The objective of this punishment is straightforward: to humiliate the punished and make them easily identifiable to anyone they encounter for the next few hours or days.
"No, no, I'm not a criminal. My mom was a bird and my dad was extremely sticky."
But really, tarring and feathering is just one example of the "mark of shame," something the punished is made to carry around to mark and humiliate them. Another example is the scarlet letter, as famously depicted in a book whose name I forget (Mary Poppins?), in which a woman accused of adultery is made to wear around a bright red "A" on her dress as a mark of how awesome she is. And of course there's the dunce cap we used to make stupid children wear, instead of the "teaching them better" technique we've adopted today. In postwar France, women suspected of collaborating with Nazis used to have their heads shaved. And during the Middle Ages, letters and other marks were burned into the flesh of a person for crimes like fighting or being homeless.
Ingram Publishing/Getty Images
Today's homeless have it so easy.