Salt and Seed
Shame, Stigma, and Social Engineering
But what about those who find themselves in intolerable marriages and absolutely must divorce? The tax is a burden, no doubt, and sometimes it falls unjustly on women and men who are already socially vulnerable and can ill afford the social costs. But from a different perspective, the tax actually offers some moral protection to the divorced, because its very existence guarantees that the divorce was not undertaken frivolously. If there were no social tax at all, no stigma attached to divorce, then there would be no way of distinguishing the resulting frivolous divorces from the heart-breakingly necessary ones. But because the price of divorce is so high, the only people going downtown are the ones who absolutely must.
(It should be noted that even if divorce were entirely destigmatized, it would still be an inconvenient and expensive process, like most processes of family formation, and this would continue to deter some potential divorces.)
Let me revise and emphasize: in a compassionate community, the social tax offers some moral protection to those who must divorce. That is, the community ought to recognize that given its own soft sanctions against divorce, any divorce that does occur is necessary and undertaken only with great deliberation. Thus we ought to offer divorced men and women in our communities generous personal care and support, and we can do so without concern that we are somehow thereby endorsing frivolous divorce. The divorce tax takes care of that.
Over-the-pulpit sanctions combined with on-the-ground support: is it possible to have both at once? I hope so, but all too often we fail to negotiate the tension. The human cost of community failure in this regard is very high, and it falls with terrible injustice on the most vulnerable. Those of us who are lucky enough to find ourselves on the comfortable side of social sanctions have the weightiest moral obligation, imposed by precisely those same sanctions, to minister to those who are not so lucky, to defray the painful personal costs of the social tax. If we are not willing to bear the burdens of the stigmatized, the very burdens imposed by the stigma, if we are not willing to mourn with them and comfort them and stand with them, then we do not have the moral authority to impose the stigma in the first place. 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 given the presence of that support, this is one provisional case in favor of informal social sanctions and the careful deployment of shame: to nudge us toward beneficial behaviors when possible, and to offer a degree of moral protection (while exacting a social cost) when compliance is impossible. This is hardly the whole story about shame, of course: while it may work on the front end to steer us away from unwise choices, it tends to make things worse once the choice has been made, driving the behavior ever deeper into secrecy and hindering us from seeking help. This is why I remain conflicted about the use of shame as a social instrument. It's the worst form of social engineering, except perhaps for all the others.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.