Bring Back Stigma

ROGER SCRUTON

It is now orthodox to regard social stigma as a form of oppression, to be discarded on our collective quest for inner freedom. But the political philosophers and novelists of former times 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. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts. That is why the moralists of the eighteenth century, for example, rarely touched upon murder, theft, rape, or criminal deception; instead, they were passionately interested in the small-scale mores on which social order depends and which, properly adhered to, make such crimes unthinkable.

Stigma has evaporated in our era, 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, 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. For although the law impinges far more on their lives, they experience it as an external force with no real moral authority. In addition, the law increasingly distinguishes the "public" realm, where it is the sole objective authority, from the "private" realm, where it cannot intrude, leaving the private realm less and less regulated, despite the fact that it contains most of the matters on which the future of society depends: sexual conduct, the rearing of children, honest dealing, and self-respect.

Moreover, there is no evidence that the law can really compensate for the loss of social sanctions. The law combats crime not by eliminating criminal schemes but by increasing the risk 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, therefore, is a key cause of the constant increase in the number and severity of crimes.


Sex is the bond of society and also the force that explodes it. Properly managed, sexual feelings lead to lasting marriages, stable families, children with vigilant parents, and the handing down from generation to generation of the precious store of social capital.


Half a century ago, anthropologist Ruth Benedict famously distinguished societies according to whether their citizens' inner lives were governed by shame or by guilt, the first directed outward to society, the second directed inward to the self. But this is a distinction without a difference, guilt being simply the inner residue of shame. Guilt is a learned response — an internalization of the disapproval, anger, and ostracism that parents, teachers, and neighbors direct toward the unruly child to mold his conscience. Guilt exists therefore only where people fear adverse judgment. The evidence from modern societies suggests that, where the community ceases to respond to moral faults with public sanctions, individuals cease to feel guilty about them, and conscience weakens. If we wish for inner sanctions to exist, we must back them up with sanctions of a more public and outward-going kind. Moral norms, generated collectively, must also be collectively imposed.

Sexual morality provides a particularly clear and important case in point. Sex is the bond of society and also the force that explodes it. Properly managed, sexual feelings lead to lasting marriages, stable families, children with vigilant parents, and the handing down from generation to generation of the precious store of social capital. Mismanaged, they lead to a society — perhaps one should say "society" — of casual encounters, jealousies, and aggressions, in which there are neither lasting commitments nor sacrifices on behalf of children.

Society makes sexual behavior a matter of conscience, thus regulating it more effectively. And this moralization of sexual feeling also transforms it, creating feelings which are not only uniquely human but vital to our happiness. Erotic love, in contrast with animal lust, requires distance and the overcoming of distance by passion. This distance does not exist in a society where sexual release is obtainable anywhere and from anyone without the penalty of guilt or shame, enforced through stigma and ostracism. By imbuing sexual feelings with psychological sanctions, traditional societies ensured that they were controlled by the person who feels them. As a result, sexual feelings were integrated into moral character, not governed from outside by laws and regulations, but from inside by the will. This inward control set people at a distance from one another; it also made them safe to one another by ensuring that sexual advances were not just smash-and-grab raids aimed at the goods in the window but the first steps toward love and commitment. Take this inner control away, and what was previously a source of social cohesion becomes the cause of social decay.

Long ago, societies recognized that they could not make adultery or out-of-wedlock childbearing into crimes without opening the way to intolerable injustices; Christ himself took the first step toward decriminalization when he ironically invited anyone who was without sin to begin stoning the woman accused of adultery. Nevertheless, even as the law withdrew from these areas, the moral code remained, and communities were able to protect themselves from the sexual excesses that threatened their existence by stigmatizing those who indulged in them. Take away the stigma, and we are left with no socially accepted means for enforcing sexual morality.

This loss is especially significant now, as we begin to wake up to the damage that the collapse of marriage has inflicted on society. The stable, two-parent family no longer seems an eccentricity or a peculiarity of "bourgeois" society. Increasingly, we acknowledge it as the institution that secured the stability, harmony, and prosperity of Western societies and that enabled one generation to bequeath its culture and institutions to the next. Marriage was kept in place not by law but by stigma, which ensured that most babies, even if not conceived in wedlock, were at least born in it, thus enjoying the social acceptance and the parental nurture that children need if they are to grow up to be secure and decent citizens.


