This is the third post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate!
Last quarter I took a psychology class called Social Stigma. Social stigma, to quote the great Wikipedia, is:
the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society. Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their cultural norms.
Social stigma can result from the perception (rightly or wrongly) of mental illness, physical disabilities, diseases such as leprosy (see leprosy stigma), illegitimacy,sexual orientation, gender identity skin tone, nationality, ethnicity, religion (or lack of religion) or criminality.
In the first class, the professor ignited a debate by asking the question, “Does anyone deserve to be stigmatized?” As examples, she used neo-Nazis and pedophiles.
We were really divided. The understandable knee-jerk response is that, yes, some people do things that are so terrible that they deserve to be stigmatized. However, I came down on the “no” side for several reasons.
First of all, there’s a difference between condemning someone’s actions and stigmatizing them. Although we may talk about certain actions as being “stigmatized,” the way the phenomenon of stigma operates is that it puts a mark of shame on an entire person, not just on something they did. When someone does a thing that is stigmatized, we don’t just think, “Oh, they’re a good/cool person but I don’t like that they did that.” We think, “This person is bad.” They’re immoral or vulgar or even mentally ill (transvestic fetishism, anyone?).
When a group is stigmatized, they are considered less than human in some ways. Whichever aspect of them is stigmatized becomes the whole of their identity in our eyes, and often this means that even if they change the actions that caused them to fall into that category in the first place, the stigma remains. This is the case for ex-convicts, for instance, who are often denied housing, employment, and other opportunities simply because they used to be criminals, served their time, and are now trying to contribute productively to society.
So, stigma and social disapproval are not the same thing; there are some key distinctions between them that I think may have been lost on some people during that class discussion.
Second, there’s a bit of an idealist in me that wants to teach people why doing bad things is bad rather than just keep them from doing those things for fear of stigmatization. And I get that practically it doesn’t matter, and if the only way to prevent people from doing bad things was to make them afraid of stigma, I’d accept that.
But the thing is, if the only reason you don’t do a bad thing is because you’re afraid that people will judge you, what happens if/when you become reasonably sure that you can do it without getting found out?
Take sexual assault. Being a convicted rapist is actually a very stigmatized identity–it’s just that rapists rarely become convicted rapists. Rape is known to be a Very Bad Thing, but rapists know that they can get away with it if they commit it in certain ways. Despite the stigma, rape is pervasive and rape culture exists.
Third, what we stigmatize does not always correlate well with what is actually harmful to society. Rather, we stigmatize things for knee-jerk emotional reasons, and then we invent post-hoc explanations for why those things are harmful. That’s how you get the panic about gay teachers converting students to homosexuality (has there ever been any evidence for that?), abortion causing mental illness, same-sex couples being unfit to raise children, atheists being immoral, and so on.
We didn’t decide to stigmatize same-sex love, abortion, and atheism because they were harmful to society. We decided they were harmful to society because we were stigmatizing them. And now, even as modern science and research knocks these assumptions of harm down over and over again, bigots still cling to the fantasy that these things are harmful. That should tell you something.
Fourth, wielding psychological manipulation as punishment really, really rubs me the wrong way. The attitude that if someone does something bad they deserve to be cast out and hated and seen as inhuman scares me. I think it’s very normal and understandable to want to punish someone for doing a horrible thing, but, as I wrote after the Steubenville verdict, I’m not sure that that’s the most useful and skeptical response. I feel that our primary concern should be preventing people from doing bad things (both first-time and repeat offenses) and not satisfying our own need for revenge by punishing them.
Stigma is a blunt weapon. By its very definition it transcends the boundaries we try to set for it (i.e. condemn an action) and strongly biases our views of people (i.e. condemn a whole person). That’s why “hate the sin, love the sinner” just doesn’t work. If we are to promote rationality in our society, we should find ways to prevent crime and other anti-social acts without using stigma and cognitive bias as punishment.
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