New Worlds: Social Punishment

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In comparison with last week, the punishments we’re looking at this time around aren’t about hurting or controlling the body — at least, not as their primary function. Instead, they aim to operate on something less tangible: the mind, or the individual’s relationship to society.

It’s a fuzzy category, I’ll admit. For example, I include under “social punishments” one that’s extremely widespread today, which is the monetary penalty. Whether it’s a set fine assessed for certain transgressions (e.g. a parking ticket) or variable damages awarded by a judge, the aim here is to hit somebody in the wallet rather than the flesh. This can work pretty well for situations where the intended effect is restitution — making somebody whole for the inconvenience or loss they’ve suffered — but as a deterrent, it’s often lacking. How often have we heard of somebody being fined, and called it “a slap on the wrist?” Sufficiently wealthy individuals or companies may see a fine as just the cost of doing business, because they make more money from their transgression than they’ll be charged for it afterward.

Exile also still exists, at least in certain forms. Deportation, for example, is a form of exile applied to foreign nationals (at least as we use the term today). Prison is a kindred concept — a fact which becomes more visible when you consider that people used to be exiled to specific locations they weren’t allowed to leave, e.g. Roman rulers sending troublemakers off to remote parts of the empire, or Japanese rulers banishing their foes to live on isolated islands. And we certainly have exiles in the sense of people who choose not to return home because they know they’ll be arrested if they do.

But we don’t really do the “remote town or isolated island” form of exile anymore, much less the sort where we tell a person that we don’t care where they go so long as it isn’t within our borders. When you think about it, that type of punishment amounts to telling your neighbors “this is your problem now” . . . which your neighbors probably don’t appreciate. Australia, for example, was less than pleased to be given a constant stream of British convicts. But transportation (the practice of shipping criminals off to a colony, often for penal servitude) was popular in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain because it offered a comparatively merciful alternative to capital punishment: as harsh as transportation could be, many judges considered it preferable to executing people for minor crimes.

Outlawry is another concept that’s basically gone away — for which we should all be grateful. Nowadays most people probably think the term “outlaw” refers to someone who acts outside the law, but its original meaning was different: it referred to someone outside the protections of the law. Literally anybody could do anything they liked to an outlaw, up to and including killing them, and it wouldn’t be considered a crime. (Think The Purge on an individualized scale.) So in a sense, this was a social approach to the physical punishments we talked about before, rendering somebody’s flesh and blood utterly forfeit.

A great many social punishments aren’t used now (at least not in the sphere of law) because they don’t work like they used to. Their effectiveness depends on certain principles of reputation and social cohesion that don’t really apply in a modern city, where you might not even know your neighbor’s name. So while you might see something akin to these in a smaller social context like a family, a school, or a religious community, you’ll rarely find them among our legal statutes.

Take shunning, the practice of socially rejecting someone who’s still physically present. This can be incredibly hurtful on an emotional level; if you imagine the context of a rural community, it can also interfere with that person’s ability to obtain food or vital services, cutting them off from the web of interaction that’s necessary to daily life. Such rejection may also be paired with religious outcasting, as in the Catholic rite of excommunication (which used to also carry an expectation that the excommunicate individual be shunned).

Other punishments rely on humiliation, in a wide variety of forms. Having one’s crimes recited publicly is a punishment, and even more so if you yourself are required to do the reciting, openly confessing to your wrongs. This frequently goes hand-in-hand with some action of atonement, (theoretically) cleansing yourself of that stain through public expiation. I mentioned the pillory last week, grouping it with the physical penalties due to the stress position and the risk of being pelted by the crowd, but it’s also a form of humiliation; you’re staked out in the public square for other people to mock, often with a sign or a crier announcing your offenses to the world. Similarly, a cucking-stool was a chair you could tie an offender to at the door of their house or the place where they committed their crime. Sometimes it was a cart instead, so you could drag them around town, and the variant term “ducking-stool” became more common for the version that let you dunk the offender in water.

