The Positive and Negative Uses of Stigmatization

stigmaTo stigmatize is to “describe or regard [someone] as worthy of disgrace or great disapproval.”1 For good or ill, stigmatization puts pressure on an individual to conform to societal values of right and wrong. While certain stigmas are necessary to prevent harm to innocent people, stigmatizing labels can be used to silence free speech. If you are going to stigmatize someone, you need to have proof that they are guilty of wrong behavior. Otherwise, you may be slandering them.

Stigmatization involves a value judgment of right and wrong. When a behavior is stigmatized, a person who engages in the behavior may be called a stigmatizing name. The resulting feelings of guilt and/or shame become a deterrent against repeating the behavior. Calling someone a stigmatizing name is a form of social pressure, so they will change how they act, at least publicly. Thus, for good or ill, stigmatization is a means of social control: “the enforcement of conformity by society upon its members…”2

When a behavior is no longer stigmatized, people are more likely to engage in the behavior. 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.3 However, by 2014, the percentage had risen to 40.2%.4 While there are numerous reasons for this social change, the removal of the stigma against out-of-wedlock births is a significant factor.

Many stigmas are justified, especially if the behavior is harmful to other people. One example is Islamophobia, defined as “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims.”5 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: If public declarations of hatred become widespread, it could result in violence against innocent people.

While a social stigma against hatred is justified, stigmatizing labels can be used to silence someone with a different point of view. 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. Calling someone an Islamophobe because they are critical of Islam is bully behavior, an attempt to discourage them from exercising their right to free speech.

If you call someone a stigmatizing name, you need to be certain that they are guilty of the stigmatized behavior. During the 2016 President election, Hillary Clinton stigmatized millions of Americans who supported Donald Trump. 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.”6 Without citing any evidence, Clinton implied that 50 percent of Trump supporters hated minorities, immigrants, women, homosexuals, and Muslims. This was not only a false accusation, but an insult to millions of American voters.

If declared publicly, calling someone a stigmatizing name can be a form of slander: “oral defamation, in which someone tells one or more persons an untruth about another…”7 Unless a person expresses hatred or contempt for a group of people, they should not be called racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, or Islamophobic. If you are incorrect in your judgment, you have slandered the person, damaging their public reputation.

When a person is stigmatized, it creates a public perception that they are a bad person. For this reason, no one should be stigmatized unless they do something bad without showing any regret or remorse. Whenever possible, a person should be corrected gently if they are guilty of wrong behavior; however, stigmatizing labels can be effective when they will not listen to reason. The proper goal of stigmatization is to make a person face the truth about their behavior, so they will stop doing what is wrong.

Notes

  1. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Stigmatize,” accessed November 10, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stigmatize
  2. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House Inc. s.v. “Social Control,” accessed November 13, 2016, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/social-control
  3. 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
  4. Brady E. Hamilton, National Vital Statistics Reports, December 2015, 41, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_12.pdf
  5. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Islamophobia,” accessed November 10, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/islamophobia
  6. 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
  7. Law.com, s.v. “Slander,” accessed August 10, 2017, http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=1969

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Shunning Someone You Disagree With

ExclusionTo shun is to “persistently avoid, ignore, or reject (someone or something) through antipathy or caution.”1 Shunning is a demonstration of intolerance toward another person, often because of something they said or did. While shunning may be necessary to safeguard one’s physical or mental health, it is usually not justified. Shunning is a way to punish someone you disagree with, can be a sign of hatred and contempt, and leads to contradictory behavior.

Shunning is common behavior among celebrities. On January 24, 2017, Ewan McGregor refused to do a television interview with Piers Morgan because of his comments about the women’s marches against Donald Trump.2 Instead of speaking directly to Morgan, McGregor tweeted, “Won’t go on with him…”3

When a celebrity shuns someone, they may rationalize it as a form of protest. However, if a celebrity wants to “protest” someone’s words or actions, all they have to do is exercise their right to free speech. Shunning is not required.

In reality, shunning is not about protest. It is a form of punishment. Its purpose is two-fold: First, to make the person feel the pain of rejection and social isolation. When you shun someone, you want them to pay a price: to become a social outcast for their words or actions.

The second purpose of shunning is to deter people from similar behavior. If a celebrity shuns another celebrity for their words or actions, it serves as a warning to society: If you speak or act this way, you deserve to be a social outcast too. Thus, shunning is a strategy to control people’s speech and behavior. It puts social pressure on an individual to change and conform.

The problem with shunning someone because of their words or actions is it often results in contradictory behavior. If you shun a person you disagree with, then you become obligated (by your own moral standard) to reject anyone whose words and actions are equally (or more) offensive.

