Return to Stigma

Exit the Millian Frame

“For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen social stigma. It is that social stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment […] Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion… [T]he price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”

—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

Freedom, absolute freedom, especially of thought unto expression, is constrained by social custom, of cultivated, collective disdain. And as Mill notes, the construction of custom is bolstered by, if not downstream of and more powerful than, legal sanction.

We live in a Millian world, one geared toward the erosion of natural association and custom. For these vectors of “social intolerance” constrain independent, individual self-actualization. This, Mill despised. Which is to say, Mill hated what is natural and necessary in every well-ordered society. If we would have order ourselves, we must recover what he shunned and shun what he coveted.

The punishment for the violation of custom is stigma, or social judgment and pressure to conform. Paradoxically, and contra Mill, the suppression of stigma “induces men to disguise” opinion and discrimination. It is social pacification. Worse, forced inclusion and neutrality negates man, his natural diversity and sensibility. While a Millian frame might liberate, for a time, the individual from all constraints, it is diametrically opposed to its opposite, viz., communal self-determination, i.e., that to which sociable man wants to belong.  

Stigma is another way of describing the social function of shame. Rationale or justification for shaming what is shameful are usually unthinking, engrained, and uninterrogated. Plato (Republic) describes the worthy guardian of the city as one who will “praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good,” and, in turn, will “rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason.” Cultivation of right preference and taste is a prerequisite not only for exercise of authority—the good ruler must always feel the spirit and mood of his people—but the exercise of mature reason as well because the affections are oriented toward honor and achievement rather than material gain. Self-mastery requires fear of judgment, as Roger Scruton put it in his essay on stigma in City Journal nearly 25 years ago (“Bring Back Stigma”).

Therein lies the power of stigma as a natural social instinct. It is everywhere, always and already, present. Indeed, Mill’s dream cannot be recognized without the operation of stigma. That is, the intolerance of intolerance or shunning of restriction. But this is always a fantasy because a view from nowhere is impossible.   

Every society designates things, behaviors, and practices that are shameful contrasted by what is honored. (The extent to which public or social shame corresponds to internal scrutiny is out of scope here.) Whatever is shameful is marked not only by punishment—often it is not overtly or legally punished—but, perhaps, more importantly by mockery. In a thick, healthy society the outlandish and unimaginable is humorous even as it is offensive because it lacks presence and, thereby, remains undesirable. No one is offended by the mockery of what is shameful and deserving of stigma because no one is practicing it, or at least those who are know that they should not and, therefore, dare not object to mockery of objectionable things.

The sacred and the blasphemous are perennial societal elements. Each is determined by the ruling element which is, in fact, the most powerful element. Majority opinion is not an actual thing. It is allusive and fickle. But a conception—a belief, really—of what is fashionable, accepted, sacred governs sociality whether it is objectively measurable or not. Perception rules.

This is the politeuma, the unwritten constitution of the community exemplified in great men or role models, in personification of virtue. And, contrary to colloquial belief, this dynamic governs more thoroughly and effectively than written, positive, civil law insofar as it dictates and compels behavior more immediately. What is shameful is always unlawful anyway. Law codifies and affirms what is already accepted.

What tells a society that cowardice and retreat are shameful actions? Why was the death of Achilles “beautiful”? Who enforces chastity and modesty at scale? In both cases and many more besides, it is stigma. “Principles,” supposedly timeless, develop to reinforce or rather summarize these things. Today, “equality” and “fairness” serve as taglines for acceptance of all manner of levelling and licentiousness today, but for all their promise of “freedom,” they operate as custom and stigma.

Shame corresponds to the law of fashion—literally, what is in style. Locke, in the Essay on Education, observes that it is not good and evil that most powerfully directs men but shame and esteem, that is, fashion. Likewise, Aristotle (Ethics), determines that a virtuous member of society is one who grasps what is shameful and honorable and acts accordingly.

Now, especially in our society, most people like to think that they do not participate in shame, but this learned instinct itself betrays the very thing it denies, viz., that, in our society, shaming “lifestyle” choices is itself shameful. It used to be that shaming inborn attributes was shameful. That’s where it began, built upon an ethic of “equality.” This ethic, aided by a psychologization of man, morphed into a new anti-shame, shame ethic, viz., that choices of whatever kind were above definitionally above reproach. Whatever the result, the point is that a paradigm of stigma and its corollary, honor, has not been escaped.

