Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law by Martha C. Nussbaum

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law by Martha C. Nussbaum

Author:Martha C. Nussbaum [Nussbaum, Martha C.]
Language: eng
Format: epub, pdf
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2009-01-10T08:00:00+00:00

VII. Stigma and Brand: Shame in Social Life

All societies mark some people as normal. As Goffman trenchantly observed, all deviations from the normal are marked as occasions for shame. Each person in a society looks out at the world from the perspective of its norm of normalcy. And if what he or she sees when looking in the mirror does not conform to that norm, shame is the likely result. Many occasions for social shame are straightforwardly physical: handicaps and disabilities of various kinds, but also obesity, ugliness, awkwardness, lack of skill in sports, lack of some desirable secondary sexual characteristic. Some are features of the person’s form of life: sexual minorities, criminals, and the unemployed are major recipients of stigma.

These latter types of deviation from the normal are not branded on the face. Societies have, in consequence, found it convenient to inflict a visible mark. The word “stigma” is in fact the Greek term for this mark.111 In the ancient Greek world the word-group (noun stigma, verb stizô) referred to tattooing, not to branding,112 and tattoos were widely used for penal purposes. As the edict of Constantine records, the mark was frequently applied to the face, in order to shame the offender in a publicly visible way.113 Similar practices are found in many societies, some involving branding as well as tattooing. And the evidence shows, time and again, that those singled out for branding include not just those convicted of a particular offense, but various other undesirables: slaves, the poor, members of sexual and religious minorities.

What is going on when societies stigmatize minorities? How might this behavior be connected to the dynamics of human development I sketched out above? At this point any account is bound to be highly conjectural, but with shame as with disgust, we are dealing with phenomena of such ubiquity that we ought at least to try to understand them. At the heart of the matter is the strange notion of the “normal,” with its way of linking what might seem to be two altogether distinct ideas.114 On the one hand, there is the idea of statistical frequency: the normal is the usual, that which most people are or do. The opposite of “normal” in that sense is “unusual.” On the other hand there is the notion of the good or normative: the normal is the proper. The opposite of “normal” in this sense is “inappropriate,” “bad,” “disgraceful.” Social notions of stigma and shame typically link the two rather closely together: whoever does not do what most people do is treated as disgraceful or bad. The puzzle is why people should ever have drawn this peculiar connection. For, obviously enough, what is typical may or may not be very good. Bad backs, bad eyes, and bad judgment are all very typical, and Senator Roman Hruska’s claim in the 1970 Senate debate that intellectual mediocrity should be represented on the U.S. Supreme Court met the widespread mockery it deserved. As Mill observed, much progress in human


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