Rituals of Retribution: From the Traditional to the Contemporary

  • Paul Redekop Conflict Resolution Studies, Menno Simons College at The University of Winnipeg


Durkheim saw public rituals of punishment as acts of emphatic denunciation that provided a focus for the outrage and righteous indignation of the moral community. Foucault saw the public execution as an 'act of terror' inflicted on the body of the criminal, to be replaced by a "gentler" treatment of the soul of the offender as well as the body, made possible by the penal system. It will be argued first of all that public execution was abolished, not for humanitarian reasons, but because these public degradation ceremonies could no longer be counted on to induce the desired combination of indignation and awe, as audiences became more sophisticated and therefore capable of questioning the process, and even of sympathizing with the persons being executed. Secondly, it will be demonstrated that public execution has now been replaced by the contemporary revenge drama, represented by the "Dirty Harry" movies and others that enact contemporary rituals of punishment to arouse these emotions of outrage, indignation and fear, while controlling for the possibility of any alternative perspectives that would undermine these kinds of reactions.