Consider Best Practice Instead of Stigma…

04.20.2013, 10:22 AM

I watched and live-tweeted our recent Conversation with Professor Lawrence Mead, and like many of you, I really enjoyed it.  I have been mentally chewing on much that was shared including loosely following the discussion concerning society’s use of stigma here.  I too was interested to hear what Mead had to say on revitalizing the use of stigma to decrease the rate of unwed pregnancy since he first mentioned this strategy in our Family Scholars Valentine’s Day Symposium.

I tend to shy away from using the word “stigma” for many of the reasons that have arisen in the conversation here—I find that stigma slips into extreme shunning and shaming too easily.  My thoughts on the use of discipline to maximize the attainment of a perfect state began many years ago as I critiqued the ballet profession from which I came in its use of shunning and shaming for the sake of aesthetic perfection.  Public weekly weigh-ins, receiving production notes of critique publicly, and a profession where your body is both your asset and your liability that is hired and invested in, can lead both to thick-skinned individuals with a strong work ethic and to eating disorders, depression, and acid being thrown in your face as we saw earlier this year with the Bolshoi Ballet drama.  I asked and continue to ask, “Is there a better way?”  For art forms or sports that demand a relinquishing of self to the demands of a coach, does shunning and shaming always play a role?

My Mennonite colleagues helped me greatly in asking these questions (we’ve talked about the book Amish Grace and forgiveness here previously) from the perspective of a faith community.  And they helped me see that stigma historically, and I see shaming and shunning as one method we use to enforce stigma, has been important for groups who must maintain group identity when surrounded by groups with conflicting values that could infiltrate, contaminate, or jeopardize the “chosen” community.  So, for ballet, an art form that is passed down orally and visually through masters to students, maintaining the integrity of the exacting vocabulary of the art form becomes necessary.  Is shaming and shunning worth it?  Where do we draw the line?  I continue to ask these questions.  Because “being married” is not a “chosen community” whose character, lifestyle, religious beliefs, etc. need to be preserved, I wrestle with the use of stigma.

Instead of stigma, I think about the term “best practice” as a better concept to consider than stigma as a motivator for human behavior. (I first played with using this term in the conversation with me and Peter Steinfels) I learned of this term in hospice management and it’s of course a commonly used term in business practice as a way of talking about those companies or organizations that maximize return on investment (ROI) with close cost analysis of their assets and liabilities including market environment, people capital, and organization mission and values.  Now, our CFO would often roll his eyes at me when I would wax philosophical about these terms, but we can!  When we talk about the goods of marriage or the goods of well-paying jobs, etc., we are wrestling with ways of saying that individuals, family systems, and society as a whole is trying to define best practice for all—to find ways to maximize our personal and communal investment in people (financial, educational, medicinal, etc.) in ways that takes into consideration their current level of assets (character, mental ability, emotional maturity, drive, etc.) and liabilities (character, mental ability, emotional maturity, drive, etc.), their market environment (location matters!), their life personnel (family, spouse, ex-spouse, boy/girlfriends, friends…), and their general life mission and values.

Now, I realize that I am being my liberal self in thinking that we need to redefine terms, but I do wonder how the concept of best practice relates to how Mead is thinking of stigma’s role in motivating the attainment of a societal good.


18 Responses to “Consider Best Practice Instead of Stigma…”

  1. Diane M says:

    I like the idea of best practices. I would prefer a term that sounded less cold and clinical. I focus on language a lot and if you want to encourage people to marry, you need something that sounds encouraging.

    One thing that the idea of best practices allows for is exceptions. It might, for example, but a best practice to marry before you have children, but not a best practice for two high school students to marry because they have made a baby.

  2. Rhonda says:

    Make people want marriage, and to wait until marriage for children. Best practice is a good idea. Make a good marriage and safe sex attainable goals.
    Educate our youth about sex, stop fearing it. The more something is hidden from a youth, the more that youth will want it because it must be something for adults.
    Show youths that marriage is something to strive for, not a prison sentence or a cheap shirt to toss away when it’s not comfortable or has lost it’s shine.
    How can we make marriage more inviting? I don’t know. Stop elevating those with serial marriages, start elevating those who have stayed married, who have worked out their problems together.

  3. Diane M says:

    I’ve been thinking about whether the term “social pressure” is a good one.

