F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
December 17, 2000
Show You Care With Stigmatization

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

"Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about our neighbors' lives and actions."

"It is now orthodox to regard social stigma as a form of oppression, to be discarded on our collective quest for inner freedom," declares British philosopher Roger Scruton. "But the political philosophers and novelists of former times," he notes, "would have been horrified by such a view. In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs -- enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach -- was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves."

In the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, Scruton mourns the passing of stigma, "and along with it much of the constant, small-scale self-regulation of the community, which depends on each individual's respect for, and fear of, other people's judgment. In consequence," he comments, "the laws have expanded, both in extent and complexity, to fill the void. Yet, as sanctions have been expropriated from society by the state, people feel far more free to follow their own inclinations, to disregard proprieties, and to ignore the effect of their behavior on others and on the common good." They experience the law "as an external force with no real moral authority."

Scruton explains the greater efficacy of stigma over law: "The law combats crime not by eliminating criminal schemes but by increasing the risks attached to them; stigma combats crime by creating people who have no criminal schemes in the first place. The steady replacement of stigma by law," he concludes, "is a key cause of the constant increase in the number and severity of crime."

Scruton recognizes that "the disposition to maintain social norms through stigma and shame seems abhorrent" to modern sensibilities, "a form of bad behavior rather than a cure for it. American culture has now firmly set itself against the old forms of social stigma," he laments. "The odd result of this movement to reject stigma," Scruton continues, "has been the introduction of stigma of another kind. 'Judgmental' people find themselves condemned with a vehemence that would have gone down well in Salem. Those who live by the old morality end up paraded with abusive labels: if you deplore illegitimacy and the welfare dependency that often follows it, you show yourself to be 'mean-spirited' and lacking in 'compassion'; if you oppose the normalization of homosexuality, you are 'homophobic'; if you believe in Western culture, you are an 'elitist.'"

Scruton worries that "the permitted forms of stigmatization are dwindling. We know," he asserts, "that some form of social control is necessary. Even in the prevailing climate of ignorance and denial, most people are able to draw from their sparse knowledge of history the conclusion that barbarism lies just below the surface, awaiting its opportunity to destroy. But people are afraid to judge their neighbors," says Scruton, "and hope that somehow the future of society will be taken care of, even though everyone is busy retreating from the arduous business of moral judgment."

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