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A Case of Public Shaming in the Scarlet Letter Novel

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In Houston, a couple who stole from a charity fund was recently given the unusual punishment, along with jail time, of standing on a busy street holding a sign indicating their crime. In addition, the couple will have to place a sign in their yard that is at least three inches tall stating their crime. Of course, wrongs should not go unpunished, however, many would argue that the use of public shaming as a punishment qualifies as “cruel and unusual”. In The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, public shaming is used as a way to punish the main character, Hester Prynne. Shockingly, the use of public shaming as a punishment can still be found in many instances in the United States today. Modern day public shaming in the United States is not a valid form of punishment as it can be qualified as cruel and unusual punishment which violates the eighth amendment. While some public shaming might seem effective, overall, it is a cruel and unusual punishment that serves no benefit to society as a whole.

In many instances, public punishment is used as an alternative to jail time, however, if the crime is serious enough, jail time would greatly benefit both the criminal and society as a whole. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, public shaming is used to reprimand Hester Prynne for committing adultery. The Puritans looked at the sin of committing adultery as a serious crime that deserved serious punishment. From the beginning of the novel, Hester was paraded around the town; her “sin-born infant (Hawthorne 53)” , Pearl, in her arms. She was forced to wear a “scarlet letter, which was her [Hester’s] doom to wear (Hawthorne 54)”. Not only was Hester discouraged by having to bear the Scarlet Letter on her chest every day, but also the marking had an effect on her daughter. Pearl was “born an outcast of the infantile world, an imp of evil, an emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants (Hawthorne 76)”. Consequently, Pearl grew up to be a strange child. Considering the effect that public shaming had on both Hester and Pearl, prison time would seem like a much more logical punishment. If the Puritans really wanted to encourage good behaviour and punish those who sinned, it would make sense to discourage repetitive sinning and try to find some way to help the sinner rather than publicly embarrassing them. In place of public shaming, Hester could have been sent to prison and Pearl could have been placed in the hands of someone who could take care of her while Hester was in prison. Similarly, concerns were recently raised when an administration proposed that a “scarlet letter (Locy 1)” should be placed on repetitive drunk drivers. In this situation, the drunk driver and society would benefit from the criminal being in prison. The drunk driver would get the help he needed and would not pose a risk to himself or other drivers. Likewise, a Houston couple “caught stealing $255,000 from the Victim’s Restitution Fund of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (“Houston Couple” 1)”

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was given a public punishment along with prison time. Instead of public shaming, criminals can spend time in jail to think about their mistakes. Public shaming leads to a society where mob justice is glorified and there is no room to argue punishment.

Public shaming in almost every instance can qualify as cruel and unusual punishment and is a violation of the eighth amendment. For example, in The Scarlet Letter, Hester is forced to stand in “the hot, midday sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast (Hawthorne 53)” in front of the entire town. This punishment is cruel and unusual and seems like a bit much. However, there were no specific rights American citizens had in the time of the Puritans. A more modern day example of public shaming being used as a cruel and unusual punishment was in Florida. There was a law that required single mothers to “publish their sexual histories in a newspaper (Canedy 1)” if the identity of the father was unknown. This law was intended to alert the possible fathers who might want to exercise their parental rights before the adoption took place. However, this law violates the eighth amendment as well as invades the privacy of the women desiring to give her child up for adoption. Not to mention, even further concern was raised when the subject of underage mothers and rape victims arose. Having extremely personal information published for the viewing pleasure of an entire town can have devastating consequences to these women. They would be open to criticism from others and would feel vulnerable having personal information published. For these reasons, this use of public shaming qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. In Houston, the couple caught stealing was ordered to “place a sign in their front yard (“Houston Couple” 1)” stating “thieves live here”. This sign places a target on the backs of the couple. Just because they did something wrong does not mean they should be put in harm’s way. Because this punishment could possibly harm the couple, it would qualify as a cruel and unusual punishment.

While many people would argue that public shaming is an effective method of punishment, others would argue that public shaming encourages a mob mentality without regulation. For example, public shaming shames the criminal into never repeating the crime again; however, the issuing of the punishment must be done by someone, typically a judge. Once a judge is allowed to issue an extreme punishment such as placing a sign in one’s lawn stating their crime, there will be no middle man. There will be no guidelines to determine how far is too far. In the Houston case, Judge Kevin Fine ruled that “each will spend time behind bars and pay back the money (“Houston Couple” 1)”. Along with this, “he ordered them to place a sign in his front yard. The letters have to be at least three inches tall (“Houston Couple” 1)”. If a judge has the power to give a criminal this type of punishment, then where will the line be drawn? Punishments might become increasingly cruel and unusual. Lines must also be drawn when it comes to personal privacy. For example, the Florida law that required single women to “publish their sexual histories in a newspaper (Canedy 1)” if the identity of the father was unknown invades the privacy of the mother and possibly the child. Some might argue that this law rightfully invades the privacy of the mother because it allows the father to potentially claim his child before the child is given up for adoption. This is important, but the mother should contact the father personally before giving the child up for adoption. This would allow the father to potentially claim his child as well as protecting the mother.

In each example of public shaming, prison or counseling could have been a more valid option than public shaming. Also, each example violated the eighth amendment that protects United States citizens from cruel and unusual punishment. Because of this, public shaming can not be considered a valid form of punishment or a replacement for prison time. While some instances of public shaming might be effective, overall it is cruel and unusual punishment that will serve no benefit to society as a whole.

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