The worst thing about the pillory was that you couldn't do much to escape it, even if you hadn't actually committed the crime that put you there. A public accusation or two was usually enough to establish your guilt. And most medieval peasants, whether by law or custom, didn't have the option of escape. They were suspicious and fearful of the world outside their village, or they were vassals of a local lord who wouldn't allow them to travel. So whatever the local villagers chose to dish out, you were pretty much going to have to take it -- and to keep taking a social snubbing from them for years to come.
Over generations, however, things began to change. As European explorers discovered a larger world and as more people gained the right to freedom of movement, it became possible for a socially ostracized person to seize a second chance in life. Whether you were in trouble with your neighbors, the law, the Pope or the Queen, you had the option to move away, change your name, set yourself up in a different profession and find a modicum of peace in your new identity. Personal reinvention as a way to escape past misdeeds became relatively commonplace in this era. In the former British colonies of North America, people continued to forge new lives for themselves right into the 20th century.
And then, just as public humiliation as a form of punishment seemed on the verge of dying out entirely, we had to go and invent the modern, electronic pillory: social media.
How does the pillory work in the 21st century? In a word, horribly:
- Justine Sacco, former Director of Corporate Communications at media company IAC, made what she later claimed was a poorly-worded joke via her Twitter account. Shortly after, she boarded a plane, and while she was in the air her tweet went massively viral. Strangers, who parsed her tweet as callous and deeply racist, started contacting IAC and demanding that she be fired. Sacco was let go from the company, and her public and private life were effectively destroyed because of one ill-advised public comment.
- On June 17, 2015, a nasty little white-supremacist scorpion of a male walked into a prayer service in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina and, in an attempt to start a race war, shot and killed nine parishioners. Even before he was taken into police custody, thousands of people started looking for the suspect in social media. It didn't take long for them to find the Facebook profile of one Dylan Roof, and they promptly began sending him hate mail. But the man accused of the shooting was Dylann Roof (with two Ns). Poor Dylan-with-one-N Roof had to issue a public statement on Facebook indicating he was not the subject of the day's Two Minute Hate.
- If you're not already aware of the doxxing, death and rape threats, and other forms of online and offline orchestrated harassment associated with the Gamergate controversy... well, suffice to say it's a regular dog's breakfast at this point, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.
- In early July 2015, a lion named Cecil was shot and killed by an American dentist on safari in Zimbabwe. Cecil was a featured attraction at Hwange National Park, and was also the subject of a larger study by the University of Oxford. When the news media released the dentist's name and location, he became the focus of intense hatred by anti-hunting groups and individuals who believed he deserved death for killing a member of an endangered species. The dentist was forced to close his practice after people sent him online and offline death threats, publicly trashed his business on Yelp, posted "Rot in Hell" on his office door, and left stuffed lions on the front stoop. As of this writing, his neighborhood is getting an extra police patrol in case his neighbors are attacked; the dentist himself has gone into hiding.
Even if you believe that the targets of these attacks got what they deserved, the methods by which such "justice" was doled out should make you very nervous. Because the ubiquitous nature of social media has turned every location on Earth with Internet access into a virtual version of the same small medieval village, and because any accusation which goes viral -- whether accurate or baseless -- could lead any of you to the electronic pillory to be destroyed by millions of your fellow "villagers," you now live in a very dangerous world.
Think about what it means to be massively publicly shamed online. Anything shameful you did in your past which subsequently comes to light, any stupid joke you make which could be incorrectly parsed by strangers, any public decision you take which has its share of vitriolic detractors -- any of these, and much more, could be what drags you to the modern pillory. The anonymous vigilantism of social media has nothing to do with jurisprudence, leniency or measured response; the kangaroo court of public opinion will viciously, relentlessly strip your life to the bone and gnaw on your defeated remains. And it will not be confined to the Internet. People intent on punishing you will come to your place of business, to your extended family members, to your church, to your neighbors, to your home. You will have no sanctuary and no peace of mind. And, unlike the time preceding the advent of social media, you won't have the option to cut your losses and reinvent yourself. The Internet remembers forever, and it does not forgive easily, if at all. It won't matter that you're sorry, that you "made a regrettable choice" in the words of so many who make public statements during or after a shaming. Your youthful mistakes, words, sins, errors, will follow you to the ends of the earth. To anyone who has even a jot of compassion for others, this fate should be horrifying.
Pillories and other forms of public humiliation gradually died out as people began to realize how inhumanely their fellow humans were being treated. But at least a prisoner who had been latched into the old-style pillory could comfort herself with the thought that her torture would eventually come to an end. That comfort has gone cold in our era of unending social media "justice." I wonder how long it will be before we realize that the modern form of public humiliation, the monster we create anew each time we jump on a social media bandwagon of hatred, is becoming more like a different kind of European public punishment. One a little sharper, a bit more capable of silencing the shamed, a lot more permanent, and hugely popular with the insensate mobs of yesteryear.
They called it a guillotine.