  4. Scott says:

    Agree, “stigma” has been successfully stigmatized. On the other hand, so has racism and bigotry. They certainly exist, but the public comes down extremely hard on hints of bigotry toward certain groups. People lose careers for a slip of the tongue. Shows there is power to it, but there are downsides as well. I think focusing on the positive can only take one so far. Many things that have negative social consequences are too immediately reinforcing to just ignore. But, nobody wants to be the bad guy these days, myself included. I applaud our more sensitive culture, and I bemoan it at the same time.

  5. Diane M says:

    @Scott – So in the case of having children before marriage, how would you focus on the negative? What exactly would you advocate?

  6. Teresa says:

    Diane, I’m going to jump in here on your question to Scott, because you asked me a similar one on a Post now closed to comments.

    You want specifics: first, the NYC Posters are specific. And, whether persons want to see them as stigmatizing, that’s their choice. It’s a great first step. Go with these Posters, and more … run ads on Facebook, on Google, on MySpace that’s the new world community. Get peers who have children-out-of-wedlock to speak up, as they do on the links of the website for the NYC Posters. Get the media involved through movies, TV shows with plots that are uplifting for marriage, for waiting for marriage, for getting that high school diploma, for being the actor in one’s own life … for showing how difficult having a child-out-of-wedlock can be, how limiting to even a small possibility to lift oneself up.

    Frankly, I’m baffled by the resistance to change any of this. Besides, jobs, which I’ve indicated is not the answer, really … is the only solution given. Sure, jobs, help. But, in the Great Depression, many, many persons did not have jobs; but, they weren’t conceiving children-out-of-wedlock. That would have definitely made life worse for the these people, but somehow they knew that. They weren’t conceiving a baby, because it would somehow make them feel better about themselves.

    The answer keeps coming from some persons … “it won’t work”. Quite frankly, until it’s tried, getting better in the trying, seeking all avenues for the message: no one can say “it won’t work”. That’s a defeatist attitude.

    The solution lies at our fingertips. It’s our own resolve to use the means at hand. Why would we want to deprive the poor of any possibility of independence, of making things better, of waiting for marriage … of having men involved, so sadly lacking today?

  7. Teresa says:

    Adding to my comment above, and the difference of 2 Great Depressions. First, in the 30′s there were no government subsidies, for anything. These people knew, by starving themselves (and I have personal family history to attest to this statement) that one more mouth to feed was disaster.

    Now, there’s something different in the mix, and that is Government Assistance in a variety of ways, which you’re all aware of. Now there isn’t the hard, painful fact that 2 people will be starving, and what would that look like. There’s some painful consequences, a real wakeup call.

    Do we want to add some ‘bite’ to a specific: make the Churches of America pick up half of this Government Assistance. Tell these Churches they’re now responsible for teaching, reaching, and preaching to those involved … and, that they must pick up the shortfall monetarily. I’m betting that the Churches, within weeks, would find very creative ways to change this dynamic.

    If we want to continue doing what we’re doing, and expecting different results: well, we all know the definition of that. I get the impression that some of us here want just that.

  8. La Lubu says:

    Teresa, you are aware that during the Great Depression, the abortion rate surged, right? That abortion was responsible for 42% of maternal deaths? That hospitals had “abortion wards”?

    There is no disagreement anywhere that teens should postpone pregnancy and get a high school diploma, that they should use effective birth control, and that in the event that they do get pregnant and keep their baby, they should do whatever it takes and stay in school. Teens themselves agree, so the teen pregnancy rate has been and still is dropping. The unmarried pregnancy rate that you are concerned about is happening among adult women.

  9. La Lubu says:

    Teresa….setting aside the fact that churches have no public role to play in non-theocracies and that the government has no power to order churches to take on government responsibilities…..I’m really mystified at the idea that you oppose a focus on jobs but support a focus on charity. Most people would prefer a job to charity. I’m also surprised that you don’t seem to recognize that churches have already played a role in increasing the rate of unmarried pregnancies by organizing to pass laws making abortion more difficult to access and shutting down abortion clinics.

    FWIW, churches don’t do a very good job of teaching their own members (ex.: the over 90% of Catholic women who use artificial means of birth control). You really think churches are going to have an impact on people who disagree more broadly with their tenets?

