The Role of Tarring and Feathering in Today’s Society

As history tells it, there exists the story of a British man who found himself a victim of circumstances during the years leading up to the American call for independence. Guilty of no more than wanting to see the new land, the crowd mentality forced anger with British government to go higher. The outlet of that anger was to seize this man, strip him of all clothes from his waist up, pour hot tar on the exposed skin and then roll him in feathers. This punishment was known as tarring and feathering.
To the best of my understanding, it would be misleading to say that it was a common or regular practice of the day. However, to deny its existence would also be misleading, because certainly there are plenty of documented cases over the years to signify its usage, especially throughout the Europe and the United States. Those cases portray its use on individuals who had done wrong, some who had simply offended another, or even some cases where the person was simply an available target. Regardless of the circumstances, such a practice is horrifying to contemplate when you consider the physical pain it caused (although historic portrayals probably overemphasize the severity of this, at least some minimal pain can be expected) and the humiliation it caused the person (especially for those who were unjustly accused or whose punishment didn’t meet the crime as in times of disagreements).
Although it’s usage had been primarily disbanded long ago, there are records of tarring and feathering occurring in rare instances up until the early 1900’s. It may be surprising to learn that the act of tarring and feathering is still in practice today. The form is distinctive enough though, few would recognize its existence in a modern form: public shaming.

Public Shaming Reorganized
Tarring and feathering was an act developed to serve one primary purpose: to humiliate and harm a person enough to force them into a position of conformity. Ultimately designed as a tool to scorn or shame those people with whom a person disagrees with. That function, that purpose still holds a prominent position within our society today although the form is different.
While there are different ways in which public shaming takes place, the most prominent is through social media because it provides an impact through ability to reach a greater number of people in a shorter amount of time. It is important to understand what I am referring to here though. I am not referring to open discussion that forces people to thoughtfully consider their stances or the stances of others. Instead, I am referring to the frequent instances in which one publicly condemns, belittles, and shames those who they disagree with in hopes of making them feel guilty.
The issue at hand develops because the consequences hardly match the circumstances. Often public shaming is used because of a disagreement in beliefs. Differences are to be expected. I am not calling on people to abandon their own beliefs and accept all others. Clearly there are some beliefs that should be relinquished while some that need to be more readily embraced because of their consequences (i.e. not embracing salvation in Christ leads to eternal damnation). But I am not talking about who is right or wrong here, but instead drawing attention to the fact that public shaming doesn’t create opportunities of conversion, but instead closes them.
At other times, public shaming is a reaction to a situation without consideration for the context. Rather than gather all facts, social media has allowed one to develop and display convictions of a person (or people) quickly. Only later do we learn that indeed the situation was misinterpreted. In that case it’s too late and the damage has done.
Then there are a few instances in which someone clearly has done something wrong. I would argue though that even in those cases public shaming is not a correct response. Not only does it go against Scripture’s instructions, it bypasses man’s own definitions of rightly responding to these types of situations. So whether believer or unbeliever, public shaming is not a correct response. Instead there are alternative ways.
The great lament of social media being used in this form is that it has turned us into an emotionally reactive society. Confronted with something there is now a tool in one’s hands that gives the ability to react in an instant. Responses no longer require time for confirmation and consideration. Instead, charged by the emotions that a particular situation/person has evoked the instant response is to express anger and frustrations.

Such responses can create the following problems:

  • It fails to contemplatively consider the situation: Possibly the situation may reveal factors to consider, may consider areas one needs to grow in, or may force a person to at least evaluate his/her own positions.
  • It can create unrepairable damage in a relationship: Even if there is a right to be frustrated over a situation, it can destroy opportunities for correction. Further, it can shut down the relationship for future benefits that may have been enjoyed.
  • It can create unrepairable damage to the person’s testimony: There have been a number of cases over the years where the reactions generate a response from society, yet the whole story is not heard or shown. As a result a person becomes ‘branded.’ Some have lost friends, some have lost jobs, and some have lost their ability to maintain a normal life. This is further complicated by the fact that the portrayal of that person is permanent. Whether true or not, once the information is out there, it will now follow that person forever.

Actions have consequences and rather than be emotionally responsive, we need to be contemplatively considerate.
While we don’t typically see tarring and feathering take place in a modern culture as it once did, certainly the objective of public shaming can be identified as a modern form of it. Take for example Facebook. Feeds are filled with discourses on who said/did what, why we should be angered by it, and how we should share with everyone to stop the insanity. We think of ourselves as ‘modernized’ or more ‘cultured’ than those who came before us. Yet, the truth is, we are the same in a different generation with different tools.

Public Shaming Revealed
While public shaming is meant to expose the ‘sins’ of the world by confronting the individual, it actually exposes something more:

  • Tolerance Doesn’t Exist: First, it reveals that tolerance doesn’t exist. Public shaming is often used to ‘convict’ those who are in disagreement with someone else’s beliefs. Putting aside discussions of logic and facts, public shaming is meant to simply force tolerance in an intolerable way.
  • Total Depravity Does Exist: Sometimes people are wrong or do things they shouldn’t, which is revealed through the shaming process. It exposes that sin is in our culture. However, the culture’s acceptance and enjoyment of the process also reveals the prevalence of sin. So often when a person’s life is broken by the shaming process, those on the other side take delight in the downfall of their fellow men and women.

Public Shaming Rejected

The current conditions for engaging in the process of public shaming are antithetical to Scripture and antagonistic towards the work of Christ. Therefore, they should be rejected and in its place, we should put the following:

  • Reject the Conditions: First, we must reject the conditions of the culture that indicate that we are to engage in conformity to the culture (Romans 12:1-2; cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-4) by engaging in public shaming (towards others) or by being compelled by it (when it is directed towards us).
  • Remember the Cross: Remember that it was Jesus Christ who bore the ultimate public shaming before people. As One who was without sin, he was wrongly tried, convicted, and put to death for things he did not do. There can be nothing more humiliating than what he bore.
  • Rejoice in Christ: Finally, as we remember the cross, then we must also rejoice in Christ. After all, he found victory over death, proving himself to be the one He claimed to be and overcoming death for the penalty of sin. To this, men were granted the right to become children of God for those who would call upon His name and believe.

Why do these three points matter when it comes to public shaming? Because together they put forth a biblical framework for our perspective. That perspective develops into the way in which we treat others. We do so as in such a way that reflects that they were made in the image of God (as all of us were) in order to bring glory and honor to Him.

One thing must be differentiated here. This is not a call to abandon accountability. Accountability occupies a place of necessity. The public shaming that I speak of here falls into two categories:

  • Those who maliciously seek the destruction of others because they disagree with them.
  • Those who seek to harm others in a way that is incompatible with the ‘crime’ they are accused of.

Therefore, this is a call to stop engaging in the modern form of tarring and feathering. It is inconsistent with Christian character and Christian conduct. Furthermore, it offers little progress towards resolution and instead incites maltreatment and misuse of improperly attained authority.

(Photo “Shame” courtesy of user frankieleon and Flickr).