The west, contrary to its (fanciful) aspirations and preferred narrative, has not transcended honor-shame culture. In the bunk liberal narrative, a guilt-innocence ethic displaced an honor-shame one, at least at a public level. Honor and shame were, supposedly, relegated to the private realm where things, like religion, go to die. The falsehood of such a narrative is easily demonstrable.  

What is the greatest, most unforgivable sin in American society? Racism, hands down. There is nothing worse. It is not simply that racism is lame or outdated or gauche. Rather, it is relentlessly prosecuted, its participants ruthlessly ostracized. It is so shameful that it can be mocked only with the utmost care and with astute and sensitive social awareness. It is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. The things that they do in secret are shameful even to mention. The thing that they do in secret is an abomination to mention. (Ephesians 5:12)

Racist expression is censored without objection. Its proponents are denied social and civil participation. Redemption is unavailable. The law backs this up, of course, but social stigma leads. That is, the rigidity of fashion. Far from abandoning an honor-shame moral-social framework via a merit-based, guilt-innocence worldview wherein “legality” is determinative, the latter has simply been layered on top of the former, compounding its severity.

Moreover, that the definition of racism is constantly morphing (i.e., adaptation) indicates its status as shameful and, by extension, the existence of an operative honor-shame paradigm.

But this dynamic also exposes the more technical nature of the modern western moral frame that, as we said, includes the more technical and legal guilt-innocence dichotomy. Forgiveness and (social) reentry are more difficult—nigh unattainable—under this twofold regime.  

To some extent, whilst all manner of sexual promiscuity is excused, adultery is still frowned upon in our society. That said, many a starlet or politician have recovered. More surprising, the same people generally recover from the blabbering and thoroughly unconvincing public apologies that usually follow the discovery of their indiscretions. In any case, and in relatively short order, the adulterer is usually readmitted to society, assuming that they were ever really forced to exit in the first place.

By contrast, it is impossible to find one example of a confirmed or even suspected racist similarly gaining readmittance. The only comparable example of stigma in practice might be a sexual predator, rapist, abuser, or pedophile, at least for now.

The difference is that the case of the rapist is a less pure form of social stigma given that they are also designated a legal criminal, whereas the racist is not, unless an act of violence traceable to racist motivations—a new mens rea—is present, a singular and bizarre legal arrangement unique to our civil rights law regime, to be sure.

In other words, the racist, or other “hate” criminals, is alone stigmatized for prejudice made speech. Analogous inchoate sexual fetishes are not similarly punished unless they are acted upon. But, of course, racism, needing to be stamped out, is not so easily traceable except in extreme cases in which case an otherwise separable crime is legally designated as a concrete representation of otherwise indiscernible but social unacceptable posture. By contrast, an honor-shame culture absent the guilt-innocence paradigm layered on top features less barriers to reentry and, in theory, less recidivism.

The defiant rejection of shame and honor that has made our society cruel. In our context, shaming is shameful, as was said, except when it’s not. But in the latter case, to obscure the presence of shame, “objective,” “legal” categories are inserted, letting society off the hook, so to speak. Discrimination, taste, and custom sit outside this particular liberal myth because they are primitive and anachronistic, thereby contradicting the animating telos of liberal society, viz., progress which lies ever on the horizon, just beyond our reach—but one day. Were we to appeal to custom we would corrupt that utopian telos. Such a move would rely too much on given human nature, on providence, and not enough on the perfectibility of the same.

Ironically, Mill’s aspiration and instruction is counterproductive. It is oxymoronic. The quest for shameless freedom—boundlessness—immediately encounters problems in that it cannot succeed in the face of social, customary hinderances. It must then, for its own sake, become what it purports to negate, an anti-custom, but custom, nevertheless.

Of course, every society operates on the basis of honor and shame; our own is just the first to be dishonest about it and by its self-deception produces the most brutal version of it. Christians especially should seek to escape this liberal, new, and confused ethical frame. Our enemies have not negated custom but merely reshaped and controlled it to our detriment. The intolerance of intolerance from Marcuse governs unto the new reigning ethic. His insights were not groundbreaking but rather forthright and honest about his particular interests. The antidote is not to shun stigma but to embrace and use it. It is inescapable anyway. Induced denial of stigma is designed to stigmatize prior incumbent custom. Thus far, it has been effective. The only way out is to assert, unapologetically, an American Christian basis for social moral norms. Such a move will be characterized by our opponents, and their brainwashed lackies, as “mean” and “unloving.” Get comfortable with such charges. Cherry-picked proof texts will be behind them.