  10. Teresa says:

    La Lubu, are you aware that having a society with 2 abortions when there was only 1 the year before is a big surge in abortions … 100%. I’m pro-life and not advocating abortion by any means, but statistics are meaningless unless placed in context: lies, damned lies, and statistics as the old saying goes.

    Adult women means 18 and over, I’m assuming. Why quibble necessarily about age? I’m advocating NYC Posters, Facebook, Google, TV, Movies … whatever, ads that show that having a child-out-of-wedlock can make life more difficult than it already is, for everybody. Every Government dollar spent on subsidizing an out-of-wedlock child, is one less dollar for VA Benefits, Social Security, Medicare … people who are in desperate need of dollars.

    People are creative. Ad agencies depend upon creativity for their life blood. Get these people involved to minimize the stigma, and heighten the advantages.

    Get the Churches involved with all their media outlets. Make them accountable in some way to change things. Make them walk the talk. Make them put their money where their mouth is.

  11. La Lubu says:

    Teresa, single mothers by and large are raising their (our) children with their (our) earned income—wages. Not “government dollars”. Want fewer “government dollars” going to “subsidize” the children of unmarried parents? Then the solution is JOBS. Good wages, good benefits, a full workweek and job stability.

  12. Diane M says:

    Teresa, the kind of publicity campaign you are talking about is something I could support. It is not cruel or over the top.

    We have a long precedent in our country for publicity campaigns aimed at changing behavior.

    We tell people who are addicted to tobacco that smoking kills them, looks ugly, and harms the people around them. We tried to combat pro-smoking ads that came from the tobacco industry and eventually passed laws limiting them.

    We tell people that driving while drunk kills people.

    We tell people that unsafe sex can kill them.

    We tell people that they should eat more fruits and vegetables and get more exercise.

    Some of these campaigns are more successful than others. Smoking is down. It is now common to have designated drivers at parties.

    No doubt other things help besides publicity campaigns – when I was growing up, it was easier for minors to get cigarettes and smoking was acceptable almost anywhere. Changes in laws made a difference.

    DUI is down partly because people know they will go to jail.

    Making fruits and vegetables more easily available and attractive would help change our diet. So would limiting portion sizes sold in restaurants.

    I would love to see a health law passed requiring employers to give employees time to stand up and move every hour or so.

    Anyhow, my point is, that signs and educational campaigns are a reasonable form of social pressure.

    They may not work. I think we would all agree that jobs would work even better. In the meantime, though, they might help.

    And I think that at some point we have too look at the culture. I don’t think that if we suddenly had well-paid stable jobs available for everyone who wanted them, we would have no more children born before marriage. It would take time to repair communities, and even then, part of the difference is what we believe.

    I believe in economic forces, but I also believe that ideas matter to us. If Americans believe that it doesn’t matter to the kids if they are born to unmarried parents, there will be more kids born to unmarried parents.

  13. Teresa says:

    Well, there’s an additional fundamental we’ve chosen not to speak about, and that’s sexual behavior outside marriage. That is the root issue. And, it matters not the community involved, it’s a fairly ubiquitous phenomenon.

    La Lubu has rightly pointed out in another thread that marrying late in the 20′s throughout the 30′s is totally new behavior for mankind. The very years when everyone, men and women, are in their best mating years, sexually; what drove prior years to marry by late teens, early twenties; is now not happening. The sex is happening, marriage is not. We’ve unhinged the two. And, that seems pretty acceptable to many of us, even though we might say otherwise.

    When ever media outlet (movies, tv, books, magazines, newspapers, internet) sexualizes everything, when porn is pandemic; we’re expecting purity from ourselves. Gosh, just consider the word ‘purity’ and how we respond to that.

    How likely is it that society is going to radically change any of this root cause issue? If the elites, those getting college degrees aren’t chaste (advanced ones also) how likely is it that anyone else is going to be. Does anyone actually believe anymore that you shouldn’t have sex before you marry. Is virginity, for men and women, even a possibility.

    We spend more time finding gluten-free food, checking to see if our fruits and veggies are organic or non-GMO than we do about having sex.

    What I’ve just written is considered old-fashioned, out-of-touch, simply unimaginable, you can’t be serious, are you nuts …

  14. Diane M says:

    @Teresa – I believe in the past many people got married in their mid or late 20s. However, they lived in cultures that worked hard to prevent the opportunity for pre-marital sex. (For example, a maid servant lived in the home of her employers and they supervised her social life; she shared a room with another woman, etc.)

