The Shame Game


Francisco de Goya, Capricho No. 23: Aquellos polvos (Those specks of dust), c. 1797

by Samuel Clark

The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History
Ute Frevert
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020. 352 pp.

In this informative book, Ute Frevert examines shame and shaming during the early modern and modern periods, mostly in Germany and Britain, but in other European countries as well. It is based upon her German book, Die Politik der Demütigung: Schauplätze von Macht und Ohnmacht, published in 2017.

One of the book’s merits is the broad concept of shaming Frevert adopts, which includes not only blatant acts of humiliation such as dunce caps and pillories, but also interactions in which people are forced into demeaning or deferential behaviour. Frevert clearly believes that shaming (defined in this way) has been expressed and experienced universally, not as a result of cultural diffusion, but primarily as a result of basic processes of human interaction. Thus, it has persisted, despite social and normative changes in our world, and will continue in the future.

For Frevert, shaming performs a number of social functions. Historically, the most important has been social control. It has been one of many punishments whose purpose is to force people to meet the social expectations and standards of a society or group; it also has an immediate and positive impact on the group as a whole, by reinforcing the validity of their norms and beliefs, and strengthening their sense of belonging. In performing these functions, shaming can be either permanently excluding or excluding/reintegrative; in the latter case a person is temporarily dissociated from a social group, but subsequently reintegrated. In either case, the shaming requires an audience.

Shaming has also been functional in power struggles. Power, Frevert reminds us, is not static, but has constantly to be tested and reconfirmed by demonstrating that others lack it. She argues that shaming performs this function only in a setting of asymmetrical power relations; that is, those with more power have more power to shame. As such it can be used either by persons in formal positions of authority or by those with power but no formal authority. The authority of military officers and schoolteachers illustrates the former; shaming by unofficial leaders among troops and students illustrates the latter. Nevertheless, Frevert also recognizes that shaming can be employed in struggles among those with roughly equal power, and sometimes even by those who have less power than the person being shamed, as in her discussion of the public shaming of politicians. In fact, shaming may be the only way in which less powerful people can attack those in a more commanding position.

It is in the context of international relations that Frevert makes the strongest case for the impact on shaming of asymmetrical power relations. Victors in war have typically imposed humiliating conditions on the defeated. She also observes that representatives of relatively powerful states have frequently used this advantage to demand deference or apologies from the representatives of less powerful states. More specifically, over the past several hundred years, as European states became internationally hegemonic, they have been able to forgo the deferential behaviour that heads of states in Asia and the Middle East had previously forced on them. This meant, however, that these leaders were then treated in ways that were humiliating in their own cultural contexts. Although principles of state sovereignty and diplomatic equality have become more accepted over the past several centuries, Frevert insists that humiliation and demands for apology are still used today as weapons in international relations.

Inherent in the politics of humiliation is status competition. As Frevert would agree, such competition is most explicit when status is framed by notions of ‘honour’. Although honour is usually seen to be more imperative for men and for higher status social groups, she holds that a measure of concern with honour can be found almost everywhere. Historically, women have been said to possess ‘a specific kind of gendered honour’ consisting of virtue and chastity (p. 42). She points to the large number of libel suits for defamation that were filed by ordinary men and women in the early modern period, to back up her contention that ‘even for the “lowly” honour was in no way unimportant’ (p. 40). A capacity for honour has even, she remarks, been attributed to children. She highlights the efforts of some educators in the 19th century to persuade teachers and parents to improve the behaviour of children by stimulating honour. By the early 20th century, more and more pedagogues condemned many punishments of adolescents and children as violating their feelings of honour.

These commonalties notwithstanding, there are still differences in the status power of different social strata. In most societies these differences have become institutionalized in what Frevert calls the ‘social pyramid of shame’. Wealthier, higher status individuals have less often been subjected to humiliating punishments. It has also been more acceptable for a person of higher status to insult a person of lower status than the reverse, and less expected of the former to apologize to the latter. It was even held by some that regular beatings of young working-class men were necessary to control their behaviour. In addition, in most societies, poverty – especially an inability to support oneself and one’s family – has been regarded as shameful.