Marriage was kept in place not by law but by stigma, which ensured that most babies, even if not conceived in wedlock, were at least born in it, thus enjoying the social acceptance and the parental nurture that children need if they are to grow up to be secure and decent citizens.


Of course, the stigmatization of illegitimacy had cruel side effects — not least upon the children ridiculed as "bastards." My grandfather was one of them, and the stigma ensured that, like Richard III, he came into the world "determined to prove a villain" — a determination he amply fulfilled. But as James Q. Wilson and others have shown, the removal of illegitimacy's stigma, however kindly intended, has done nothing to improve the character and prospects of illegitimate children. Statistical studies of American prisoners, for example, show that illegitimacy is by far the most important factor in disposing children to a life of crime — more significant than IQ, race, culture, or any other factor investigated by the criminologists. The function of the stigma was to prevent people from reproducing in socially destructive ways. With stigma gone, more and more children are now born out of wedlock; and welfare support to single mothers makes it economically advantageous for young women to take this shortcut to reproductive success. This is a catastrophe in today's inner cities; in Britain, it will be a still bigger catastrophe in 20 years' time, when children born in wedlock will be in the minority.

The case is not very different with adultery. People of my parents' generation would not publicly confess to this transgression; if they committed it, they did so in secret. Known adulterers were the subject of malicious gossip, and never would they flaunt their passion in public. Politicians could still be shamed, and their careers ruined, if their adulterous liaisons came to light. Today, however, someone invited to a dinner party with his wife might turn up instead with his mistress — even a mistress whom nobody yet knows — without precipitating anything more than mild curiosity.

The effect on marriage is evident. In Britain, as in America, nearly half of all marriages now embarked on will end in divorce, and in the kind of polite society inhabited by our urban elite, marriage has no more legitimacy and invites no greater public respect than a casual liaison. Official documents have been revised to put "partner" in the place of "spouse," removing marriage from its privileged position in the official culture. Marriage is no longer the socially accepted norm marking the true conclusion of sexual development, but an individual choice, the business of no one save the couple who embark on it.

Hence no shame now attaches to divorce. Serial polygamy is the norm among successful men, and those who lose out from this state of affairs — the women and children whom they abandon — have been deprived of their most important protection, which was the social penalties suffered by the malefactor. Our society lavishes much sentimental sympathy on imaginary victims, whose feckless behavior is the real cause of their misfortune, but it is utterly indifferent to the real victims, such as illegitimate or abandoned children, whose misfortune results from its own refusal to cast judgment on the wrongdoers.

Transgressions were not neatly divided into offenses in law, to be dealt with only by the law, and offenses to propriety, to be dealt with by social rebuke. Some forms of behavior — dishonesty, for example — came into both categories and could be effectively controlled only by a combination of punishment and social rejection. And the convicted criminal was invariably shamed for his behavior and either ostracized or required to live in a state of penance. This made sense, since the real purpose of shaming is not to punish crimes but to create the kind of people who don't commit them. The criminal therefore had to be held up as an example from which the rest of society could learn.


This made sense, since the real purpose of shaming is not to punish crimes but to create the kind of people who don't commit them.


But stigma is now retreating even from crime. Convicted thieves and burglars are no longer automatically excluded from social gatherings. Indeed, some (such as the English criminal Howard Marks) have acquired kudos from writing about their "hot-headed youth" and the jolly times they had as drug dealers, robbers, or burglars. And if the crime can be represented as an assault on the institutions of bourgeois society, rehabilitation is all the more easy to obtain. A case in point is Nick Leeson, an employee of Baring's Bank (itself a symbol of the old dignity and probity of the City of London) who deceptively squandered the funds entrusted to him and as a result destroyed this venerable institution and the many lives that depended on it. After serving time in a Singapore jail, Leeson returned to England to become a media star, giving interviews and writing articles, enjoying his moment of celebrity and being handsomely paid for it. Even violent criminals, provided they have "done their time" and so have "paid their debt to society," can enjoy a hero's welcome when they travel to foreign parts, as did rapist Mike Tyson on his recent visit to Britain.

