A Roundabout Response to Rosalynde Welch’s “Shame, Stigma, and Social Engineering”

It would seem that in most religious communities governed by Christian social and religious norms there is a tension between what might be called “natural law” or “eternal principles” and the Judeo-Christian injunction to love God and neighbor. In other words, there is a general understanding that there are certain laws or principles that universally govern these communities (chastity, health codes, rules of conduct, etc). These laws or principles may or may not be fully natural or eternal in the sense of timelessly unchanging (principles regarding marriage and health have changed drastically in the history of the Mormon community, for example) but that they are laws in some sense means that they govern the community in the present, and we can even abstract from the particular instances these laws to more general, universal laws–we no longer practice polygamy but the principle of marriage remains binding. The specifics of what the Word of Wisdom is haven’t always stayed the same, but that some kind of law of health is incumbent upon us remains. The tension arises when we see factions align themselves more with the upholding of law and tradition, or more with the advocating of love and tolerance (not that such factions of necessity must form. There is no doubt that too much loyalty to one is detrimental to benefitting from loyalty to the other).

These thoughts began to initially form as I read Rosalynde Welch’s recent essay, “Shame, Stigma, and Social Engineering.” Rosalynde is one of the bright intellectual lights of Mormonism, and agree or disagree with her, she is perfectly consistent in providing smart, insightful opinions for discussion and debate through virtually all of the articles she authors. In this particular case I disagree with her, but in this essay, instead of specifically addressing her points directly, I want to point to a more general trend I (think) I see in a certain worldview, one I believe that Rosalynde more or less advocates or shares. Essentially, I’m trying to put my finger on why I have not resonated with it and what follows is that attempt.

This worldview is one that, on the whole, aligns itself with the upholding of law and tradition. Compassion and sympathy and tolerance are appropriate and even urgent in their time and place but our being in the world should also reflect the brute fact that the world/universe we live in is unyielding and conforms to the above-mentioned natural laws or eternal principles (or at least the current governing laws). Jesus was compassionate and sympathetic as well but he never hesitated to take people to task when they violated a law or principle. If the Pharisees were crushed by his indictments, or the moneychangers in the temple were offended by his uncompromising fidelity to truth, then so be it. That same unyieldingness would save others. So, one can advocate pure compassion and love on the backs of sympathetic turtles all the way down, but this same person ignores the necessary laws and natural order without which love couldn’t be meaningful in the first place, redemption and salvation not being possible in the absence of one or the other.

My problem with this, if it is actually true, is that such a worldview assumes the role of being a mirror or enacter of the law, as if the laws and the rigid structures of the moral world would not be active without direct and constant human intervention. But if there are laws and principles at all then by their very nature they are independent of and resistant to human intervention. When we sin or violate religious or community norms there are natural consequences that cannot be avoided, no matter how individual members of the community might try or not try to doubly reinforce them. That there are human-independent laws on which our obedience or our sin are predicated means that the violation of these brings human-independent consequences and results.

My fear is that this sort of view therefore causes us to heap additional punishment, shame, and consequence on people who already are or someday will bear the burden of their decisions regardless of our own policing of others’ moral actions, and we end up contributing to pain and suffering rather than relieving it. In other words, more to the point of Rosalynde’s article, shame and guilt are natural consequences of the violation of eternal and social norms, and such would not be the case if they were not norms. That these must be actually communicated to community members is no doubt critical. But this communication also naturally occurs through traditional practices and institutions–class instruction, reading sacred texts, hearing testimony, observing how families and relationships function, listening to teachings and warnings of apostles and prophets. There is virtually no member of any LDS religious community who does not know about the importance of marriage and therefore the undesirability of divorce. In such a family-centric community like Mormonism one can easily anticipate the natural consequences of ending a marriage, regardless and apart from social stigma–effects on children, parents, covenants, church standing, etc that are unavoidable. Applying additional social pressure and dishonor, even through trying to artificially reinforce teachings about marriage (as if the violator of the social norm simply didn’t quite understand what she was doing) is in essence taking on a mandate of re-revealing the law over and over, ensuring its lawfulness by insisting on justice outside the normative force of the law itself. This happens when we insist on some kind of punishment or judgment beyond which the law already metes out as the law. Consequently, I think we should completely jettison any kind of mechanism that we might attach ourselves to that sees any good in providing additional shame and opprobrium beyond what the sin in question naturally dispenses. Shame should quite simply be not a part of our expressive vocabulary, nor seen as having any social utility that we must point to and reinforce. Kierkegaard, interestingly, combined the law and love in his phrase, “dutiful love,” that it is our lawful duty to love God and neighbor because Christ’s existence and sacrifice fulfilled the Law and drenched the world in grace. The law that concerns us then, as far as our neighbor is concerned simply is (yet more demandingly than anything else) the law of love.