The tattoos and brands I mentioned before are permanent way of humiliating someone without confining them in one place. Impermanent ways include a “drunkard’s cloak,” a barrel with holes cut in it for arms and the head, so the wearer could be paraded through town as an object for mockery. You may also have heard of a scold’s bridle (or branks), used for a person — most commonly a woman, but not always — who became too quarrelsome, or sometimes for other crimes like selling bad bread and ale. The bridle was a minor form of torture, being metal muzzle with a bit in the mouth to prevent the wearer from talking. Tarring and feathering could likewise hurt, by burning the victim if the tar was hot enough, but mainly the intent was to make them look incredibly stupid. And if you grew up in the United States, there are good odds that at some point you were required to read The Scarlet Letter, where a woman in Puritan New England is made to wear a scarlet “A” for “adulteress” on her clothing, advertising her crime to the world.

Certain types of humiliation rely on firm expectations of what people are supposed to look like. One of the things that made being pilloried so embarrassing was the fact that the victims were bare-headed while it happened . . . in a society where everyone was expected to wear a hat or other head covering when out in public. In our bare-headed days, it’s hard to understand how shameful that was, but just imagine being naked instead. Shaving somebody’s head means their punishment lingers until the hair grows out again; when it’s a man’s beard you shave off, you symbolically demote him back to the status of a pre-pubescent boy.

But as I said, these things only work if the cultural structure around them supports it. The fabric of social life needs to be knit closely enough that a rupture in it is a meaningful problem, the kind of thing people will remember and gossip about for years to come. Which is why nowadays their use, at least in industrialized countries, tends to be limited to smaller social groups; within the law itself, we’re mostly going to charge you money for your wrongdoing.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Social Punishment — 7 Comments

  1. A few comments, in no particular order:

    A classic punishment (which has been popularized by Game of Thrones) is the ‘Walk of Shame’, for example, Jane Shore being forced to walk through London wearing only a kirtle. Of course, while in some places this was an excuse for a lot of humiliation as well as physical punishment (throwing rocks and rotten fruit/vegetables) it’s very much dependent on social issues – I’ve read accounts wherein other than quite a few men leering at Jane, her walk was relatively peaceful, the public supportive of her.
    On the other hand, you have the even older equivalent of that punishment, the Roman Triumph. Mostly for men,perhaps, but the humiliation was definitely still there, and a few women (such as Zenobia) had to undergo… probably even more humiliating given their previous positions as leaders.

    In regards to shunning and such, Judaism actually has several degrees of this, from the famous ‘herem’, such as happened to Spinoza. The interesting thing was that usually this was used in general – as in, it was declared that whoever would do certain sins would be placed under herem. Only rarely was it applied to specific people. And there were several degrees of it, meant to encourage the sinner to repent before being fully cast out – the initial stage only prevented the person from participating in religious rituals in public, while the most extreme stage forbade anyone from having any contact with the sinner.

    • I was thinking about the “walk of shame” thing when I mentioned having to publicly announce your crimes, but I guess it didn’t make it into the final draft! And good point about the Roman triumph.

      I didn’t know that about the degrees of shunning. That’s a nice way of approaching it, actually, rather than it being all-or-nothing.

  2. On the financial front: PG&E was fined billions in restitution and punishment for their neglect of equipment that caused several devastating fires in California. The punishment was enough to break the corporation.

    But they were already broken. They filed for bankruptcy between the fires and the judgement. But they provide an essential utility and will continue to operate at the same level of criminal negligence for the foreseeable future. Who is punished? The stock holders who now hold only valueless paper.

    Something has to change.

    • When it gets to that level of financial sophistication, I have to admit I don’t really feel qualified to discuss it. I do want to write something about the concept of stock someday, but it’ll probably be limited to “here’s how it got started,” which is the only end I know anything about — and even then, it isn’t much.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Social Punishment - Swan Tower

  4. In Melissa Scott’s book The Kindly Ones shunning has evolved to designating an entire class of people as “Ghosts” and there are “Mediums” who can allow communication between the groups. The world building is excellent and the tensions between the “seen” and “unseen” become a part of the plot. Recommended.