In Britain, the leading charity devoted to the treatment of criminals is called the "National Society for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders." Its purpose is to make punishment the prerogative of the state and to neutralize the desire of society to provide supplementary punishments of its own. Not "criminals" but "offenders"; not "punishment" but "care" and "rehabilitation" — or, to use the British PC expression, "social inclusion." No stigma should attach to the criminal on account of his crime: the law punishes him according to its neutral and objective calculus. Our only role thereafter is to forgive and forget, to "rehabilitate," on the assumption that the debt has been paid. And by thinking of crime in this way, you vastly increase its likelihood, since you remove the real motive for good behavior, which is the fear of judgment. When the response to the criminal is not rebuke but rehabilitation, crime is de-moralized, voided of blame, to become a market in which deeds are judged by their price, not their value. The price of rape is seven years; and when the price is paid, you are back, like Mike Tyson, on display.

We think of the assault on stigma as beginning with the great dramas of Protestant guilt — with Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, say, or Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman — but it is already there in the Enlightenment emphasis on individual freedom as the goal of social life and in the Romantic conception of the social outsider. The Romantic imagination identifies spontaneously (as in Goethe's Faust) with the one who departs from convention or is condemned and cast out by those who enjoy the safety of unquestioned routines. This romanticization of the outcast became routinized in modern literature, and "Mrs. Grundy," the rigid upholder of proprieties in the face of life's need to escape them, became a proverbial object of scorn — along with the proprieties themselves, whose importance to society came increasingly to be forgotten.


To the modern, post-romantic imagination, therefore, the disposition to maintain social norms through stigma and shame seems abhorrent, a form of bad behavior rather than a cure for it.


To the modern, post-romantic imagination, therefore, the disposition to maintain social norms through stigma and shame seems abhorrent, 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, casting off its Puritan inheritance as something shameful — a novel cause for shame. The twentieth-century war on guilt has hastened this process. Thanks in part to the misreading and vulgarization of Freud by those who saw "repression" as an evil and "liberation" as the cure for it, and in part to the existentialist belief in "authenticity" and "good faith," guilt came to be seen as a negative force, a source of suffering with no compensating benefits.

Many theorists pressed toward this conclusion. Freud's pupil Wilhelm Reich, for example, attacked the "patriarchal family" as the source of sexual repression and of the deformation of the individual libido — as if sexual repression were an unquestionably bad thing. His Function of the Orgasm offered to liberate our sexual urges by providing them with a simple and morally neutral goal — not love or commitment or procreation or family, but a brief spasm of the flesh. Herbert Marcuse peddled the same wares in the language of Marxist humanism, while Sartre developed a whole theology of liberation, designed to portray conventional society, its norms and sanctions and conventions, as the source of all that is evil, all that prevents us from flowering in our freedom and enjoying the fruits of authentic choice. The greatest sin, for Sartre, was "bad faith" — obedience to an authority external to the self. Bad faith was the voice of the Other, and the principal enemy of human freedom is the right-thinking, law-abiding, and mutually vigilant community.

The attack on guilt involves a corresponding denial of shame. If we are not to feel guilty about our sexual adventures, for example, then we cannot feel ashamed of them either. Moreover, any attempt to shame us, to hold us up to scorn or contempt for our seductions, orgies, and excesses, is an act of oppression, a negation of our fundamental rights. Henceforth, it was assumed, we are to regard the antics of our neighbors as entirely their own concern, no more to be criticized or ridiculed than the contents of their shopping carts as they reach the supermarket cash register. In the sexual sphere, as in the sphere of commodities, the only binding law is the law of the market.

The odd result of this movement to reject stigma, however, 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" — all labels that can damage a professional career. Stigma floats free in the anarchic world of individualist life-styles, ready to attach itself to anyone who stands up for self-restraint.