As a case in point, consider Ewan McGregor. He refused to be interviewed by Piers Morgan, yet he made the film The Ghost Writer with Roman Polanski, a director who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl,4 was found guilty of “unlawful sex”, and fled the U.S. to avoid going to prison.5 In shunning Morgan for his words, but not Polanski for his actions, McGregor is guilty of a double standard: “a rule or principle which is unfairly applied in different ways to different people.”6

Although shunning is usually not a virtue, there are situations where it may be justified. For instance, if a person has threatened you, or physically assaulted you, then you should stay away from them, and if necessary, get a restraining order against them.

It may also be necessary to shun someone who is verbally abusive. No one should have to tolerate a person who continually insults them. Shunning is justified when it is for your own safety: to protect your physical or mental health.

The dark side of shunning is it can be a demonstration of hatred and contempt for another human being. If you shun someone, you may view them as inferior to you, morally or intellectually. In such cases, shunning is evidence of pride and self-righteousness.

When you shun someone you disagree with, you are unable to separate that person from their words or actions. The alternative to shunning is to love people unconditionally, to treat them as you would want to be treated, even if you disagree with what they say or do.

You don’t have to be close friends with a person whose actions or words you find objectionable. But if that person is no danger to you, and is not rude to you, then there is no reason to shun them. Instead, be brave enough to tell them the truth about their behavior. If you speak the right words, you could impact their life.

Notes

  1. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “shun,” accessed January 28, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shun
  2. Alex Ritman, “Ewan McGregor Cancels Appearance on Piers Morgan’s U.K. TV Show After Women’s March,” Hollywood Reporter, January 24, 2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ewan-mcgregor-cancels-appearance-piers-morgans-uk-tv-show-womens-march-comments-967925
  3. Ibid.
  4. Andy Lewis, “Roman Polanski Rape Victim Unveils Startling, Disturbing Photo for Book Cover,” Hollywood Reporter, July 24, 2013, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/roman-polanski-rape-victim-unveils-591015
  5. “The Slow Burning Polanski Sage,” BBC News, September 28, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8278256.stm
  6. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “double standard,” accessed January 28, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/double_standard

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The Sasquatch Who Spoke His Mind: A Fable

8584-911-call-bigfootMany years ago, in a forest in British Columbia, a Sasquatch lived alone in a cave. He was nine feet tall, covered from head to toe with long black hair, and because he ate too many berries, he weighed 500 pounds.

To try and lose weight, the Sasquatch stomped through the forest all day, and the more he stomped, the more paths he made.

The rabbits often left their droppings on the paths, and this made the Sasquatch mad. When he wasn’t looking, he would stomp on the droppings, and they got stuck in his hairy feet.

One morning, the Sasquatch was stomping through the forest when he saw a rabbit about to poop on the path. He stretched out his hand and yelled, “Stop! Don’t do that!”

“What’s your problem?!” the rabbit answered angrily. “I’m doing my business.”

The Sasquatch frowned. “You rabbits always poop on my paths. When I go to sleep at night, my feet stink.”

The rabbit turned up his nose. “You don’t own this forest. I can poop anywhere I want to.”

“Why can’t you do it under a tree?”

“Because when I gotta go, I go,” the rabbit said with sass. “And I gotta go right now!”

The Sasquatch stomped closer to the rabbit and pointed his finger. “Go poop behind that tree, you inconsiderate animal!”

“Please step back,” the rabbit said assertively. “You’re making me feel unsafe.”

The Sasquatch, realizing that he had been rude, immediately stepped back. Then the rabbit pooped on the path, and hopped away.

After his conflict with the rabbit, the Sasquatch felt stressed, and he needed a drink. So he walked further, and took another path that led to a stream. But when he reached the end, the stream was gone. It was now a beaver pond.

Seeing a beaver working on a new dam, he stomped across the dam to speak to him. He decided to take a friendly approach.

“Hello there!” the Sasquatch said with a smile.

The beaver had a scowl on his face. “What do you want?”

“I was here a week ago, and this was a stream with fresh water.”

“It was,” the beaver said, returning to his work. “But not anymore.” He packed mud on the dam and laid down more branches.

The Sasquatch took a deep breath, and tried to stay calm. “This creates a problem for me. When you build a dam, the water becomes stale, and I can’t drink it.”

“That’s your problem, not mine,” the beaver said abruptly. Then he slapped his tail in the mud, and splattered the Sasquatch’s hairy chest. “Go further downstream. You can drink all the fresh water you want.”

“But that’s a long way from my cave,” the Sasquatch said, wiping the mud from his chest. He decided to be firm and direct: “The truth is—you’re destroying the forest. You started with one dam, and now you have 13. You’re a greedy animal.”