Louis Dalrymple, In the interest of labor and morality, 1895 (Print shows, on the left, many businessmen and women in stocks and pillories for such offenses as serving guests wine on Sunday, “for shaving on Sunday”, “for delivering ice on Sunday”, “for selling a glass of beer on Sunday”, “for blacking shoes on Sunday”, and “for working the growler on Sunday”; a notice states “Behold the Punishment of the Wicked Sabbath Breaker. Let All Evil Doers Beware”. On the right is a group of New York legislators dressed as puritans, including Lieut. Governor Charles T. “Saxton”, Thomas C. “Platt”, Jacob M. “Patterson”, Hamilton “Fish”, Frederick S. “Gibbs”, Warner “Miller”, Governor Levi P. “Morton”, Chauncey M. “Depew” and Jacob S. “Fassett”)

What is regarded as shameful for different status groups has also varied. In most societies extra-marital sex has been more acceptable for men than for women. (Frevert particularly singles out sexual relations between women and members of an occupying military force.) Also gendered has been the shaming of women more than men for their weight. And, until recently, deferential behaviour has broadly been expected of women more than of men. In all of this, shaming serves the function of maintaining existing social hierarchies.

Yet Frevert is clear that status differences in shaming have not been entirely to the advantage of those enjoying higher status. Public punishment of men persisted longer than that of women. Men also have the almost exclusive privilege of being shamed for lack of courage. Those in the higher social strata have normally been held to a higher standard; conduct that would be regarded as shameful for one of higher status might be considered less shameful for a person of lower status. And, the higher one’s status, the more one has to lose as a result of shaming.

However, Frevert’s major objective in writing this book is to help us understand how shaming has changed in Europe since the Middle Ages. To her credit, the answer she gives does not conform to any of the standard typologies that have been used to describe and explain the making of modern Europe. Instead, she recognizes that this transition consisted of various processes that were not shared by all members of the population; that did not all follow the same path; and that were not always linear.

To begin with, we need to distinguish among several variables: (a) the number of events or behaviours considered shameful; (b) the number of instances of shaming that actually took place; (c) their intensity; and (d) the number of people engaged in shaming or being shamed.

Take first the number of events or behaviours considered shameful. On this most writers cite the work of Norbert Elias. Elias believed that as early modern Europeans became more interdependent as a result of social differentiation and the division of labour, they became more sensitive to the effects of their behaviour on one another. The consequence was ‘an advance in the threshold of repugnance and the frontier of shame’: behaviours that were considered embarrassing in public became more numerous as part of a civilizing process.[1]

Frevert agrees with Elias that Europeans have become more sensitive to shame and that they feel shame more intensely and with more frequency than did their counterparts in the 16th and 17th centuries. She does not take a position on whether behaviours that are considered shameful have increased. But her book, and most of the historical literature on shaming, discourages any extrapolation of the Elias thesis into a general claim that more behaviours are considered shameful in Europe now than in earlier periods. It is well known that many behaviours were then more severely shamed: homosexuality, cowardice, an inability to endure pain, and (in higher and middle social strata) morganatic marriages, pre-marital cohabitation, and non-marital pregnancy. Even rules of etiquette cannot be said to have expanded significantly over time. It is more likely that we just have different ideas of what is impolite. Clothing norms are less strict today than was once the case. And Frevert suggests that failure to return a greeting today would be considered less offensive than it would have been in a society that placed more value on formal signs of recognition.

Whether the number of shameful behaviours has increased or decreased, it is possible that the number of instances of shaming, their intensity, and the number of people engaged in shaming or being shamed has changed. Most of the evidence indicates that such changes have occurred, but again there is no clear trend. Frevert concurs with the predominant view that the frequency and intensity of public shaming reached new levels during the early modern period when pillories, public beatings, branding, and mutilation were decreed or condoned by the state in most European countries. Frevert documents growing dissatisfaction with corporal punishment and public shaming beginning in the late 18th century – among philosophers, state leaders, and jurists in Germany, Britain, and France – leading to greater limits being placed on them during the 19th and 20th centuries, though not everywhere and not without resistance.

Unknown artist, Titus Oates in the pillory as a punishment for perjury, c. 1685

Yet we should be careful not to exaggerate how much things changed. Frevert finds that public shamings decreed by courts were not commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries. Moreover, recent history has not been without state approval of public shaming. She points specifically to savage shaming in Germany under National Socialism and during the Cultural Revolution in China. And it is impossible to argue that the number of instances of shaming is at a low level at the present time. Mass communication media and the internet have added considerably to its frequency and the number of people shamed.

