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Stigma and shame are powerful forces for directing our behavior and determining how we feel about ourselves.  (In this essay, I will use the words “stigma” and “shame” interchangeably.)  They are a highly effective mechanism by which society enforces its written and unwritten rules without ever having to resort to a formal means for their enforcement, as members of society simply internalize the sanction and act accordingly.  Unfortunately, however, our society stigmatizes a great many statuses and types of conduct that should not give rise to shame.

We need to take a good, hard look at what our culture stigmatizes, lest people suffer unnecessarily, as stigma can be a very heavy burden for the stigmatized person to bear.  Of course, members of our society do not necessarily agree on what should be stigmatized, and society’s standards as to what behavior should give rise to shame has shifted markedly over time.  I set forth below (in no particular order) an accounting of some examples of what I believe should and should not be stigmatized.  I will start with the latter.

There are, of course, identities that give rise to stigma.  Although the situation is changing rapidly, in many quarters shame still attaches to one’s identity as LGBTQ+, forcing people to hide from acknowledging who they really are and living their lives openly.  Notably, some of those “letters” have made more progress than others.  For example, gay (G) people are further along at escaping stigma than are transgender (T) people.  However, I and most liberal and progressive folk would take the position that no members of the LGBTQ+ family should feel shame over being in that group, as we are entitled to love whom we want and to determine our own gender identity.  I look forward to the day when we have a societal consensus on that point.

Another condition that some people are ashamed of has to do with illness.  Some people guard very closely a diagnosis of serious disease, most likely because they feel that others will regard them as defective, less functional, or even immoral if they know of the affliction.  This is especially the case with illness that is related to certain conduct, such as HIV/AIDS, which can be transmitted through unprotected sex or IV drug use, or in the case of mental illness.  Mental illness is especially problematic in this regard, as many people fear or judge harshly those who suffer from it, and as a result a lot of sufferers avoid treatment.  Stigma should not attach to illness (whether physical or mental), as in most cases, it is not the sufferer’s fault, and even when precautions could have been taken to prevent it, no one deserves to be struck down by serious illness for having been careless.

Many people who are victimized by others, such as in the case of domestic abuse, feel stigmatized by that status.  The notion here is that they feel that others will regard them as having simply been too weak or stupid to avoid the victimization and so are at least partially at fault.  In the extreme, they are concerned that people will see them as having been responsible for their victimization, most notably when it is suggested that rape victims invited the rape.  Victimization, in and of itself, should not give rise to stigma; rather, stigma should always attach primarily to the victimizer.  (The only exception is where a character flaw of the victim that could have been remedied contributed to their victimization (more on that below), but even here shame should still attach primarily to the victimizer.)

Yet another status that sadly gives rise to stigma is that of being poor and/or homeless.  This is terribly unfortunate, as such people must carry the psychological burden of being stigmatized on top of their suffering the serious material deprivations with which they must contend.  Much of the problem here is that many people regard poverty as being due to laziness or the person’s lack of certain virtues or talents that give rise to success in our society.  But no one chooses to be poor (or, unless very mentally ill, homeless).  No one should be ashamed of being poor or homeless, as so much of what consigns people to that status stems from the individual’s environment, genes, bad luck, or mental condition, none of which the individual necessarily has control over.  (Again, the only situation in which some shame should arguably attach to one’s economic status is where a character flaw that the person is not addressing brought about their poverty and/or homelessness.)

Disabilities can also be a source of stigma and shame.  Whether it is being restricted to a wheelchair, deafness, or missing a limb, to name just a few, people are often embarrassed by their disabilities, because they make the person feel inferior and perhaps less than fully human or because the disability may make them look strange to others.  It is true that, depending on the disability, a disability may prevent a person from engaging in certain activities or make it more difficult to do so.  But It practically goes without saying that disabilities should not give rise to shame.  And we must do everything in our power to make people with disabilities feel valued, proud, and every bit as human as those who are not disabled.

The final type of status that should not be stigmatized is having been incarcerated.  Of course, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, criminal behavior should be stigmatized.  But if the individual serves their sentence and exhibits contrition for their deeds, stigma should no longer attach, especially where they have dedicated themselves to leading a productive life after leaving prison.  Yet, too often stigma continues to hound the former convict, shaping how others regard them, how they regard themselves, and their ability to move on with their lives (e.g., finding employment).  We must take care to ensure that we do not contribute to that unfortunate state of affairs.  In fact, the more we do to rehabilitate their self-esteem and provide them with social and economic stability, the less likely former convicts are to offend again.

Having reviewed various cases where stigma often attaches but should not, then when should stigma apply?  In my view, shame should primarily attach when an individual has a character flaw which they are not earnestly trying to fix to the best of their abilities.  There are many character flaws out there.  One flaw I would mention is abusiveness.  Sadly, too many people fall into that category, be they abusive spouses, parents, or bosses.  These individuals should be ashamed of their conduct and should work tirelessly to eliminate the flaw, but unfortunately their victims have less power than they do, and so the abuser may not even recognize their abuse or consider it something that needs to be remedied.  Yet another character flaw is to be taunting or mocking (they often occur together).  This is a most unpleasant behavior that makes the victim feel alienated, deeply disrespected, and ashamed.  This conduct should be stigmatized until the individual learns to channel any animosity or anger that has motivated it in a more productive and respectful manner.  I would also mention the character flaw of mendacity.  Unfortunately, our society is rife with dishonesty and is way too tolerant of it.  People who traffic in untruths with an intent to deceive deserve to wear a badge of shame until they embark on an effort to practice honesty.  The final flaw on my list of examples is slothfulness.  Lazy people should do all they can to become more motivated and hard-working in all corners of their lives.  At the same time, we need to keep in mind that that flaw may be the product of mental illness (e.g., depression) that can cause a person to become unmotivated, sometimes even to the point of dysfunction.

As far as what constitutes fixing a flaw, often that just requires some degree of self-awareness and will-power on the part of the individual.  One should not hesitate to approach trusted relatives, friends, or other advisors for advice on what to do about the character flaw, though the stigma attaching to the flaw may unfortunately deter the individual from opening up to others about it.  Working resolutely with a mental health professional should also be part of the toolbox when mental illness is at the core of the flaw.

There are, of course, many other character flaws that people exhibit and should work to undo.  If they fail to make that effort, stigma should rightfully attach to their flaw.  Unfortunately, as many people abhor confrontation, in many cases those who lack a certain degree of self-awareness may never even learn that they have a certain character flaw in the first place.  What you are not aware of you cannot fix.  And that is why when it comes improving our character, we should all be teachers and guides to each other.