  1. I should note that I also treated some of these themes here:


  2. Jacob, fascinating topic and post.

    I think it’s important to differentiate between attitudes in society, generally, and attitudes within a religious community. I read Rosalynde as expressing nervousness about society losing all sense of right and wrong — a sense of right and wrong that will always be presupposed in a religious community (or at least our religious community).

    So, to be fair to Rosalynde’s post, I think it’s important to remember her conflictedness: “Absent robust on-the-ground support, I agree fully with those who call for an end to shame-based social sanctions. The human costs are just too high.”

    But you make great points, and this is a great reminder of the importance of showing love and support, sans judgment, to those around us — our families, fellow saints, friends, and neighbors alike.

  3. ‘That these must be actually communicated to community members is no doubt critical.’

    It would then seem that you and Rosalynde may not disagree. The question is how and to what degree the ‘actual communication’ takes place regarding standards.

  4. “…drenched the world in grace.” This phrase is going to stay with me forever. Thank you, Jacob. I rather clumsily attempted to communicate something along these lines to another, and did it with nothing close to what you have done.

  5. This, I think, gets at a central point of differentiation in Christian (and Mormon) communities. I’m strongly reminded of a very spirited exchange last month (at SMPT in Logan) between George Handley and Ralph Hancock. I’ll have more to say about this soon.

  6. The issue is, of course, a bit more complicated than just being non-judgmental and being loving. Say another person decides to keep a child out of wedlock. Plenty of fairly innocent teens have found themselves in this situation. Marry? Abort? Put up for adoption? Raise as a single parent? Tough choices all.

    However, some of the consequences of the choice impact society in terms of cost generally. Single mothers have a much higher poverty rate. They impact the social fabric of our society generally by imposing additional education and welfare costs. It seems that I have a legitimate say in this choice as a member of society because I am impacted if the mother chooses to keep the child and raise it as a single parent. If the natural father refuses to support the child, I also have a say in his dead-beat approach to the issue. Children of single parents and divorced parents impose costs on society and the education system in particular that are quite disproportionate.

    If the mother chooses an abortion, it seems that the impact is much less on me. However, abortion has other costs — including the medical expenses and cost in terms of our respect for potential human life (and possibly psychological counseling costs later in life as well).

    No man or woman is an island. Our actions have consequences for others. To the extent they and we are impacted, we have a say in these decisions and practices. We have every right to discourage by placing social opprobrium on practices that have less then ideal or undesirable outcomes and consequences.

    Now I recognize that the costs are already huge for those who choose to have a child out of wed-lock (and it is just one example among many that could be chosen). My dear friend’s daughter, who I know and like well, had such a choice to make. I think she made the most socially appropriate choice — she chose to place the child for adoption. I of course said nothing about this particular choice to anyone. It was hers’ alone to make in counseling with her parents and others she trusted. However, that it was not my place to stick my nose into this particular situation in no way entails that it is inappropriate for me to have an opinion and to express it about what are the most socially responsible choices in general.

    That is what I think Rosalynde gets and Jacob misses with this post — as well thought out and as excellently expressed as it is.

