Social Stigmas (An Open Thread)

Alex Knapp

Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

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36 Responses

  1. Rose says:

    Not agreeing with Jason, because there might be other relevant factors that should mean you should not feel shame in asking for help. But I strongly believe there are inappropriate and appropriate emotions.

    You are one of the liberators of Dachau in 1945. Seeing all those bodies and all that suffering makes you feel all light and happy on the inside. You almost want to skip, you’re so happy. You’re relieved you live in a world where such a thing could have happened.

    That’s an inappropriate emotion.Report

  2. Ethan Gach says:

    Convince you otherwise?

    Can’t I just tell you that shaming works and it makes me feel better about myself when I get to explain to other people why what their doing makes them not as good as me?

    In all seriousness, to qualify, are you against proscribing mental states? Would you characterize an emotional state as a kind of mental state, or something fundamentally different. In which case what is your opinion of suicide, depression, and the more destructive “thought” disorders? Do you reject the idea of a thought/mental/emotional disorder, or are you just skeptical of it in every case?

    To make sure that this is what you’re talking about, I’ll provide my position, which is that there are better and worse ways to feel about certain “goings ons.”

    The idea of coercing (and I don’t use that word negatively…please, release all bagage regarding it in your minds) people to feel a certain way I’m not comfortable with, but at the same time there is a deep connection between how people feel and how they act, and trying to get people to react with one set of feelings over another doesn’t seem out of the question.

    And of course there’s a difference between shaming and telling someone what they’re doing/feeling is wrong/bad. The former involves value judgements about that person, while the latter is focused more on their actions and reactions.Report

    • Alex Knapp in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      I mean emotional states that are formulated externally.

      For example, shame is experienced because I’ve failed to uphold a standard of my community.

      Guilt is experienced because I harmed somebody else.

      I think guilt is healthy – it’s a sign of empathy. I’m not convinced that shame is, because it seems like a means of social control.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Alex Knapp says:

        Yes, I killed that harmless old lady. No, I don’t feel guilty.

        Is it better for me to be ashamed than not ashamed, or does it simply not matter?Report

        • Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to James Hanley says:

          It depends. Was she white?Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley says:

          If you don’t feel guilty about murdering a harmless old lady, I’m pretty sure you don’t give a shit about shame. You might care about punishment, but shame is going to roll off your back pretty easy, you bet.

          I’d welcome a developmental psychologist refutation of this (if there is one), but I’m pretty sure that internalized guilt has to be possible before recognition of external shame is, in the old gray matter. Barring some really oddball one-off damaged brain, that is.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Alex Knapp says:

        The problem, I think, is that a lot of people who are receiving government assistance haven’t really internalized the fact that other people are paying a price for that. And some people are just sociopaths.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    Let’s hammer out “social stigma”. We’re talking about treating people coldly rather than warmly, right? At arm’s length rather than embracing them, as it were?

    Non-verbal signals could be such things as eye-rolling, cold shoulders, dismissive sniffs, passive-aggressive statements like “how rude!” and the like. Right? We’re not talking about wrestling people up against the wall while one of us drinks three Diet Cokes so that we may burp the alphabet in their face, right?

    I can see those societal tools being used for good. Throwing them at people who talk on their cell phones in a small, intimate restaurant for example.

    One place in town, The King Chef (back when it was AWESOME rather than merely really good) did this thing where they turned up the radio really loudly when someone started talking on their cellphone. The person either hung up or went outside. Other patrons generally responded to the cook and/or waitperson by telling them some variant of “I love you” when the person left.

    This seems to me to be an example of social stigma being used for good. In any case, it’s certainly an example of social stigma that I approve of and would go so far as to say improves the quality of life of more folks than if it weren’t available.

    Given that single example of social stigma being used for good, I can certainly see it being used for good against people who are working the system.