But we must be willing to denounce and stigmatize what is shameful, the aischune (the same word employed in scripture and the Gorgias). Shame is not just culturally arbitrary, as some will tell you. It is whatever is dishonest and disgraceful according to nature; the culturally particularized expressions of those things are then rightly shamed by a people. Homosexuality, infanticide, unnatural defilement (Romans 1:26-27) should “arouse fury” (Proverbs 14:35). For “shameful gods have consumed the fruits of our ancestors’ labor (Jeremiah 3:24). Good practices should receive praise and honor. At this level, church attendance, traditional family life, and the like need not be interrogated for internal sincerity. As social practice such things perform their proper pedagogical function, especially for the young. We can incentivize many behaviors through law, but the most effective way for the full array of honorable behavior to be adopted is for it to receive glory and social standing, and for its opposite to be stigmatized.

But not only these things.

As we have discussed, shame and mockery of false and destructive things provides social glue, agreement, homogeneity, the things necessary for cohesion. Assault on and defacement of our heritage should also be stigmatized (Exodus 20:12). Such acts portend our national and cultural dissolution, a violent and impious act. All this requires renewed American Christian self-consciousness and confidence. In other words, ownership. American Protestantism has been demoralized by the rapid and repeated incursions of the new stigma. Until we unapologetically reassert ownership over our heritage and nation unto a counter stigma, where we shame what is shameful, we cannot expect renewal nor, indeed, peace. Far from cruelty, the construction and assertion of stigma is heroic, an undertaking on behalf of civilization. To end with Scruton from the essay cited above:

“There is nothing that will serve us better than this old kind of heroism—the heroism of disapproval, whereby people risk condemnation for condemnation’s sake. Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about our neighbors’ lives and actions. It expresses the consciousness of other people, the desire for their good opinion, and the impetus to uphold the social norms that make judgment possible.”

Image Credit: A Sunny Street with a Distant Church Tower, William Koekkoek (1839-1895).

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

9 thoughts on “Return to Stigma

  1. Like loyalty, honor and shaming can be taken too far. In addition, what is worthy of honor or merits shaming depends on the audience. Honoring or shaming people so that their lives are exhaustively described by laudatory or pejorative labels is deceptive. Such involves a kind of all-or-nothing thinking that is purposely selective and thus embraces a moral relativity. Consider that, In the above article, racism is rightfully described as meriting shame. But, the article says that we should have a ‘renewed American Christian self-consciousness and confidence.’ But from the beginning of American Protestant Christianity up through Jim Crow if not afterwards, we have had a significant percentage, and often a majority, of American Protestant Christians basing the nation on racism. And some revered prominent Protestant Christians were involved in that. And so what was the reaction of many religiously conservative American Protestants to the shaming of those revered, prominent people from the past, such as when their statues were torn down, for their embracing of racism?

    The real question is should everything that is shameful for a Christian to do also be shameful for those in society to do? And here I want to emphasize that I am not talking about the shame we should all have before God for sinning; I am talking about whether we should be ashamed before others, including unbelievers, in society. For those who want a strictly homogenous society, the answer is ‘yes.’ But do the New Testament Scriptures support making society homogeneous by centering it on the Gospel so that everything that is shameful for a Christian to do is shameful for all, including unbelievers, to do? New Testament Scriptures that deal with either Church discipline or how Christians should relate to unbelievers in society seem to strongly say ‘NO.’ And the New Testament Scriptures that describe how sinful people are seem to say that we can’t expect those who do not have the Spirit of God to successfully abstain from all that Christians are expected to abstain from. And so what is the purpose of shaming then except to imply that unbelievers are morally inferior to believers. In so doing, we morally superior believers embrace the role of the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying (Luke 18:9-14). And it is then that moral relativity pops up its evil head to minimize when our sins are exposed–such as our past racism.

    Overly harsh shaming or the overuse of shaming indicates that a society is authoritarian. In fact, authoritarians delight in being punitive so long as they get to be the ones who punish. Likewise, over the top honoring is meant to make designated heroes into our nanny-thinkers. The intended result of that is so that it isn’t just when the Bible says it that we believe it, it is when these carefully selected heroes say it that we react in the same way. And, for some, the rightness of all of that depends on who is determining who are heroes are.