Frevert felt it necessary to tell the reader that her book does not focus on macro-structural processes of transformation. Nonetheless, important structural developments are stated or implied as influencing shaming, two of which are the growth of the state and the evolution of legal institutions. During the early modern period, European states found themselves managing larger populations; and the enforcement of social norms came increasingly under the control of states and their judicial institutions. In particular, Frevert notes, states sought to secure a ‘monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force’ (p. 211).

These processes had several consequences for practices of shaming. One was obviously a greater effort on the part of states to eliminate non-state shaming. Another was an intensification of debates over the efficacy of shaming carried out by the state. Much of her account of how shaming changed from the 18th century to the present-day deals with state decrees and judicial decisions, and the debates surrounding them. The state was a major agent in the remaking of shaming in the modern period.

For all that, in Frevert’s view, cultural changes were more fundamental, the most far-reaching of which was the progression of two complementary but not identical sentiments: humanity, and respect for human dignity. It was more the former that motivated opposition to cruel types of punishment, and more the latter that led to opposition to shaming as such. She attributes dissatisfaction with vicious public punishments to both ways of thinking. More humanity and respect for human dignity were also behind the decline in shaming of children, though this came later.

While the greater emphasis on human dignity may have served to restrain shaming, this ‘new moral economy’ has, Frevert laments, contributed further to the modern sensitivity to shaming. People at all socio-economic levels have more invested in their personal worth and less tolerance of infringements to their dignity than in societies where humility and resignation to one’s lot is ingrained in the individual and collective mentality.

A closely-related development that has altered shaming practices has been the evolution of individualism in Western society over the past several centuries. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of all the structural changes that have taken place in the West over the past several centuries, leading to societies that are more individualized and less collectivist, but I can emphasize several well known transformations: population growth and greater density, social differentiation, and a breakdown in traditional institutions of social integration.

To understand the effects of individualism I would argue that it is necessary to distinguish between two interrelated elements of the concept: individualism as a value; and individualism as a construction of social reality. Individualism as a value refers to a belief in individual autonomy, self-reliance and responsibility, and the priority of the needs of individuals over the needs of collectives. Distinguishable from individualism as a value is what we can call an individualist or atomistic construction of society: the perception that society is an aggregation of individuals, that individuals are distinct, and that they have an inner self. It can be contrasted with a mindset in which people think of themselves and others as inseparable from collectives to which they belong or are assigned. Their self is what has been termed a ‘we-self’ as opposed to the ‘I-self’ found in individualized societies.

While conceptually collectivist and individualized societies can be distinguished, empirically few societies conform entirely to one or the other; and differences among societies are relative rather than absolute. Yet, there is general agreement that individualism both as a value and as a social construction emerged in European thinking during the early modern and modern periods, the I-self emerging somewhat earlier than individualism as a value. (Indeed, theoretically some degree of an atomistic construction of social reality is a precondition for individualism as a value.)

It is questionable whether this evolving individualism expanded the amount of shaming in early modern and modern Europe. In fact, Frevert would say that it was a factor in the opposition to shaming that came in the 18th and 19th centuries. It did, however, make considerable difference to the character of shaming. Like many others who have written on shaming in modern society, Frevert observes that norms of individualism have shifted the responsibility for human weaknesses, errors, et cetera onto the individual, making failure more shameful. People with physical challenges and even certain mental challenges are, to be sure, less often blamed for any limitations in the present-day West, but otherwise failure and hardships are attributed to individual shortcomings.

A much greater contribution of The Politics of Humiliation lies, however, in the nature of shaming in more individualized societies. Six generalizations can be found or discerned in this book about the effects on shaming of the decline of collectivist social organization and the collectivist construction of social reality.