  7. As a married woman with four children, I appreciate my husband being part of the LDS community that has stigma against divorce. I believe it encourages him to stay in our marriage.
    In his work environment, he is discouraged from staying married. The other day someone referred to “the mythical nuclear family” because it is so rare. Chastity, marriage, fidelity, daily fatherhood are all NOT mainstream. Sometimes people on the bloggernacle are surprised, but we are in Seattle. Every few years my husband lists who he works with and their family relationships that often include single, no kids, in his or her 50s.
    The LDS community provides emotional support for my husband that fatherhood is a good thing and it is worth sticking around to do it right. His father left his mother and he definitely is condemning of that and wants to not repeat his father’s mistakes.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    Blake, I’d like to explore one of the issues you raise.

    We have every right to discourage by placing social opprobrium on practices that have less then ideal or undesirable outcomes and consequences.

    Let’s think about that. Obesity produces such outcomes, and it imposes direct financial costs on society as a whole. But look around you next time in church. Why do we choose to stigmatize the pregnant Laurel or the woman who leaves her marriage, but not the 375 lb. high priest? That is a serious question, and I think the answer is that we have decided some practices are worse than others. But it is not clear to me that such a judgement is correct very often.

    In a religious community which subscribes to the idea that we are all beggars, I don’t understand the impulse to insist that some of us are more beggarly than others. In addition, the practice of shaming itself often produces perverse and undesireable outcomes. I have heard of wards which routinely throw baby showers for expectant mothers pointedly refuse to do so for an unwed mother, on the grounds that they don’t want to encourage promiscuity. There may be a universe somewhere where that makes sense, but it isn’t one that I want to inhabit. Proponents of shaming need to realize that this kind of excessive nonsense is very common, and offer ways to curb it.

  9. Mark, I’d like to do a little bit of exploring of my own of your examples. Let me give another example, because I think your example is based on not much more than gender bias. Let’s take the boy who impregnated the girl who now wants to shirk accountability and refuses to pay support. Would you still say we ought to be hands off and we just ought to look the other way without stigmatizing such behavior? Or is it appropriate to stigmatize that behavior and even have civil penalties if he refuses?

    I made a distinction between between the interpersonal/private sphere in which we do not have a say and opprobrium is counterproductive, and the social and public sphere where it serves us to teach accountability and stigmatizing certain kinds of conduct. I believe that it serves everyone’s greatest good to teach which behaviors are socially irresponsible. It serves us to teach personal accountability and that, e.g., sexual relations outside of marriage impose inappropriate costs on society. Those who are conscious of their civil obligations will take care to insure that they have taken appropriate steps to insure for the well-being of the possible children they may generate if they engage in conduct that can generate children.

    I would not condone fingering a particular young person as guilty or shameful. However, I condone identifying certain behaviors as socially irresponsible and civilly costly. Being a beggar does not have anything to do with this –we all have social responsibilities to each other and personal accountability for our behavior (if we have normal functioning mental faculties). That we are beggars does not excuse us from socially irresponsible behavior. Nor is it inappropriate for us to identify those behaviors that are desirable to our social well-being and that are conducive to happiness. It is not inappropriate to point out that wickedness never was happiness and to teach those behaviors that will lead to our happiness and those that will not.

  10. Latter-day Guy says:

    Mark, there are universes within universes perhaps: a lady of my acquaintance sends gifts to the showers of unwed mothers, but refuses to attend them. “Let’s not celebrate bastardy, but neither shun the bastards” is her motto, I suppose. (Would Blake agree?)

    Knowing my weakness and my sin, all I can ask is “Please, God, forgive.” There isn’t much time left after that.

  11. When I experience this kind of social police work, I find it reveals far more about the would-be policemen and -women than it does about any laws or rules or mores that (we think) shore up our precarious respectable society. Those who feel comfortable or authoritative in doing this have usually not experienced the reality of divorce, or other such life wreckage, so it’s still in the realm of the theoretical to them. Regarding people who can work out the ins and outs of how one ought to approach a baby shower for an unwed mother; it’s doubtful if they have ever felt such desperation that they themselves might have just as much or greater need for God’s grace as said unwed mother.