The odd result of this movement to reject stigma, however, 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.


It is in this context that we should understand political correctness. The new kind of stigma creates a new kind of fear. Political correctness is not a morality in the traditional sense: it does not require you to change your life, to make sacrifices, or to live by an exacting code of conduct. It tells you to watch your language, so as to avoid the only prevalent adverse judgment, which is judgment of the adverse judge. It tells you to speak inclusively of other cultures, other life-styles, other values: never take a disapproving stance or use words that might imply one. Hence the extreme volatility of the new speech codes. Any phrase or idiom that seems to imply judgment of another category or class of people can become, almost overnight, an object of stigma.

Unlike the old forms of stigma, however, whose function was to bind a community together and to seal each member into the common fate, this new form of stigma has precisely the opposite aim: to permit social fragmentation. The talk of "social inclusion" is a mask for the reverse. Political correctness does not seek to include the Other in "our" community but to accept his otherness and allow him to live outside. In effect, it is attempting to create a society of strangers, each pursuing his own gratification in his own freely chosen way, and none answerable for what he does to anyone but himself. Of course, there are limits: those activities that directly threaten life, limb, and property are still forbidden. But they are forbidden by law rather than morality. Moral codes, it is assumed, are ineffective and in any case of only "subjective" force. Insofar as we should have an attitude to the criminal, it too is one based on the attempt to "include" him, despite his error.

There is, however, one great exception to this attitude, and it goes to the heart of our moral nature. This exception is pedophilia. Britons have been up in arms for months over the case of Sarah Payne, an eight-year-old who was abducted, sexually abused, and murdered in June of this year. Sarah was, in her way, a perfect symbol of the old moral order — an innocent child of loving parents, brought up in a traditional family. The shattered faces of her mother and father on TV awoke in everyone not merely sympathy for their suffering but a confused awareness that they are martyrs. They represent the old moral code — and the world it once nurtured — in a society that no longer endorses it. They brought children into a world that no longer believes in childhood — that increasingly connives at the sexualization of children and allows them to set their own agendas, to adore their own idols, and to indulge their own simulacrum of desire. The pedophile is the one who has taken advantage of this situation, which no one has had the moral courage to prevent.

Of course, Sarah was murdered, and even in a shame-free culture, murder is a crime. But everyone knows that Sarah was murdered because she was the object of someone's lust, and that this lust is being normalized. Children in Britain, as in America, are compelled to attend "health education" classes in which they experiment with condoms; a British charity has just issued a guide to sex for children, entitled Say Yes, Say No, Say Maybe and explaining the various positions and excitements of intercourse; doctors prescribe contraceptive pills to underage girls and so make themselves accessories to what is officially a crime; the BBC broadcasts obscene and provocative films on television during hours when children are sure to be watching; children are represented in advertisements in alluring and provocative poses; and children's magazines are devoted to virtually no topic other than boyfriends and girlfriends.

Distress over the Sarah Payne case has led to an interesting development. The names of all convicted pedophiles in Britain are added to a register, so that schools, youth clubs, and others who might consider employing them can obtain notice in advance of the danger. Convicted pedophiles invariably leave the scenes of their crimes, knowing that their presence will not be tolerated there. And their attempts to start a new life are, in general, encouraged by the police. Since the Sarah Payne case, however, the Sunday News of the World has obtained a copy of the pedophile register and has printed the names, photographs, and addresses of those listed in it, together with details of their crimes. The police objected, seeing this as an invitation to criminal assault or worse. But for some weeks, the paper continued its regular Sunday feature, profiting from the enormous public appetite for these details, now that the long-dormant desire to stigmatize has reawakened. Very soon, people named in its pages — some of them in error — were fleeing from their homes, while vociferous crowds gathered outside to abuse, threaten, and assault them. One committed suicide; the police have relocated others at great public expense.

The case is additionally interesting in that the News of the World owes its readership to an undiluted diet of salacious stories of the kind retailed in school playgrounds, in which underwear and private parts feature prominently, often described in the language of schoolchildren. It also carries pictures of topless teenage girls who are, if not physically, at any rate mentally and morally children. The newspaper has tried to profit from the desire to stigmatize the thing that it also profits from by provoking.

