Dave the Philosopher

Behold the Mighty Stigma

War Is Hell. As It Should Be.

I wrote this way back in 1997, and submitted it to the newspaper, but it has never been published in print.

Behold the Mighty Stigma

by David W. Downing, copyright 1997`

The once mighty stigma has fallen on hard times.

In fact, you might even say there seems to be a stigma attached to the word "stigma."

A recent writer to this paper complained that columnist Mona Charen cruelly advocated "rigid application of the stigma" to discourage sexagenarians from becoming pregnant.

"My version of Webster's defines 'stigma' as 'A distinguishing mark burned or cut into the flesh, as of a slave, or criminal," the writer noted.

(Hmmm. On the ranch they call that "branding." Keep that in mind.)

My dictionary includes a similar definition ­ under the heading "archaic." That means people no longer use the word that way. Instead, as in Charen's case, people mean "A mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach" (American Heritage Dictionary).

Stigma can be a powerful tool for influencing behavior ­ and enforcing conformity with societal standards. Charen noted, "Fear of shame is a powerful human motivator that we have all but abandoned in modern America." Indeed, for several decades, the idea of societal stigmas has come under attack.

"Attaching stigma to other people's behavior is old-fashioned and judgmental," the critics said. "Who are you to judge others according to your values?"

So we have discarded or lessened some long-standing stigmas: out-of-wedlock parenthood, living together without benefit of marriage, divorce, bankruptcy.

All these were once considered disgraceful; now they're accepted. Good thing, too, since we've now got so much of them.

So, good riddance to the stigma! We're glad you're a thing of the past.

Not so fast. Both Charen and her critic seem to view stigma as something from a bygone era. But the truth is, while we've been discarding the old stigmas, we've been identifying plenty of new stigmas ­ with impressive results.

Feeling like telling a joke which turns on the color of someone's skin? Better stifle yourself, or you'll be branded (A-ha! There it is!) a racist. Thinking of lighting that stogie in your pocket? Better check who's in your airspace, or you'll be labeled an inconsiderate, smelly slob.

Too busy to sort your trash for recycling? For shame! You don't love our Mother Earth! Can you finally afford that fur coat you've always wanted? Don't even think about it.

See? We haven't stopped using stigma. We just don't use that word so much anymore. But stigma is just another word for peer pressure.

And such pressure is effective. Can there be any doubt that peer pressure ­ stigma ­ has helped reduce racial insensitivity? That it has curtailed smoking, promoted care for the environment, and made it less fashionable to wear fur?

Stigma cuts both ways. It's used by liberals and conservatives. And although people may claim to oppose stigma on principle, it's usually more a case of whose ox is being gored.

Should telling racist jokes in the boardroom earn a stigma? We say "Yes, the stigma will help stamp out racism." Should rape victims bear a stigma? We say "No, that only discourages the victim from pressing charges and seeking needed help."

But should there be a stigma applied to wearing fur? A stigma applied to "living together"? Your answer likely depends on how you feel about these controversial issues, not on how you feel about the issue of stigma.

But branding or labeling people based on their actions ­ or just their personal characteristics ­ can cause great harm. When the stigmatizers become overzealous, this powerful tool becomes a destructive weapon. There are cries of "intolerance" or "political correctness." And there are victims.

From literature, we have Nathaniel Hawthorne's adulteress with her scarlet letter.

From history: The "witches" of Salem. Those branded "heretics" by Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. Government officials and entertainers whose careers were destroyed when McCarthyism branded them "communists" or "sympathizers."

More recently, public figures from Earl Butz to Jackie Mason, from Andy Rooney to Al Campanis, and even Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, have learned the hard way that saying the wrong thing can earn a label of "racist," "homophobic" or "insensitive." That stigma may dog a career forever, if not end it immediately.

But stigma is neither good nor bad. It can be used to promote justice, or to propagate the ultimate evil ­ Hitler's Holocaust.