    Once the scales have fallen from our eyes and we see ourself as a humble sinner pretty much like the rest of humankind, this sort of indictment is not hard to figure out, or to shun like the plague on the gospel that it is. We all need to be drenched in grace (to coin a phrase), not just the few who have suffered slightly more visible damage.

  12. I thought obesity was stigmatized.

  13. Mark Brown says:


    Well, it is, to some extent. But look around you next time you are at church or WalMart, and decide for yourself how well stigma is actually working. Maybe if we just shamed them even more, that would do the trick!!


    Thank you for your response. Continuing the conversation…..

    Let’s go with your example of the young man who impregnates his girlfriend. The point I am making, and the point that Jacob makes in the original post, is that the consequences of his actions — abrupt of change of future plans, taking financial responsibility for the child — will do the teaching that is necessary. I think I can teach a lesson to the priests quorum about chastity, and if it turns out that one of the YM in the class is an expectant father, I can sit down with him and discuss things is a way that is loving, rather than shaming. I think he is much more likely to take positive action when he feels supported than if he feels his community turned its back on him.

    The part about gender bias is interesting. In colonial America, adulteresses (but not adulterers) werre forced to wear a scarlet letter. If stigma were actually efffective, we might expect that the presence of all those Hester Prynnes walking around bearing the shame of their community would have reduced adultery and promiscuity. But there are several demographic studies which conclude that out-of-wedlock childbirth in our colonial era was very common.

    I really like your point about no man being an island. Maybe another way to think of it is to use Paul’s metaphor, about us all being members of the same body. I think that we all take turns being the “less comely parts”, and maybe it is at those times that the community needs to “bestow more abundant comeliness”. When our kids were little, I was very apprehensive about the approaching teenage years, and wondered how to be a parent to teenagers. It concerned me enough that I asked a man in the ward who was about 15 years older with a large family how he did it. He told me that he loved his kids, and when they did something of which he disapproved (WoW transgression, etc.) he turned on the love even more.

    Gotta run, more later.

  14. I’m a Michigan Mormon, running like my butt’s on fire with family and church responsibilities. I read the articles on BCC every day and often feel like it’s a bit of a life-line for me and my husband. But this article made me bawl. We have older children who are on their way out of the church. We’ve spent 24 years of doing the hard, hard work of raising our children the way we’ve always been told to, and then we’ve watched it crumble under the weight of the kind of shame and stigma Jacob decries. It’s so painful. Lately, I’ve felt like I’m holding on to the church by the very tips of my fingers. I don’t have many people in my circle of influence who are willing to give as much thought to these issues as the writers on the bloggernacle. Jacob, thank you so very much for putting words to this issue.

  15. Thank you everyone for your responses thus far. Unfortunately, I might not be able to respond until a little later. I need to learn to stop posting on weekends :)

  16. Wheat Woman–SO MANY of us are there. If you need someone to talk to, please feel free to email me at BYU. I have been thinking about Jacob’s post for so long and haven’t responded because the issues are so tender for me. I love Jacob and the ways he speaks truth to power.

  17. I guess I don’t understand the shame and stigma people are referring to exactly. I don’t believe in being mean so I think that means I’m against shaming. However, yesterday my son’s friend said his father had been at Oktoberfest since Tuesday and my husband told me that this father is no longer married to the kid’s mother and had said he had “traded up.” I am going to raise my children where in house this kind of behavior is stigmatized to some extent.

  18. I’m a little baffled that single motherhood would be cited as an example of a decision worthy of social opprobium when it strikes me as the result of a righteous decision–not to get an abortion–and a perfectly natural one–for a mother to keep a child. If the issue is disproportionate costs imposed on society, then all behavior imposing disproportionate costs needs to be on the table, including suburban dwelling and meat consumption to name just two, and not just a handful of moral issues.

    Furthermore, attaching shame and stigma to individual behavior after the fact is like closing the barn door after the horse has left, taking up the drawbridge and increasing the nightwatch. There are no doubt behaviors that require this approach to preserve the health and welfare of the individual and community, but I reckon that single motherhood per se isn’t one of them.