The beaver exploded in anger. “Greedy?! I live in a mud house, and I freeze my tail off every winter! You’re rich compared to me. You have a cave and a fire to keep you warm at night.”

“Just because I have a nice cave doesn’t give you the right to flood miles and miles of the stream.”

“And you have no right to make endless trails that zigzag everywhere. You know what you are?”

“What?”

“A hypocrite!” Then the beaver slapped his tail several times in the water, and got the Sasquatch all wet.

The Sasquatch was so angry, he wanted to grab the beaver by the throat and strangle him. But he decided it would be better if he went back to his cave and meditated. Meditation helped him control his angry thoughts and violent impulses.

So he went back to his cave, pressed his palms together, crossed his legs and meditated. Then he became drowsy and fell into a deep sleep.

At midnight, the Sasquatch woke up to a loud noise. The wolves were having a party, and when wolves are having a good time, they howl.

“Not again!” the Sasquatch yelled. “I can’t take this anymore!”

He came out of his cave, and stomped through the forest until he found the pack of wolves. They were howling and eating fresh meat.

“Shut up!” the Sasquatch shouted. “Shut your big mouths!”

“What’s wrong with you?” the leader of the pack asked.

“You howl every single night and wake me up!”

The wolf grinned. “Some animals sleep in the day, and some sleep at night.” Then he turned to the wolf pack. “We were made for the night, weren’t we, boys?”

The wolf pack howled in agreement.

The Sasquatch paused, took a deep breath and said, “You need to be considerate of animals who sleep at night.”

“And you need to be considerate of animals who sleep in the day,” the wolf replied. “You often wake us up when you go stomping through the forest.”

The Sasquatch scoffed. “That’s ridiculous! I’m not that loud.”

“We can hear you from six miles away,” the wolf said. “Our ears are highly sensitive to noise.”

This conversation is going nowhere, the Sasquatch said to himself. He decided to warn the wolf.

“If you don’t stop howling, I’ll, I’ll…” And he tried to think what he might do.

The leader of the pack said, “Are you threatening us?” He turned to the wolf pack. “He’s threatening us, boys.”

The Sasquatch jumped up and down several times. “If you don’t stop howling, I’ll stomp up and down like this when you’re sleeping.” The Sasquatch had huge feet, the size of snowshoes.

One of the wolves shouted, “He’s going to murder us when we’re asleep! He’s planning a massacre.”

The Sasquatch pointed his finger at the wolf and yelled, “You lying animal! I never said that.”

Another wolf hollered, “He’s a monster!”

The Sasquatch was so mad, he roared, a roar so loud that all the wolves became quiet and lowered their tails in fear. Some of the wolves were trembling.

Realizing that he had lost control, the Sasquatch turned and stomped back to his cave. He sat down and tried to meditate, but he was too upset. However, the wolves were no longer howling, so he laid down and went to sleep.

The next day, the Sasquatch woke up at noon, and came out of his cave. He was surprised to see a dozen rabbits, six beavers, and the pack of wolves waiting for him.

“Did you come to apologize to me?” he asked them.

The rabbit that pooped on the path said, “We don’t want you in our forest anymore.”

“What?” the Sasquatch replied, taken aback. “Why?”

“Because you hate us,” the beaver from the dam said.

“I don’t hate you. You animals just do things that make me mad.”

“We’ve decided it is best for everyone if you leave,” the leader of the wolf pack declared.

“No!” the Sasquatch said. “I have just as much right to live here as the rest of you.”

“No one has the right to hate other animals,” the beaver said.

“Hate leads to violence against innocent rabbits,” the rabbit said, and the other rabbits nodded their heads in agreement.

The Sasquatch shook his head. “I never said I hated you! All I did was speak my mind. And everything I said was true.”

“You insulted us and hurt our feelings,” the rabbit cried. “You’re a really mean monster!” Then all the rabbits chomped their teeth at the Sasquatch.

The Sasquatch took a deep breath and sighed. “I know I can be blunt sometimes, but you’re not nice to me either.”

“You don’t belong here,” the beaver said. “You’re not even an animal. You’re a man-animal!” Then all the beavers chomped their teeth at the Sasquatch.

The Sasquatch crossed his arms and stomped one foot on the ground. “I’m not leaving!”

The wolf walked up to him and said, “If you don’t leave voluntarily, we will use force.”

The Sasquatch looked at all the animals. “Your actions are more offensive than my words. It’s not fair to banish me.”

The wolves started growling and howling, and they formed a circle around the Sasquatch. And so, fearing the wolves might make fresh meat out of him, he gathered his things from his cave, and left the forest.

And to this day, the Sasquatch is rarely seen or heard by anyone.


This story was published in The Donkey King and Other Stories