Use stigma with care. Respect its power. History is replete with examples of how "rigid application of the stigma" ­ or the failure to do so ­ can have serious consequences: from Hester Prynne to Fuzzy Zoeller; from witch trials to an epidemic of illegitimate births.

I wrote this way back in 1990, and submitted it to the newspaper, but it has never been published in print.

War Is Hell. As It Should Be.

by David W. Downing, copyright 1990`

I killed someone's pet last night.

Whose, I don't know. The beautiful white cat had no tags, no collar, and no chance as it ran across the street. But someone lost a friend under my wheels.

Pulling to the side of the street, I found myself hoping the cat would be dead by the time I walked back to check on it. I think growing up on a farm, as I did, gives a person a greater appreciation of life, as well as a better understanding of its temporary nature. But death is still an ugly sight to me.

And it was a sight I would have to see this time. As I stroked its long, soft fur, the cat struggled to hold on to its life. It fought hard, but after a few minutes it was all over.

Thinking about it afterwards, I realized that I could accept the death of the cat. What really bothered me - the worst part of the entire experience - was watching the cat die, as it lay there by the curb, mouthing silent cries of pain.

It also occurred to me that the way I felt about the death of the cat illustrates the way mankind feels about the death of his brethren, and his wars.

The present Persian Gulf situation illustrates this. Like most Americans, I recognize that, throughout history, there have been times when war has been unavoidable. So, also like most Americans, I can support the use of military force when necessary.

But that support for warfare in the abstract sense weakens when applied to a specific situation. Like most people, I don't get too worked up at the thought of a nice, simple little war that doesn't affect me. But the prospect of seeing the destruction on television, seeing the bodies come home, and perhaps even losing a friend, puts the whole thing in a different light.

Adding to this, of course, is the fear that chemical weapons might be used.

I don't know why, exactly, but we seem to think that not all deaths are created equal. We prefer quick, "clean" deaths, like I hoped for in the case of the cat. We don't want to be bothered by the sight of pain and suffering.

In particular, we reserve a special abhorrence for death by poison gas, biological agents, or even nuclear fission. Consequently, we sign treaties promising not to use these "uncivilized" means of killing. "War is hell" already, as the saying goes, without the addition of these demons.

Therein lies the irony. For war should be hell. If it's not, why avoid it? If we persist in limiting our means of warfare, confining the death and destruction to methods and levels we find acceptable, will we ever outgrow our need for it?

I'm reminded of an episode of the original "Star Trek" television series - the program which week after week wrapped a morality play in futuristic action and adventure. In this episode, Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and the rest of the Starship Enterprise crew encounter two planets which have been warring for centuries.

What's odd is that this war is conducted totally as a computer simulation. Totally, that is, except for the planets' inhabitants, who obediently flock like sheep to a quick, painless, government-administered death when the computer lists them as casualties.

It seems these two civilizations decided somewhere along the line that this system would be cleaner and less disruptive than continuing to fire real missiles at each other. So they signed a treaty to institutionalize the system, and proceeded to spend centuries killing their own people. The societies had so sanitized the war that it became completely acceptable to them. Consequently, they had no incentive to end it.

The lesson to 20th century humans, then, is that we must never allow ourselves to grow accustomed to war, or allow our sensibilities to be deadened to the point where we find its destruction "acceptable." If we didn't work to outlaw the use of poison gas, neutron bombs, and other "uncivilized" means of killing, would we be less quick to go to war when diplomacy stalls? Perhaps not, but the irony of it all is something to consider.

Oh, you're wondering what happened on "Star Trek"? Well, Capt. Kirk prevented one planet from carrying out the required execution of its own people, breaking the treaty, and setting the stage for the second planet to launch real missiles in retaliation. It looked like serious destruction was imminent. Or was it? Would the stark reality of a genuine, painful war staring them in the face be enough to make these people seek peace, putting an end to this nonsense once and for all?

Let's just say it was a good day to be a diplomat.


page and website contents copyright 2004 David W. Downing