  19. We tend to preach against the worst examples of things without differentiating between them and totally understandable and even righteous examples of the same things – thus lumping lots of good, faithful, diligent, righteous, amazing people into our nets of shame and stigmatization. Such intellectual and spiritual laziness often is just as harmful as active bigotry – and it often morphs into such bigotry. It almost always leads to some degree of arrogance, whether conscious or not.

    Iow, great post, Jacob.

  20. I think Rosalynde’s model _might_ work, in something like the way she foresees, if the community in question had definite physical boundaries – or even boundaries secured by strong belief. But that is not what we have with the church, anymore. Leadership and community must establish their authority by gentle persuasion and forgiveness because those who are stigmatized can, and usually do, simply walk away. It isn’t as though there is a desert – physical or spiritual – to cross. Because those in question are not spiritual powerhouses (how many of us are?) the genuine spiritual cost of staying exceeds the losses incurred by leaving. Two things are clearly necessary, the costs of staying must be minimized while the losses incurred by leaving must be strengthened by enhancing the spiritual depth and richness of the community.

    Imagine this situation. You have had a serious problem, with no easy answer. You have spent countless hours in anguished reflection. It has become the single deepest aspect of your life, profound and dark. A thing that for you is almost beyond measure. Then you have a man who has a claim of authority over you within the community approach your problem with a sentence, a thou shalt not, accompanied by a glib dismissal. This measureless suffering is, for authority and community, contained in a sentence. As if on the visible scales your personal all can be balanced by a trifle. The irony is unbearable, and against what you have not been able to share you now have newly sealed barrier against your hope of sharing. What will you think of the presumed authority, let alone any claim to brotherhood? To accept the authority or brotherhood would be heroic – beyond what any mortal will be able to ask. Believe me, for many it is easier and indeed beneficial to simply walk away.

  21. I have opinions on what might be healthy or unhealthy behaviors in the situations described. But I do not share them unless I am specifically and genuinely asked for them; even then I hedge those opinions. As a lay person in my Church community, I understand my job is to love and support, not to pass judgment on anyone. Period.

    I agree with Jacob and Mark that there already is enough self-imposed shame and stigma associated with unhealthy actions for there to be any need for me to add to those burdens sinners carry. I might add that when I do unhealthy things, I usually already know they are unhealthy and feel embarrassment, guilt, shame without the need for others to confirm that I am a sinner in need of grace. But usually what I need in those circumstances is nonjudgmental, noncondemning and unconditional love, hope, support, affirmation of my being a Son of God, encouragement, and the expression of confidence in my basic goodness and abilities. That may well be true for others.

  22. Robert, thanks for your comment. Yes, that this sense of right and wrong is presupposed in religious communities is part of the point–in our religious communities moral norms are taught and reinforced as a matter of course; this is partly what makes them religious in the first place.

    Paul f, you may be right, that communication may be a point of contact between Rosalynde’s position and mine. I wonder if any disagreement might not be a matter of kind rather than degree–whether moral norms are communicated as natural components of institutional practices or whether we must go beyond those to reinforce them individually.

