A stigma is “a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something.”1 To stigmatize someone is to “describe or regard [them] as worthy of disgrace or great disapproval.”2 Stigmatization is a means to control human behavior. While certain stigmas are necessary in a healthy society, stigmatizing labels are often wrongly applied to people. If you are going to stigmatize someone, you need to have proof that they are guilty of bad behavior. Otherwise, you may be slandering them.
For good or ill, stigmatization is a means of social control: “the enforcement of conformity by society upon its members, either by law or by social pressure.”3 When a behavior is stigmatized, a person who engages in that behavior may be called a stigmatizing name. This puts pressure on the individual to conform to society’s standards of right and wrong. A stigmatizing name is a mark of shame. The pain of embarrassment can cause a person to change their behavior, at least publicly.
When a behavior is no longer stigmatized, human behavior changes as a result. For example, in previous generations, women were shamed for having children out of wedlock. Today, that stigma has largely been removed, and a much higher percentage of women have children without getting married. In 1940, 3.8% of all births were to unmarried women.4 However, by 2014, the percentage had risen to 40.2%.5 While there are a number of reasons for this social change, the removal of the stigma against out of wedlock births is one important factor. When a behavior is no longer stigmatized, people are more likely to engage in that behavior.
Some stigmas are necessary in a healthy society. One example is Islamophobia, defined as “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims.”6 If someone expresses hatred or contempt for Muslims, it is fair and accurate to call them an Islamophobe. A social stigma against hatred serves an important function in society: to prevent a nation from tearing itself apart. If public declarations of hatred become widespread, it could lead to violence against innocent people.
While a social stigma against hatred is justified, stigmatizing labels can be wrongly applied to people. For instance, a person can be called Islamophobic if they say anything critical of Islam. Islam is a religion, a set of beliefs and practices, and should not be immune from criticism. To disagree with the teachings of Islam is not the same as hating Muslims. No one should be called an Islamophobe for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
If you are going to call someone a stigmatizing name, you should have proof that they are guilty of wrong behavior. During the 2016 President election, Hillary Clinton labelled millions of people who support Donald Trump as deplorable. She said, “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables… Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.”7 Clinton implied that half of Trump supporters hate minorities, immigrants, gays, and Muslims.
Clinton stigmatized Trump supporters without any evidence to prove it. She later apologized for her comment, saying, “I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.”8 However, she still believed that a significant percentage of Trump supporters were deplorable human beings.
When a stigmatizing label is wrongly applied to someone, it is a form of slander: “a false spoken statement about someone that damages their reputation.”9 Unless a person expresses hatred or contempt for a certain group of people, they should not be called racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic. If you call someone a stigmatizing name, you have formed a judgment about that individual. If you are wrong in your judgment, you can do great harm to that individual, damaging their reputation and self-worth.
Stigmatization establishes a “red line” for bad behavior in society. The proper use of a stigmatizing label is to declare the truth about a person’s behavior, not to insult, disparage, or belittle them. When a person is stigmatized, it creates a public perception that they are a bad person. Because of this, no one should be stigmatized unless they do something bad without showing any regret or remorse. The goal of stigmatization should be to make the person face the truth about their behavior, so they stop doing what is wrong.
- Cambridge English Dictionary, s.v. “Stigma,” accessed November 10, 2016,http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/stigma
- Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Stigmatize,” accessed November 10, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stigmatize
- Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House Inc. s.v. “Social Control,” accessed November 13, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stigmatize
- Stephanie J. Ventur and Christine A. Bachrach, Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940–99, National Vital Statistics Reports, October 2000, 17, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr48/nvs48_16.pdf
- Brady E. Hamilton, National Vital Statistics Reports, December 2015, 41, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_12.pdf
- Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Islamophobia,” accessed November 10, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/islamophobia
- Dan Merica and Sophie Tatum, “Clinton expresses regret for saying ‘half’ of Trump supporters are ‘deplorables’,” CNN, September 12, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/09/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-basket-of-deplorables/index.html
- Cambridge English Dictionary, s.v. “Slander,” accessed November 14, 2016, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/slander