    Should religiously conservative American Protestantism with its track record of racism, sexism, and its support for repressing other groups be determining what should honored or shamed in our nation? For those who believe so, then we should look at today’s Russia as providing a partial picture of our future. Life is wonderful for those who are holding the whip. But then again, how can one use the whip while preaching the Gospel in love and correcting fellow believers in gentleness? BTW, there is something else to note about Russia. Russia is an authoritarian oligarchy that knows just how many bones to toss to its predominant branch of the Church to keep that Church, and its leaders, happy and supportive.

    Democracy with equality also provides a basis for homogeneity in society. And in so doing, it provides standards that protect, however imperfectly, people from being abused by either peers or those with power. And so Democracy with equality prevents unlimited freedom. It follows then thatDemocracy with equality can provide adequate standards for who should be honored and who should be shamed in society. Authoritarians from all ideological sides reject Democracy’s basis for homogeneity in society and its standards for honoring and shaming. That is because authoritarians lust for power and status. Authoritarians believe in hierarchy, of course that depends on who is on top. They are also eager to punish people. That eagerness shows some of the sadism that is inherent in Authoritarianism. And so when talking about honoring and shaming, should the Church honor or shame Christian authoritarians because of their lust for power and status? Or should the Church first seek to gently challenge such Christians because we are all vulnerable to falling into sin? I guess how one answers that question depends on how one wants to be treated when one falls into sin.

      1. Andrew,
        Yes, you did hear it from me. The question is whether the standard for gov’t and society that comes from Protestant traditions are biblical. Do you care to comment on that or are you content with using pejoratives in order to silence a different viewpoint?

          1. Everybody knows what you mean by “authoritarian”: “Any forcefully-stated opinion with which Curt Day disagrees.”
            Nobody cares.

        1. Ryan,
          Again you show that you don’t know what I mean by authoritarian. I am referring to the authoritarian personality types. They have been defined and described both by the Frankfurt School and mental health issues. And what the authoritarian personality is about is the acceptance or use of irrational authority. And there are traits that mental health professionals have observed in people who have authoritarian personality types. Showing hostility or aggression at dissent, having a black-white worldview, and the love of power are some of the main signs of authoritarian personality types. Whether or not you agree with my views, I have expressed them rationally.

          Do you think that the use of honoring and shaming can be taken too far? Do you think that Cline thinks that that can happen?

    1. Curt Day delenda est.
      The reason no one wants to engage your “biblical” arguments is that, since you’re a self-acknowledged leftist, everything you say is quite clearly based on a host of premises that neither I, nor the editors of AR, nor most of the AR readership, share with you. The fact that you pretend otherwise makes both your argumentation in general, and handling of Scripture in particular, dishonest in the extreme.
      Ignoring that sort of dishonesty would be to cast pearls before swine.

      1. Ryan,
        Martin Luther King Jr and William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury disagree with your assessment of the Left. King followed Temple in saying that Marxism, which King condemned and unfortunately conflated with Soviet Union Communism, is a ‘Christian Heresy.’ By using the word ‘Christian’ as an adjective, he meant that Marx had some social justice concerns that every Christian should have. But he called it a heresy because Marx combined those valid social justice concerns with ideas that no Christian could accept.

        I lean toward Marx because of how he described the Capitalism of his day also well describes our shareholder-based economy of today. I agree in general with the idea that both political and workplace power should be redistributed to the workers. I adamantly oppose the notion of a proletariat dictatorship, which Marx promoted. Such a dictatorship puts the proletariat into the role of the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying. Marx also strongly promoted equality for all ethnicities, and that includes religion according to anthropologists. His concern for that kind of equality is in stark contrast with his belief in the proletariat dictatorship which could be credited with the authoritarianism that some, but not all, Leftist leaders embraced. Though an economic class cannot be confused with an ethnicity, the promotion of equality for ethnicities is inconsistent with the promotion of class-based authoritarianism.

        And so like King, I believe that we need hybrid ideologies that combine the best features from all ideological sides including some conservative ideologies. I am not the only Leftist who believes that. Richard Wolff, a Leftist economist supports such an idea. In fact, alternative solutions he promoted include Germany’s use of their codetermination laws that place a certain percentage of workers on a company’s executive board based on the total number of employees. I also agree with King when he described Capitalism as forgetting that life is social and Marxism as forgetting that life is individual.

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