    Blake, I don’t find denouncing “disproportionate costs” persuasive in the least. Love and compassion are not formulaic calculations intended to produce symmetry and fairness. Love is an unmitigated risk that doesn’t reckon itself according to fair returns. Assuming disproportionate costs is the essence of the law of love, which does not calculate down to the last farthing as the Law of Moses did. Supposing your daughter’s friend had not made the “socially appropriate choice.” Do we conclude that she had not been sufficiently shamed? That our institutions and instructions had failed? I would hope (in vain, for many people, surely) that we would not assume that there had not been sufficient shaming of this girl. But even for the second response, I don’t think there is merit. Our people are “sufficiently instructed” that they know good from evil. Several scriptures actually imply that “all men” are sufficiently so instructed. If she makes the decision where additional costs are distributed throughout society it is still our covenantal duty to love her, mourn with her, comfort her. I don’t know anyone who was shamed into a transformative change of heart. At best, additional social opprobrium produces temporary conformity, and most often bitterness and alienation. Moral Laws and norms are maximally efficacious in doing the work of laws and norms–including doling out concomitant consequences–without our additional intervention. Additional social and moral burdening by us as individuals is in my view an egregious sin because it contributes to that very alienation and estrangement occasioned by the violation of the law in the first place. In the end, though, I wonder if we are not more or less in agreement. I don’t think my view entails, as your second comment illustrates, that we don’t teach the costs and consequences of social and moral irresponsibility; that’s configured in the structure of the laws and norms themselves, which we teach as a matter of course in our institutional practices. What I am vehemently against is what often occurs once the law had been violated, and that is the additional layering of the work of the law on the offender by members of the community above and beyond the consequences he or she already suffer or will one day suffer. When the law is violated, our duty in love is to reach out, provide comfort, and continue to be examples of those who live the law. Such living examples will shine much brighter and be more persuasive than any other kind of stigmatizing or instructional reinforcing will do.

    Jks, all of the social stigma that you insist is necessary to keep your husband from leaving you, I am arguing is the work of religious and moral norms in the first place. He knows the rules, he knows the consequences. It is not that we should stop teaching and warning. Far from it–our teaching and warning are themselves derivative of the laws and norms that bind us together. But actively shaming and stigmatizing are not teaching and warning. Should your husband leave you it will not be because he was not sufficiently pressured into staying–the very clear laws and norms of our community have already sufficiently instructed him concerning the blessings and consequences. And socially disfiguring him afterward would do nothing to bless you, him, or any of the community, or change anyone else’s mind who might be inclined to break the law. Besides which–do we care about the letter of the law being followed or its spirit? If social pressure alone makes us conform then we are empty vessels and whited sepulchers. I should hope that the primary reason your husband stays your husband is not because he feels too pressured not to leave.

  23. Jacob: “Moral Laws and norms are maximally efficacious in doing the work of laws and norms . . .” What morals laws and norms? If there is a law, there is a punishment affixed, but as as Alma noted in Alma 42, a part of that law includes the civil law — the consequences that society imposes for violation of the law. So I have to wonder what moral law you have in mind that excludes civil laws? Indeed, it seems that taken to its natural conclusion, your position that natural laws are sufficient without more logically entails the elimination of civil and criminal penalties. That surely is absurd in my book.

    In addition, it seems to me that the social costs of our behavior are part of the natural response you keep urging as sufficient without a social response. If I am unkind to you, the natural result is a damaged relationship. If I don’t pay child support, the natural response to remind the offender that being a dead beat is not acceptable conduct — and to force him to pay through civil law.

    Further, love dares to speak the truth. Honest feedback about the cost to interpersonal relationships from one’s behavior is perhaps the greatest love of all. The way the Savior responded to the Pharisees in the temple may seem to be unloving, but honestly stating his disapproval and opprobrium was the honest and caring thing to do. When he called them “whited sepulchers,” his honest feedback was an opportunity for them to repent even though it involved much more than just “natural results of actions”. When folks engage in self-defeating or relationship destroying behavior, it seems to me that the loving thing to may be provide honest feedback. Few people love us enough to really be honest with us about the costs of being in relationship with us. Of course love takes into account whatever will serve best the person who is loved – and sometimes it is a verbal reminder of the cost that others pay to be in relationship. Sometimes it may be simply stating our love. Other times it may be getting in someone’s face to let them know we won’t put up with it any more. Your blanket, one size fits all will not always work nor will it always serve the best interests of the beloved.

  24. Jacob: If I have misunderstood you, and your is that the “natural consequences” include the social response of civil and criminal law, then my response will not have as much force. However, honest feedback to another is often a great gift. It may not appear to be loving at the time, but I believe can serve us greatly. I can tell you that feedback from others about how my conduct affects them, how it hurts them, how it damages our relationships, has served me greatly. I admit that I did not always appreciate it at the time, but it has been one of the greatest gifts given to me and took a real willingness to risk on the part of those who dared to be honest with me.