    For your bigger issue – I don’t think pre-marital sex is inherently wrong. However, I think not using birth control is a moral issue.

    To me the social issue here is that it seems to me that many women are sliding into motherhood. They don’t really plan to have a baby, but because they are living together and engaged and don’t need to wait for their career, they aren’t as careful as they might be. That is probably not the only thing that is happening – at least some women are choosing to get pregnant. And some are having accidents and some are unable to afford birth control.

    So to me the solution is to start talking about preventing conception before you are ready and being pickier about who you live with.

    Anyhow, the bottom line is that I would not join a campaign to convince young people to not have sex before marriage or to stigmatize pre-marital sex.

    I would endorse campaigns to convince young people that children are better off if their parents are married and therefore they should behave in ways that will ensure that their children have two married parents.

    From my perspective there is more than one way to get to that outcome including not having sex, limiting the number of sexual partners, not drinking, access to birth control and health education, being picky about who you live with, and maybe sometimes marrying someone after you get pregnant.

  15. La Lubu says:

    Teresa, I don’t think sex between unmarried partners is a problem. I don’t think of it as impure or unethical, and I think it is inadvisable to marry someone with whom one has not first developed a sexual relationship. This isn’t a new idea; as I’ve said before there were a large number of pregnant brides in the past, and even cultures that were notoriously hostile to premarital sex for women developed “courting” rituals that were de-facto sexual “tryouts”—screening for infertility by deliberately encouraging pregnancy prior to marriage (in cultures that were anti-divorce. Cultures where divorce was/is permissible had no need for those rituals—the solution to infertility was/is divorce, polygamous marriage, or concubinage).

  16. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: La Lubu has rightly pointed out in another thread that marrying late in the 20′s throughout the 30′s is totally new behavior for mankind.

    Not really.

    People in Asian and African cultures traditionally married/had children young, but people in Western Europe traditionally didn’t. Marriage ages fluctuate somewhat depending on the time period, but in 19th century England and Ireland, marriage ages were typically late 20s for women, mid 30s for men. (The cultures of eastern Europe and the old Byzantine empire had, I believe, later marriage ages than Africa or Asia, but younger than in northern/western Europe). I don’t know enough about the cultures of the indigenous Americas, or the Pacific Islanders, to say for sure about them. I do know that some premodern cultures (in South America and the Pacific Islands) were fairly accepting of premarital sex. Even in those parts of the world like Christian Europe where premarital sex was frowned upon by the Church, it still happened.

    Re: We spend more time finding gluten-free food, checking to see if our fruits and veggies are organic or non-GMO than we do about having sex.

    Yes, because gluten makes certain people *violently ill* if they eat it. Premarital sex, not so much. Having children out of marriage may be statistically linked to somewhat poorer outcomes, but it is nowhere near a certainty that *it will ruin your life!!!* Therefore, it’s in no way comparable to gluten-free food.

    I think the whole hullabaloo about non-GMO food is deeply misplaced at best, so I wouldn’t use those as good examples. Organic food doesn’t seem to be particularly better for the environment, or healthier, but some people prefer it.

  17. Teresa says:

    Thank you, Hector, for correcting me about other cultures and their marrying ages. That’s one of the chief reasons I come to Family Scholars: to learn.

    Hector, the incidence of becoming “violently ill” with eating gluten is relatively low, in fact, very low. Now, it’s simply a new fad diet option, along with many others. None of this has anything to do, though, with the topic of this thread. It was simply used in relation to our sexual activities.

    La Lubu, I suspect I may be seeing prior years, ages through rose-colored glasses regarding sexual activity outside marriage. The chief difference, perhaps, was being quiet about one’s sexual behavior vis-a-vis what we’re up to now. People are people, after all.

  18. Diane M says:

    @Teresa and LaLubu – I don’t think we can really know how much activity there was outside of marriage historically. There are just too many different eras and places.

    What does seem to be different is that couples who had made a baby would often marry. That was the honorable thing to do or at least something a family would force the guy to do if they could.

    I don’t think all or most cultures encouraged the idea that you should have sex before marriage. There have been too many societies that valued female virginity.