Online Registries: A 21st Century Pillory


Leo Cardez


In this piece, Mr. Cardez outlines the eerie parallels between the outlawed punishment devices of the past with one of today’s most common forms of public punishment and explains the pervasiveness of extreme forms of shaming through U.S. history and its negative impacts on those subjected to it.


I believe that ex-offender public online registries are ineffective security theater and amount to nothing more than modern day pillory—one of those medieval devices where an offender’s hands and head are fastened to a wooden instrument to be mocked. This dual punishment and spectacle started more than a thousand years ago in Europe before spreading to the New World. It lasted well into the Nineteenth century before it was deemed too cruel and outlawed. 1 In the 21st Century it has been replaced by the various criminal online registries—sex offenders, youth offenders, violent offenders, and so on—living on the new public square: The Internet.2

For better or worse, the internet and social media have significantly amplified society’s means of public shaming, taking its victims from the town square to a global network of connected screens. The internet has simplified and super-charged our ability to publicly shame on a scale never previously imagined. The result is a steady flow of new names and faces as targets—both high-profile and everyday citizens—flooding our media feeds and rage cycle. Some proponents call it justice and, “others embrace it as a social reckoning,” 3 while politicians hide behind unfounded community safety arguments. 4 Whatever it’s called, this “new wave of public shaming” 5 is affecting individuals and communities in various forms of psychological turmoil.

Public shaming is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history we can see various examples of offenders who violate moral codes being fastened to pillars, stocks, and pillories—even Jesus Christ endured a type of public shaming in his crucifixion. Regardless of the method, the history of human civilization runs parallel with shaming. 6 Some social psychologists believe that it is possibly an evolved mechanism to ensure our survival by favoring group cooperation. 7 Shame may be a way of internalizing the social cost of certain behaviors in a way that helps to protect individuals from future undesirable social circumstances, such as being ostracized by a group. Unfortunately, the reality is, these feelings of shame are negatively internalized and evolve into a feeling of disgust and lack of self-worth for the individual.

Prolonged shame is linked to various forms of mental, emotional, and physical distress, wreaking havoc on the individual. 8 It has been seen to cause extreme negative emotions associated with feelings of powerlessness, 9 like being stuck in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean with no options. There is no worse feeling. Even if, at best, it could be attributed to the slightest community benefit, the cruel effects on the individual level are simply too high.

Experts agree: we should not confuse guilt with shame. 10 Guilt can be good for us. It teaches us when we have done something wrong through feelings of regret and remorse. Shame, on the other hand, is pointless, causing mostly feelings of uselessness and self-judgment, which can inevitably lead to more serious mental issues. 11 More simply, the distinction between guilt and shame is the equivalent of you did something bad versus you are bad. It is hard to imagine a scenario when simply making someone feel small and helpless is the morally correct thing to do…this sounds more like torture or revenge.

I suppose the question begs, to what degree should any single mistake define a person’s reputation and ability to ever live a normal life again? When does shaming cross the line to simply another form of bullying?

It is complicated. Registries are devoid of context. There is no opportunity to hear both sides of any given circumstance; there is no back-and-forth discourse that people would be able to interpret as in real life. It is simply a red dot on a map on your computer screen that, when clicked, shows a photo, name, and address: This is where the monsters are, stay away or…go get them. But it is hard to think of someone as subhuman when you get to know them, when you see their humanity. Registries are designed for broadcasting; they are one-sided, there is no opportunity for listening or understanding. They are simply a platform for public moral outrage directed at certain offenders.

It is interesting to note that shaming through registries is not the same worldwide. In America,  we feel the need to endlessly punish ex-offenders, oftentimes for life, by berating them with the idea that since they did something wrong, they are a piece of s^*&, unworthy of redemption. But in more collectivistic societies, shame is used thoughtfully in a manner meant to promote self-improvement and moral guidance, connecting and repairing relationships 12… sounds a lot like the pillars of restorative justice initiatives (which are still in their infancy in America). 13

Online registry-caused shaming or violence against ex-offenders can become even more complex when it perpetuates the history of stigmatizing ex-offenders as social pariahs in the U.S. People often act and react only by the prompts of current societal norms. It is no surprise, therefore, that shaming certain ex-offenders found on the internet will continue. They are an easy target, just like those stuck in a pillory in the public square.

The criminal offender registry system is a result of the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. By branding them with a scarlet letter unlike what any other offender leaving the corrections system has to bear, no matter how terrible the offense, registries are harmful to people who have paid their debts to society. What’s more, they further harm those people’s families by exposing them to undue stigma and ostracism.14

There is a solution: The immediate and complete abolishment of all national and state public online criminal registries. There is a horrible cost every time we create a sub-human scary creature to justify our cruelty, which only results in exposing the monster within us. Brutality taxes the deliverer and community in invisible ways—not as apparent, but just as detrimental, as it does the receiver.

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