Images of the tarred and feathered outlaw remain a metaphor for public shaming today, no doubt in part, as a result of the centrality of such events in classic art, literature, and even music. While the practice was a common form of maritime mobbing which dates back centuries in England, the earliest evidence of tarring and feathering in America is found in the diary of sea captain William Smith, who wrote in March, 1766 of seven men in the port of Norfolk, Virginia who “bedawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers upon me.” Smith described soaring rotten eggs and being carted through town to the beat of two drums.
Following the imposition of the Townshend duties of 1767, tarring and feathering in America became a political act, and by 1769, the practice was in New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia. Five years later, British artist Philip Dawe popularized the practice with his work “The Bostonians Paying the Excise Man,” a painting inspired by the tarring and feathering of customs agent and loyalist John Malcolm.
In the century that followed, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) each wrote fictional accounts of tarring and feathering. Philip Roth returned to the theme in his 2004 publication of The Plot Against America in which 8-year-old protagonist, Philip, daydreamed that he and his family would be tarred and feathered.
In recent decades, folk, rock, indie, electronica, metal, and even big band musicians have referenced tarring and feathering in their lyrics.
But there is something important that distinguishes this classic form of shaming from public shaming and humiliation in the present and it is this: in the old days, public shaming required showing up; in 2016, public shaming is far more likely to take place online.
As we were reminded last year when Monica Lewinsky gave her TED talk, “The Price of Shame,” there is a darkside to internet enabled anonymity and insta-communication. Cyberbullying and internet humiliation are now just a click away, and they don’t only effect teens. Think of Gamergate, or think of the tens of thousands of students tweeting injustice when their professors trip over trigger words. Think of readers, many of whom are social activists rather than traditional trolls, who now lash out at journalists and other media reps. Think, too, of the masses of disgruntled clients who take their increasingly personalized woes to the web. As such, we might consider internet humiliation our 21st century tarring and feathering. In contrast to its predecessor, however, internet humiliation has the potential to affect us all, loyalists and revolutionaries alike.