The hysteria over pedophilia is indicative of a society that has come to the brink of self-destruction and stands there accusing the void. People reach for their old certainties: words like "pervert" and "perversion" suddenly seem right to them; they look round for the culprit with a view to shaming, humiliating, and ostracizing him. And they recognize the vastness of the evil that is around them and within them, an evil they only imperfectly confess to.


The confrontation between parents and pedophiles is a last-ditch battle on behalf of the old sexual morality, a final attempt to salvage the process whereby societies reproduce themselves not only physically but also morally. It is the most serious proof on offer that modern adults are still animated by the will to produce children who are objects of love, and not fodder for appetite.


The confrontation between parents and pedophiles is a last-ditch battle on behalf of the old sexual morality, a final attempt to salvage the process whereby societies reproduce themselves not only physically but also morally. It is the most serious proof on offer that modern adults are still animated by the will to produce children who are objects of love, and not fodder for appetite. Were political correctness to become the norm in this area too — as well it might, when the newly fashionable "rights of children" are extended to guarantee a right of sexual privacy, and when the British government succeeds in lowering the age of consent to homosexual sex to 16, an age when children are still compelled to go to school — then the "society of strangers" would at last be a reality. "Social inclusion" would mean social atomization, with no one caring a fig for others' behavior, provided only that he is not directly threatened by it, and with no one doing anything to ensure that the benefits and burdens of civilization are passed on.

Of course, we haven't reached that stage. Nevertheless, the permitted forms of stigmatization are dwindling. We know 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 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.

As for the liberal intelligentsia, it seems to be unable to perceive the threat and blames every increase in social entropy on those who seek to contain it. Indeed, there seems to be a prevailing opinion among our elites that sexual mores are no longer a matter of public concern, that it is irrelevant to society that people should saturate their senses and their thoughts with violent, pornographic, or perverted images, and that, in any case, children will still be born, still grow up, still enjoy their years of innocence, still walk to school with their satchels on their backs and come home in the evening to Alice in Wonderland or at any rate Calvin and Hobbes. But this complacent belief is patently false: so bad are things in Britain that it is now a criminal offense to allow your child to walk unaccompanied on country lanes, and no parents in their right minds would allow their children out in the evenings even in a populous neighborhood — especially in a populous neighborhood.

The dwindling of stigma inevitably means that the task of social control is bequeathed to the state. The state has therefore become the guardian of social order. But this has happened at the very moment when the state sees no remedy for social ills besides "compassion," meaning the habit of subsidizing malefactors. The state no longer represents normal bourgeois society, its conventions and proprieties. Instead, it has become subversive of those things, devoted to monopolizing all moral sanctions while at the same time voiding them of their force. Punishments are ever lighter, excuses ever more acceptable, and all opportunities to condemn or judge are smothered by a haze of political correctness.

To reproach your neighbor is to risk his goodwill; to uphold convention is to expose yourself to mockery from the liberated. And yet the good of society may require that ordinary people take these risks — risks that require courage, justice, and even a touch of humility if they are to be successfully managed. Modern literature has not often sung the heroism of the conventional conscience. But that heroism was sung beautifully by the Greeks, both in the choruses to the tragedies and in characters, such as Creon in the Antigone of Sophocles, who try to keep the ship of state afloat despite the passionate transgressions of its citizens. There is nothing that will serve us better than this old kind of heroism — the heroism of disapproval, whereby people risk condemnation for condemnation's sake. Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about our neighbors' lives and actions. It expresses the consciousness of other people, the desire for their good opinion, and the impetus to uphold the social norms that make judgment possible. It is the outward expression of an inner orderliness — and a declaration of faith in human nature.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Roger Scruton. "Bring Back Stigma." City Journal (Autumn, 2000).

This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton and City Journal. See his web site here.

THE AUTHOR

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England and is currently visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London. Mr. Scruton has published more than 20 books including, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and most recently Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life.

Copyright 2005 Roger Scruton


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