  25. Jacob #22, your response is very helpful, and clarifies for me what you’re getting at. And I agree: judge not, that ye be not judged (except when you are explicitly called to a position that requires you to judge…?).

  26. I am unable to understand the difference between shaming and stigmatizing vs. “the work of religious and moral norms in the first place” and “teaching and warning.” I think you agree with Rosalynde Welch because she says that if someone does divorce in a community that teaches against it, it should be obvious to those in that community that it wasn’t done lightly and everyone should be compassionate.
    I think the only way to avoid anyone feeling bad is to not preach against it in the first place. THAT is what I am trying to communicate. You seem to feel that we can still teach right from wrong and yet not let anyone feel bad. I say that it leads to more and more people choosing the wrong because it is no longer understood to be wrong.
    Just look at our US society. Racism is down, because more of society views it as wrong and people feel like they will be viewed poorly if they show racist attitudes. Cohabitation is up because it is not viewed as wrong so people don’t feel guilty about doing it. More babies are born out of wedlock than in wedlock to people in their twenties because they don’t feel social pressure to think about wrong or right and fewer of them feel badly about it.
    You can’t unshame sinful behavior and you can’t unstigma it without also unteaching right and wrong. Just not possible.

  27. jks, I heard a talk in Sac Mtg once in which a very good, sincere, loving man read a list of top ten “threats to the family”. One of those threats was divorce, and another was single-parent families.

    In the congregation that day were at least a dozen men and women who had been divorced and were raising their children on their own. They were sitting in what was supposed to be a worship service, and they were getting a virtual slap in the face because their best efforts to make their marriages work had failed. They were being told that they were a threat to this good man’s marriage, which, on top of being incredibly insensitive, is flat-out incorrect. Divorce and single-parenthood in our religious culture aren’t threats to marriage; they are the result of failed marriage. There is a big difference between those two conclusions.

    These people didn’t need to be told they should feel bad; they’d been there and done that in spades. They didn’t need to be told they were a threat to marriage; they weren’t a threat to marriage in any way. They didn’t need to be stigmatized in any way; they were good, sincere, faithful members doing the best they could in very difficult circumstances. They didn’t need to get beaten up verbally by a fellow church member, especially from the pulpit; life was busy enough kicking them in the teeth all by itself.

    There is a HUGE difference between teaching something and pounding it six feet into the ground and burying people unnecessarily in the process. That, I think, it the point Jacob is making – that life in a religious community, especially, does a really good job of pounding on people whose lives don’t measure up to a general ideal that is taught in that community. We don’t need to pile on and remind them constantly that their lives appear to suck to us – and that, somehow, in some way, they are partly responsible for moral decay in the world.

  28. In other words, there is a big difference between teaching something to people who don’t understand and accept it and railing against something among people who already believe it and try to live it but, often through no fault of their own, feel like failures already.

    One is preaching the Gospel; the other is cruel and unusual punishment. One is offering a cure; the other is administering death by paper cut.

  29. I suspect that what feels like teaching to one feels like shaming to another. It is clear to me that pretty much everyone who has posted is against shaming individuals and that we have each seen examples that would make us cringe. On the other hand, the mere mention of the law of chastity in a talk may feel like punishment and shame to someone who has been unchaste. I don’t think it is very easy to separate these two in practice as the line shifts depending on the recipient.

    To me this calls for a great deal of loving behavior occurring in our interpersonal, one on one relationships. If such love exists in abundance in a ward, branch, or family, I think that the natural guilt that may occur even at the slightest mention will be made productive.

  30. Thomas #20:
    “Then you have a man who has a claim of authority over you within the community approach your problem with a sentence, a thou shalt not, accompanied by a glib dismissal. This measureless suffering is, for authority and community, contained in a sentence. As if on the visible scales your personal all can be balanced by a trifle.”

    Beautifully stated and painfully true.

