The return to Middle Ages justice

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
January 13, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

For me, the Middle Ages conjure thoughts of thumbscrews, crusades and the Bubonic plague. While the art, architecture and literature from the era has taught us many a lesson, the Middle Ages is certainly not the place I’d look for policy ideas.

And yet, in recent days it seems that the Middle Ages have indeed been plundered for solutions to two very different problems. Suddenly, the stocks and pillory posts of yore have inspired both aggrieved restaurateurs and agitating former politicians alike.

At new year, reports circulated of chefs feeling righteous in naming and shaming via Twitter those who failed to act on bookings. In the last couple of days, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett proposed to name and shame drunk drivers in high-circulation newspapers.

Don’t for a moment think I endorse scallywag diners or blotto scumbags getting behind the wheel. While obviously poles apart in their egregiousness, I accept that both behaviours are calamity-inducing. But is mining the Middle Ages for solutions really the answer?

For me, naming and shaming is a performance, it is fodder for current affair shows and it sates a public appetite for a kind of punishment that can be viewed. It is not however, the stuff of a civilised justice system.

Of course such silly, petty, el cheapo punishments are nothing new. In the Middle Ages you were positioned out in public to be heckled and pounded with fruit, today renegade judges offer their own versions of primitive justice.

Naming and shaming public figures before they’ve been charged with a crime, t-shirts, signs and sandwich boards emblazoned with “I’m a thief” and the handing over of names and addresses of released sex offenders to the pitchfork brigade are all easily detectable examples.

My opposition to naming and shaming largely involves the complete lack of civility involved. Having people point and laugh and rubberneck to get a look at a sign-wearing bandit is complete idiocy. It teaches contempt for authority, makes a mockery of the justice system and is achieving nothing but embarrassment and horn-tooting.

Another problem is the fact that for a good proportion of offenders, such punishment would provide further opportunity to thumb a nose at the system; some would likely even revel in such notoriety.  My motor-mouth was repeatedly punished at high school through ejection from the classroom. Apparently I was expected to feel repentant while standing in the corridor. In fact, I find it all rather hilarious and by no means the deterrent that detention or yard duty would have been.

Rather than embarrassing potential customers – if not also themselves – by issuing petty public rebukes, restaurateurs should shut up, show some class and take credit card details at the time of the booking. Simple.

Drunk drivers, of course, is a much more complicated problem. But to suggest that naming an offender in the paper is the answer is laughable. If a person is stupid enough to drink and drive at any time, let alone repeatedly, they are not someone who makes decisions with any clarity. If the thought of killing oneself or others was not enough to prevent them sticking their key in the ignition in the first place, their name in the paper will hardly guide them better next time.

Rather than serving as a deterrent, the name and shame will simply embarrass those people around the drunk. Humiliating children and parents and spouses. Just as the very act of drink driving harms the innocent, so too does this bizarre Kennett proposal.

Don’t get me wrong, my liberal politics don’t extend to being a soft-on-crime, swing the prison gates open and let em’ loose kind of lefty. But neither am I someone who believes criminals are underserving of dignity. If we’re seeking out cheaper-than-prison alternatives, let’s see an option that bears some fruit for society: copious quantities of community service being the obvious example.

Let us not lower our standards and act like our bloodthirsty Middle Ages relatives. Surely we’re a tad more progressive than that.

© Lauren Rosewarne