped his chance at recovery.
Did the humiliation of this experience motivate him to reach out for help? Was this his idealistic and long awaited ‘rock bottom’?
I doubt it.
Was my personal safety risk diminished because I now had knowledge that a person, who is obviously fighting a personal demon, had been charged?
Did any entity gain from the public humiliation of this human being?
Please don’t mistake me for a bleeding heart type. I whole heartedly acknowledge that there are times when a public shaming –or public transparency, is called for. I also believe that it is important for police forces to inform the community when there is threat to public safety- a pedophile spotted to be roaming playgrounds, a violent offender on the loose- you get the point.
As for the media we also have the freedom but not an obligation, to exercise discretion when responding to updates sent out by the police. For the most part, journalism is a business and not a community service. The role of the media is to inform, not to serve as a social moral compass.
French philosopher, Michel Foucault, observed of the function of public torture and humiliation that “the great spectacle of punishment ran the risk of being rejected by the very people to whom it was addressed.” And it did. By 1848, in France, public executions preceded by torture, had almost entirely disappeared.
Just like the spectators who attended the execution mentioned at the beginning of this article, you the reader have free will. You don’t have to look –even when you want to. After all, there’s no carnival without an audience.
 Foucault, Michel. (1975). Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison. New York. Vintage Books, Random House Inc.
 Foucault, Michel. (1975). Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison. New York. Vintage Books, Random House Inc., 66.
 Ibid., 22.