In Defense of Stigma.

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  • 03/02/2023

The idea of tolerance has played a central role in American history. Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans have recognized that a nation that prioritizes individual liberty would need to place a high value on tolerance. If citizens are given the freedom to pursue the ends they believe are most conducive to personal happiness and well-being, they are sure to conceive of their happiness and well-being in many different ways. Indeed, it was the religious and political intolerance experienced by many Europeans that led them to first seek refuge in the New World.

The modern American left, which has spent decades demanding acceptance of all individual choices, now requires explicit affirmation of all beliefs and behaviors, even those contrary to the traditional norms.

Contrary to the oft-repeated refrain that Americans are “intolerant,” we live in one of the most tolerant societies in the history of the world. Sure, we can point to instances when Americans or our government acted intolerantly in the past, but there is no serious disagreement today about whether tolerance is a good thing in a pluralistic society such as ours—on either end of the political spectrum.

Instead, the last fifty years in America (the “culture war”) has been an argument over what tolerance means, not the importance of tolerance. And if that argument has grown increasingly heated, it is because the public conception of tolerance has severely and irreconcilably splintered. This incongruence has a lot to do with how the left has come to understand this core American value.

Because of their continued devotion to Judeo-Christian heritage (at least, to a greater degree than their increasingly-secular progressive counterparts), and their reverence for the vision of liberty articulated in the founding documents of our nation, conservatives adhere to the traditional notion of tolerance—“the capacity to endure what is difficult or disagreeable without complaining.” By contrast, the left has come to insist that finding any personal choice to be disagreeable (regardless of your willingness to endure it on principal) is the very definition of intolerance. Their vision of a free, just society is one in which no one faces any negative consequence, direct or indirect, for any action undertaken in furtherance of individual happiness.

The modern American left, which has spent decades demanding acceptance of all individual choices, now requires explicit affirmation of all beliefs and behaviors, even those contrary to the traditional norms.

[caption id="attachment_182720" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Extinction Rebellion climate change protest. Extinction Rebellion climate change protest.[/caption]


Although there is no denying the maniacal fervor of the left’s current crusade against “intolerance,” their revolution was underway as early as the middle of the 19th century. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (a “liberal” in the purest sense through his uncompromising elevation of the autonomous self over the collective) writes:

“Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough [to secure individual liberty]; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”

Most Americans today would agree that the government (“the magistrate”) should neither legislate a particular form of moral life nor impose legal penalties for falling short of that ideal. But Mill goes a step further. He suggests that “the prevailing opinion and feeling” must be “protected” against, arguing that the opinions of others—especially the general mores of society at large—represent such a barrier to individual liberty that a good government must devise a means for containing or restricting those opinions and feelings. Mill effectively argues against stigma and its power to induce conformity to the traditions, expectations, and values of the collective.

In the 1960s, cultural elites and intellectuals began reimagining cultural values as internally-derived expressions of personal sensibility rather than externally-formed standards that were binding for all members of society. By the 1990s, this project had moved from the fringe to occupying the central spot in the national conversation. Higher education was uniquely susceptible to this idea, in part because of the influx of European thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and other members and acolytes of the Frankfurt School who saw the universities as the staging area for a broader leftist revolution in society at large.

In a much-celebrated essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” NYU Professor Mary Louise Pratt argued that mere toleration was insufficient for bringing about a just society. The piece was published in the flagship journal of the Modern Language Association—a resounding endorsement of Pratt’s plan for reinventing higher education. She writes:

“In universities we started to hear, ‘I don’t just want you to let me be here, I want to belong here; this institution should belong to me as much as it does to anyone else.’ Institutions have responded with, among other things, rhetorics of diversity and multiculturalism whose import at this moment is up for grabs across the ideological spectrum.”

From the perspective of 2020, it is clear that these “rhetorics of diversity and multiculturalism” were an enormous ideological achievement. They were the very instruments that frayed the bonds of national unity that now threaten to snap. Today, the left appears to have one goal: the elimination of stigma—any and all of it.

[caption id="attachment_182719" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]"Slut walks" protest. "Slut walks" protest.[/caption]


Stigma is nothing more than the use of informal communication and interaction to incentivize adherence to communal norms and values. It is indirectly and passively applied to individuals who deviate from those norms. And while it’s certainly true that people can be unfairly stigmatized, stigma also plays a critical role in the maintenance of civil society.

The destruction of stigma is a precondition of this view of liberal freedom. And our Jacobins find stigma everywhere.

American culture is a set of shared traditions, values, routines, rituals, and beliefs. The widespread dissemination of national cultural identity doesn’t happen organically in a democracy of 350,000,000 people; there needs to be external mechanisms to induce this cooperation. But in a society that seeks to ensure individual liberty through limited government, the state cannot serve as the means to achieve this cooperation. If this cultural cooperation is to be achieved, it must happen in and through the natural interactions of citizens. Collectively, they negotiate norms, which in turn ensure the stability and function of society. If we take political measures to limit the power of public opinion, there is no way to induce this cooperation. Taken to its logical end, then, the destruction of stigma would mean the destruction of American culture itself.

