Category: Non-fiction

Ute Frevert
Politik der Demütigung. Schauplätze von Macht und Ohnmacht
[Humiliation Politics. Scenes of Power and Impotence]


The power of the pillory

What role does humiliation play in politics? How can it become an instrument of politics, and how can it affect the course of history? Ute Frevert, a historian herself, explores this question from the early modern period to the present day. Her book Politik der Demütigung. Schauplätze von Macht und Ohnmacht [The politics of humiliation. Showplaces of power and impotence] begins in the now world-famous Tunisian village Sidi Bouzid, where the so-called Arab Spring first began in December 2010. The 26-year-old vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi had doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire following the police’s repeated confiscation of the goods that he was illegally selling on the streets. The story spread on social media and eventually on official media as well, and brought people onto the streets in a movement that reached its most spectacular apogee in Tahrir Square in Cairo. And did all this actually happen because a vegetable seller had been slapped in the face by a police officer? Was this revolt a revolt of the humiliated?

Shame and dishonour become a political factor at the point when they are made visible to all: humiliation requires a public. Frevert shows how, starting in the late middle ages, shaming became institutionalised as a punishment. The pillory became the place where those convicted of theft and sexual offences in particular were publicly disgraced. Tethered for hours to a post, delinquents were subjected to the stares and mockery of the general public, who in addition would not infrequently throw things at them. In the ‘Skimmington Ride’ that was common in England, women who had struck their husbands were placed back to front on a donkey and paraded through their neighbourhood - a form of humiliation accompanied by vulgar music and the banging of pots. But Frevert also shows how such practices were gradually dispensed with in the course of the 18th century. Following the establishment of prisons (and asylums), a development notably analysed by Michel Foucault, the instruments of power underwent a change: whereas previously spectacle had been the essence of punishment, the new modes of punishment purported to improve behaviour by means of control and close surveillance. Not that this by any means marked the end of practices designed to humiliate: they were henceforth merely removed from public view.

Ute Frevert’s comprehensive historical overview is concerned to show how pillorying continued through the centuries in a plethora of extremely different forms. After all, human dignity can be undermined in a whole variety of ways: in schools - characterised by Frevert as ‘laboratories for the development of shaming practices’ - where generations of pedagogues have devoted themselves to building up entire arsenals of shaming techniques; in the relationship between the sexes - and here Frevert explores the borderline between rape and sexism; in the media, where people are belittled on TV and pilloried in the press; and not least on the political stage, where honour and humiliation are key symbolic categories. Using historical examples such as Willy Brandt’s genuflection before the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, Frevert shows how a so-called ‘politics of morality’ is also operative within this framework.

The conclusions that the author draws from her analysis, which extends right into the present-day world of social media, do not give much cause for optimism: while the state may have renounced the systematic use of humiliation as a form of punishment, the pillory - so she argues - has morphed in a whole variety of different and often subtle ways into a social mechanism constantly in search of new opportunities and new victims. Now that the pillory has taken on this new symbolic guise, laments Frevert, ‘no one today is safe from it any more’.
Ronald Düker

By Ronald Düker, 24.04.2018

​Ronald Düker is a cultural scientist and journalist, and he writes for the German weekly Die Zeit and various daily newspapers and magazines. He lives in Berlin.

Translated by John Reddick