First, the modern sense of self leads people to make the self the centre of attention and motivates them to try to assess how others view them, causing them to be more aware of negative attitudes toward them. Frevert offers this as yet another reason for the enhanced sensitivity to shaming in the modern world. Second, shamers more often act alone or with a small number of people, and are less often acting on behalf of a group – enforcing group interests, values, norms, et cetera. Third, the individual characteristics of those facing shame will have consequences for the nature and severity of shaming; she shows that this became true for state punishments beginning in the 19th century. Fourth, while a person being shamed is often effectively excluded from his or her associates (or will exclude herself or himself), and this may be part of the shamer’s intention, it is not the principal aim, which is mainly just to inflict pain and decrease the power of the victim. As a result, shaming today is less often a single event designed to achieve a definite objective, but rather a continuous process that can last for years. Fifth, whereas in collectivist societies membership in groups determines one’s prestige and self-image, this is much less true in an individualized society. As a result, belonging to social groups is no longer the primary source of self-worth; and people will be less often or less severely targeted with shame owing to the behaviour of someone else in a group to which they belong, and less likely to feel shame as a result of behaviour of someone else in their group. And sixth, it is more difficult to evict someone from all of the social groups to which she or he belongs in a more individualized society than in a collectivist society; and a person is more likely to find alternative support in other social groups.

Geo. H. Walker & Co., The Witch No.2, c. 1892

To repeat, collectivist societies and individualistic societies are not exclusive of one another. And Frevert provides very good discussions of the various ways in which collectivist shaming has persisted in 19th and 20th-century Europe, to this day. Shaming by teachers and officers in the military has only recently been curtailed by opposition to it; and shaming among peer groups in schools and in the military has not declined significantly, in some places not all. She also discusses collectivist shaming in Soviet Russia, in Germany under the Nazis, and in China during the Cultural Revolution.

It should be noted that the collectives in these cases are different from the collectives in earlier forms of shaming. Nazi shaming was usually carried out by members or supporters of a local branch of the party, but these shamers were regarded by themselves and by others as operating on behalf of much larger collectives – the Third Reich, the German volk, and the so-called ‘Aryan race’. By the same token, of course, German people were subsequently shamed for the atrocities committed in their name during the Nazi period. In recent years many governments have been forced to apologize on behalf of their whole population for events that took place at an earlier time. And the modern period has seen an increase in the concern of states and their citizens with the honour of their nation. Thus, the role of collectives in shaming practices has not disappeared. The collectives have just become larger.

These larger collectives can impede the operation of traditional shaming practices, but they open up space for new practices, most notably newspaper and internet shaming, both of which can be used to shame large collectives, such as ex-convicts, paedophiles, racialized and colonized populations, immigrants and refugees, ‘scab’ labourers, and the uneducated.

At the same time, the internet is the quintessential mode of individualized shaming. Internet shamers typically act alone or with several accomplices, and are not usually motivated by a desire to maintain the norms and values of a group. Although isolating the target from his or her social group is a part of what is sought, the primary interest of internet shamers is their own personal advantage and pleasure in inflicting pain and weakening the target. Internet shamers have no need for the assistance of others to engage in shaming, and thus are subject to less social control over what they do. By the same token, however, internet shamers have little control over the audience, from whom the victim might possibly get support; and internet shamers could themselves be equally vulnerable to shaming.

A major strength of The Politics of Humiliation, which unfortunately I have not been able to demonstrate in this review, is that its general arguments are supported by references to concrete actors, events, and social/political conditions or contingencies in their historical contexts. In addition, the book is well written, thoughtful, and interesting. I much enjoyed reading it.

About the Author

Samuel Clark is a historical sociologist whose work has focussed primarily on Western Europe (mainly Britain, Scotland, Ireland, France and what is now Belgium) during the Early Modern and Modern periods. His sociological interests have been broad, including social movements, state formation, power, inequality, collective action, disciplinary regimes, and theory. His first major project was on the Irish Land War of 1789-82, in which he sought to demonstrate the role of social changes, especially changes in the structure of peasant social relationships over the preceding half century, in determining the characteristics of this political movement. He then turned his attention to the transformation of aristocratic and bourgeois power in Belgium during the Industrial Revolution. This research gave rise to a larger project on the effect of state formation in Early Modern Western Europe on the economic, political, cultural and status power of the aristocracy. His interest in status power then led to his most recent large project: a monumental study of the evolution of state honours in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Great War. Examining cultural, social, and political changes that generated the massive growth in state honours and shaped their characteristics, this study demonstrates their functions as instruments of power. The role of military medals is a particular focus. More generally, the book contributes to the larger (and much ignored) question of why we have so many awards and prizes in today’s society.


[1] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, pp. 86, 109-14.

Publication Rights

Review first published in Reviews in History. Republished here under a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) Creative Commons license.

Comments are closed.