Why does public humiliation work

Humiliation and impotenceTraditional dark sides of politics, justice and the public

Honor - the term has almost gone out of fashion in our society - except when we focus on yesterday's brute phenomena such as "honor killings". A clear distance from our past, as Ute Frevert makes clear:

"All members of the premodern societies thought highly of their honor. That was the only reason why insults and shameful punishments could appear so sensitive."

This was also used diplomatically well into the 20th century. Political humiliations were deliberately used and played up to political affairs, as the author extensively describes using the example of Sino-European relations in 1901, after the Boxer Rebellion; at that time the Europeans tried at all costs to avoid a formal "kowtow" before the Chinese emperor.

Frevert relies largely on German, but also on English and French sources. Everyone agrees that gender-specific gestures of humiliation can be demonstrated in all three societies.

"Hair shearing, known since antiquity, [...] mainly hit women and was evidently felt to be extremely embarrassing."

The pillory knows no gender

On the other hand, men and women were denounced equally in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the historian describes in many anecdotes.

"In 1815 MP Michael Taylor introduced a bill in the British House of Commons to abolish the pillory. While the House of Commons agreed, members of the House of Lords were divided. Mobs' depend, the majority agreed with the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, who wanted to keep the pillory at least for perjury and fraud. Although it was hardly ever used, the stake did not hit the last hour until 1837. "

At first glance, the history of modern times reads like a gradual but consistent move away from honor or shame sentences. Frevert, however, immediately clears up this impression and points out that with Napoleon, humiliating punishments such as publicly exhibiting convicts were even tightened again in order to deter more efficiently.

In Prussia, shame punishment was apparently less common in the 18th and 19th centuries; instead, this state relied on corporal punishment for all sorts of offenses. This can be illustrated particularly impressively in the area of ​​public humiliation in schools, where schoolchildren were systematically beaten with a cane or - then again for embarrassment - with or without a donkey's cap, looking at the wall.

The terminology is not precise enough

In the area of ​​these very clear "denouncing" punishments, Frevert is on safe ground. Historically, her term "newspaper pillory", under which the author subsumes public insults, is less easily comprehensible and a little more blurred, particularly effective in the Weimar Republic.

"In particular, the Social Democratic Reich President Friedrich Ebert saw himself exposed to a veritable barrage of public insults and humiliations. He received tons of personal abuse letters that insulted him as' ox ',' rubbish rubbish 'and' old boozy pig 'and prophesied that he would soon be' hacked up ',' shot over the heap 'and his body' smeared with shit '. "

This shows a strength and weakness of Frevert’s approach to terms: shame and shame, pillory and denunciation are sometimes narrowly and sometimes broadly defined, sometimes understood as institutions or institutional actions, sometimes as social phenomena. In this way the reader learns a lot about the zeitgeist, but at the same time the historical analysis becomes latently fuzzy.

This is all the more risky as the historian Frevert moves far into the present; not infrequently in the style of a pointed commentator:

"Today's parents bring their hyperactive, inattentive, rebellious offspring to psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Instead of public embarrassment, medication and therapy sessions are offered."

That reads well and wittily. In general, the book gains relevance and saleability for all non-historians the more it draws the arch into the present. But here the problems of the book also appear: The interpretations of the current developments of "shaming" on the Internet and via WhatsApp hardly go beyond what can be read in sophisticated media or found in popular sociological studies.

"In principle, anyone today can identify themselves with a picture and name on a corresponding platform at any time, as too fat or too promiscuous, too left or too right, as lesbian or gay, as tax evader, wasting water or speeding the motorway. Every user is allowed his own Create a pillory list and put it on the web. "

Even this look at targeted humiliation on the Internet and online bullying among peers illustrates: the gradual abandonment of gestures of humiliation since the early modern era is nowhere near as concise a narrative as it seems.

Voyeuristic television formats are "degradation by consensus"

Frevert illustrates this with all kinds of anecdotal references to further setbacks, for example to the television formats such as "Jungle Camp", "Big Brother" or "Germany’s Next Top Model", which have been established for years. The author describes it as "degradation by consensus". And even in American criminal law, shaming is supposed to deter misdeeds:

“Cleveland, Ohio, November 2012 is not so much about humiliation as embarrassment. There, Shena Hardin stands at a busy intersection with a sign in front of her that reads, 'Only an idiot drives the sidewalk to overtake a school bus . ' [...] for which a judge [has] sentenced her to a fine and to the temporary withdrawal of her driver's license. As if that were not enough, she imposes what Americans call shame sanction: a penalty of honor that Hardin publicly denounces as an idiot [...] ]. The journalist reporting on the case feels reminded of the Dark Ages. "

Ute Frevert tells elegant, pointed and gripping. It also uses a wide range of sources: in addition to legal documents and public publications, it also includes advice and personal testimonials such as letters and diaries. Many historians are likely to come across their eclectic methodology and their unclear definitions of terms.

For a wider audience, however, the book is stimulating and thought-provoking read.

Ute Frevert: "The politics of humiliation. Scenes of power and powerlessness."
S. Fischer Verlag, 326 pages, 25 euros.