And the left now stands poised to realize that vision of radical autonomy in the United States. They call themselves “countercultural,” and it’s an apt description. The left’s counterculture is against culture itself. Not against our culture, or a specific culture, but against the idea of culture generally. From the left perspective, culture is coercive, and that coercion is a form of violence (except, one supposes, when applied to those dissenting from leftist principles). The dominant beliefs of society are seen as a form of intolerance that limits the ability of the individual to live freely and authentically. Thus, for the left, culture must be destroyed in the name of liberation—and the monuments most topple.

The destruction of stigma is a precondition of this view of liberal freedom. And our Jacobins find stigma everywhere. Remember the stigma that used to be attached to premarital cohabitation? Having children out of wedlock? Receiving public assistance? Divorce? All eliminated via victories in the left’s war on stigma.

This strategy of building political platforms around individual stigma is very much alive today. Transgender people are stigmatized. So the Supreme Court took a major step last month to address that stigma, a decision that amounts to a judicial means to revise public opinion in slow motion. Illegal immigrants are stigmatized—how else are we to explain their purported difficulties in procuring student loans, employment, housing, and drivers’ licenses? Plus, the predominance of English in public life stigmatizes those who can’t speak it. Fortunately, the Court’s (logically inscrutable) upholding of DACA will work to mitigate the stigma faced by some.

It’s not just anti-stigma legislation—it’s also the left’s own political rhetoric and messaging. Pro-choice activists replaced “safe, legal, and rare” with “Shout Your Abortion.” Correctly (as the Supreme Court also showed in June), they recognized that the real threat to abortion-on-demand isn’t any legislative maneuvering at the state level. Instead, these activists identify the threat as whatever stigma remains as a result of an aborted pregnancy. The new slogan aims at dissolving that stigma.

And who can forget the tsk-tsking rants against “slut-shaming”? A valiant effort to abolish whatever stigma is left regarding casual sex in the age of Tinder. Fat-shaming? Same deal. Tone-shaming? It’s the stigma, stupid.

Stigma has become the central barrier to the left’s notion of liberty. To them, what liberation means is a wholly self-determined life built for the satisfaction of personal desire—and it is critical that this way of life is both recognized and affirmed by the larger society. To withhold affirmation poses the individual with an intolerable choice: conform to externally-imposed standards for living or face some passive social sanctioning (stigma). Your silence is violence.

As Irving Goffman notes in his book Stigma, “Shame becomes a central possibility” when the individual faces stigma. Shame—experienced internally—might deter the individual from living a wholly self-determined life. Thus, from the left perspective, stigma and the shame it induces are barriers to liberation. Ultimately, the destruction of stigma (thus inaugurating a shameless society, literally and figuratively) is a prerequisite to fulfilling the promises of American democracy.

[caption id="attachment_182718" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Evergreen College student anti-fascist militia. Evergreen College student antifa militia.[/caption]


As American culture moves through very dangerous waters this summer, it is important to understand the questions that underlie all of our turmoil: do we want a society? Do we want a culture? And if so, how can that society be a free one when toleration can only be understood as permissive affirmation of each person’s desire and subjective experience?

To be sure, stigma can be justified or unjustified—a healthy, free society will debate those issues.

In extreme cases, stigma can have profoundly negative consequences for an individual’s well-being. But we must recognize that American stigma is simply tacit disapproval, usually unstated and indirect. We aren’t forcing adulterers to wear scarlet letters. We don’t have honor killings to enforce tradition. And we should also recognize that the historical purpose of stigma has been to ensure the integrity of a given culture and its transmission. In other words, civilization has long recognized that the costs of stigma on the individual level are outweighed by its role in maintaining a stable, enduring culture for the collective. This cultural stability is also integral to securing personal happiness—the very cause that progressives claim to advance through their destruction of stigma.

To be sure, stigma can be justified or unjustified—a healthy, free society will debate those issues. But our current impasse over tolerance is not the result of a vigorous debate on which norms our culture will continue to encourage. It is a debate on whether we should even have norms. And the modern progressive left, at its core, is opposed to norms.

This is one of the reasons the left works so exhaustively to encourage individuals to view the grounds of their stigmatization as the core attribute of their identities. You can see this in the media’s concern for “single mothers,” “sex workers,” “the differently-abled” and the like. By the early ‘60s, Goffman had already observed that “in America […], no matter how small and how badly off a particular stigmatized category is, the viewpoint of its members is likely to be given public presentation of some kind. […] An intellectually worked-up version of their point of view is thus available to most stigmatized persons.”

Over the past few months and years, it seems Mill’s vision is being realized. Bit by bit, our courts, corporations, media, and institutions advance the cause of neutralizing public opinion to maintain cultural norms. Where possible, they don’t merely neutralize it—they dictate new opinions to which everyone must bend the knee (or face an entirely new stigma).

It should be obvious that a society without stigma is a society without norms, and a society without norms? That’s not a society at all.

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