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.