    If there’s a significant downside, it’s that we as normal schlubs are more likely to encounter downtrodden people gaming the system than we are to meet the connected people… so we’re only able to give the stinkeye to one group. That said, that doesn’t tell me that we shouldn’t give the stinkeye to people talking on their cellphone in the Chef.Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    Underlying this argument is the unspoken assumption that social stigmas are a good thing generally.

    I could wrong about this (of course!) but I didn’t read Jason as suggesting or even implying that social stigmas a generally a good thing. Lord knows, he’s probably dealt with some social stigmas (associated with being openly gay) that most definitely aren’t good.

    I think his point was that social stigmas can be good things, in particular, if the stigma encourages pro-social behavior. One of the problems I have with the view is that the action of expressing a negative view of a certain practice or behavior is undertaken by individuals and not society at large, and so I’m curious as to how that individual expression is justified on individual terms. Eg., is the expression of a social stigma justified because the stigma is merely culturally accepted? (That seems circular, no?) Is it because the individual expressing the stigma is directly negatively effected by expressions of the behavior he’s negatively viewing? (Then how can someone who wasn’t the provider of charity express a negative view of others who accept charity without shame?)

    I understand the premise, of course: that social stigmas can be used to effect positive social change. But even then, it seems that a justification for the stigma on moral grounds begs far too many questions to be easily or casually accepted.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

      (Then how can someone who wasn’t the provider of charity express a negative view of others who accept charity without shame?)

      And this part leads to some pretty questionable practices in its own right. If the acceptance of charity ought to be accompanied by the shame on the part of the person receiving it, then how is that stigma realized? By the recipient groveling in advance? After the fact? By stagmatizing the individual after the fact?

      Suppose it’s to stigmatize the individual after the fact. Will the effect of that stigmatization incentivize people to be more self-sufficient, or to refrain from receiving charity? It seems to me all it will do is encourage poor folks to not take charity, even if they would benefit from it, and even of the charity is given without the expectation of an expression of shame on the part of the recipient. It certainly won’t encourage people to “work harder”.Report

  5. Christopher Carr says:

    I think Jason specifically covers disdain for those accepting government aid who are not working or attempting to find work. I think stigma towards such people is justified and indeed an important element of the social fabric.

    However, social stigmas bear too much in common with religion (i.e. prone to hysteria and witch hunts), so I think it’s important that social stigma is moderated by laws enforcing equality. For instance, looking at the prevailing “social stigmas” of two hundred years ago – today we’d call them “bigotry”.Report

  6. JS says:

    There are many times when social stigmas can be beneficial….
    – “Oh, you raped a child? You’re a bad person!”
    – “You swerved to hit that puppy in the road! You’re a bad person!”
    – “I see your husband had another shiner this morning. You’re a bad person!”

    Social stigmas should exist to encourage good behavior, as as disincentives towards bad behavior. But there is the rub – what should be considered “good” or “bad” behavior?

    Above are clear cut examples of “bad behavior”. I find the whole “taking charity” thing to be very, very far from bad behavior, though. I’m not referring to somebody who, let’s say, can work but does not due to laziness who takes charity – that is not good behavior. But the person who cannot feed his/her family because there is no work to be found, or because they cannot hold a job due to medical reasons – there should be no stigma attached to that. That’s not bad behavior, that’s just a bad situation in which folks who can afford to help are trying to help.

    Putting a social stigma on accepting any charity will only hurt those dependent on the ones who refuse to accept help because it will “look bad”.Report

  7. DRS says:

    Social stigmas exist only so that the stigma-er has a good excuse to feel superior to the stigma-ee: “Yes, it might seem cruel to make a disparaging comment to so-and-so but it’s only so that he’s inspired to better himself!”

    Like people enjoy being on welfare or receiving food from the food bank. Like it’s just so much fun to feel inadequate and watch your family suffer. And you’re always at the height of fashion, dahhhling, when you clothe your wife from the castoffs that the Salvation Army gathers in at Christmas time.