  31. Blake, yes, I would say that the social responses of civil and criminal law are included as necessary in my view. Perhaps referring to “natural” law is too reductive, implying that only laws humans did not have a hand in creating have the kind of normative force I was discussing. In fact, any law exercises this kind of force which I’ve been saying brings about concomitant consequences. In a nutshell, my view is simply that we as individuals need not see ourselves as the enforcers–individually–of these consequences because the consequences really do occur. I think unnecessary and destructive additional stigmatization occurs when we as individuals go beyond this to impose additional burdens on people who are already suffering for violations of norms.

    Robert points to an interesting possible exception, that of those whose specific calling is to pass some kind of judgment–ecclesiastical officials, civic judges, etc. But here, these people are not, as private citizens or individuals within a religious community, passing judgment or consequence, but are acting within institutional, legally recognized roles.

  32. Excellent point, Jacob (#31), your emphasis of “institutional, legally recognized roles.” And, in this vein, I think it’s very important (and illustrative) how careful the Church usually is in guarding the very private nature of confessions, judgments, councils, etc. — except in relatively rare circumstances (though it would be interesting to analyze these cases, and think through possible justifications for them…).

  33. Rosalynde says:

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful response, Jacob. My simplest response would probably be that we don’t actually disagree all that much. What I’m thinking of as “soft sanctions” are, I think, essentially what you’re thinking of basic communication of social norms. I should have been more clear in the piece that I’m not talking about anything like shunning or explicit social exclusion. As I wrote, I had in mind things like “over-the-pulpit teachings against divorce, implicit social disapproval, conversations about the ills of broken homes.” These soft sanctions mostly come in the form of official discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate any additional social reinforcement of them at the ward level, etc.

    A longer response would be that, ironically, I probably see the moral universe in much more human (and less divine/metaphysical/supernatural) terms than you do. My worldview is basically one in which human culture does the work of making, disseminating and enforcing morality; I don’t really have a sense of eternal natural law in which God ultimately metes out cosmic consequence for sin. (This makes me much less Mormon than you, and I certainly am not contending that my view is correct — just expanding on my basic assumptions.) I don’t know that there really are any “natural” consequences for a man cheating on his wife, say, as long as he doesn’t get caught, of course! No natural consequences for the man himself, that is — the destructive influence on his family is clear, as resources are directed away from his current family and (and potential future offspring). So I see human culture as a crucial vector in forming, directing, and disciplining the hugely creative but fundamentally wild and dangerous human drives.

    I suppose I also would say that stigma is an inevitable part of any human community, and most of the time we’re not really arguing about whether stigma should be employed, but rather WHAT it should be employed to do. Most of us have no problem shaming child molesters and predators — remember that whole thing about the reddit troll last week? What we really disagree about is whether we should stigmatize contested sexual behaviors. And as I said, I think there are good cases to be made against stigmatizing things like single motherhood and divorce, since often in those cases the shame falls on the innocent parties. I just wanted to explore the possibility of deploying stigma compassionately, and I thought it was interesting that in some ways the stigma offers a certain amount of moral cover since it guarantees that the stigmatized behavior is undertaken only under necessity.

    Anyway, just some thoughts. thanks again for the response.

  34. I wonder how many people shame out of fear that it could happen to them? Or out of guilt of their own perceived responsibility to help the person be good? Or how about parents who identify themselves by their children’s behavior and thus their shaming is really reflecting the guilt they feel? I wonder how many times we assume reasons for commandments (we don’t drink tea because tannin, or caffeine, or it’s just not healthy, or something ;) ) and then shame others by piling on reasons why commandments exist and potential consequences that may be more imaginary than real. I wonder how many times people communicate personal reasons THEY have needed to keep commandments that don’t’ actually apply to other people at all. Maybe we don’t want to admit how little we know about why God makes certain things taboo.

    I suspect another cause for shaming is pure impatience…possibly even a desire for the person to start the repentance process… by making them feel remorse. As if we can make a person repent any more than we can make a toddler walk.

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