    Let me tell what real social stigma is, folks. It’s taking your kids to the Boys and Girls Club for the Christmas holiday gift giving, because it’s the one time when they’ll get a real toy all year. They’re terribly exited and trying not to show it, because they know it only makes you feel even more inadequate as a father and provider.

    And you get to the B&G Club, and the kids get their candy cane (one each, remember, so there will be enough to go around), and their small half-filled plastic cup of red koolaid, and Santa is there with the presents, and hands them out. Your son gets some used Matchbox cars, most with all four wheels still on, and mostly still painted. He’s relieved that he can be genuinely happy with this gift and retreats to the back of the room. Your daughter gets a doll and it’s homemade and in quite good condition and since she’s not really into Barbies yet and doesn’t get the peer pressure of all that yet, she’s happy too. They’re careful not to look at you while they’re really happy, and when they do look they’re very sober and calm and ready to go home.

    This is officially an anecdote, and maybe doesn’t qualify because it’s not abstract enough to philosophize about. I apologize that I can’t be abstract about things like social stigmas or whether private charity and government entitlements compete. It must be nice to live in an abstract world.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to DRS says:

      Well, I know I tend to get overly theoretical about this issues sometimes. But it’s not because I think the empirical cases don’t matter. On the contrary. It’s because I think the empirical cases matter the most that I spend so much of my time (on this site anyway) going over the conceptual stuff. It’s often an effort to find out why someone holds a view that seems very divorced from reality – like the realities you’re talking about upthread – and to identify (what I think are) the correct and incorrect parts of their thinking. If I find a mistake, then maybe they’ll change their mind. If I can’t find a mistake and the explain it to me, then they’ve changed my mind.

      Plus, it’s just kinda fun.Report

  8. Rose says:

    THere is some evidence (Christopher knows more about it than I do) that people with impaired (i.e., inappropriate) emotions also have impaired practical rationality.Report

    • Chris in reply to Rose says:

      This is true. Antonio Damasio and his colleagues, working primarily with the Iowa Gambling Task, have shown that lesions to the OFC, VMC, amygdala, and maybe a couple other areas associated with emotion, reward, and the like, make people less risk averse, and in some cases even risk seeking. Damasio’s written a few books about it: Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza, and The Feeling of What Happens, which aren’t bad, even though much of the empirical work is dated. His work has been heavily criticized recently, and there are definite methodological issues, and the somatic marker hypothesis that he uses to explain it has been effectively refuted, but the core finding — that emotion and reason are deeply intertwined and that our practical reasoning relies heavily on emotion and the reward system — is probably true.Report

  9. bookdragon says:

    I think defining social stigmas as being inherently good or bad is illogical. A social stigma is a tool.

    A hammer can be used to build a house or to beat someone’s head in. Is the hammer good or bad? The hammer itself is neither. The question only applies to the use to which it is applied.Report

  10. NewDealer says:

    Stigma is generally another word for taboo. Almost every culture and society have taboos.

    I am not sure that a culture or society can survive without taboos.

    I agree that a lot of social stigmas and taboos can be harmful because they prevent people from seeking help or aid and can be tools of oppression. For example, taboos about gender norms can be very damaging to gender non-conformists or people just slightly out of the mold even.

    However as Rose pointed out above, stigma and taboo can also act as anchors for our actions (hopefully) and make people question their thoughts and assumptions. Sometime this can lead to very painful and depressing introspection but hopefully a better person emerges from these internal struggles.

    The very tricky problem is that there is always going to be wild disagreement about what is a good stigma/taboo and what is a bad stigma/taboo.

    Public Displays of Affection might be a good example here. Is refraining from being super-affectionate with a lover in public a sign of consideration for being out among strangers or is it suppression of desire? There is never going to be consensus on this or many other stigmas/taboos.Report

  11. I hope it was not presumptuous to reply with a post of my own?Report

  12. Brandon Berg says:

    I object to your use of the anglicized plural “stigmas.” “Stigmata” is much cooler.Report