Here’s a problem that I’ve been puzzling about lately: how do we enforce norms by holding bad actors accountable, without allowing our negative judgments to run wild and entangle lots of others in their net? Consider the person who enters America without permission, and does so with a child. We want to say ‘no’ to the parent—but in doing so, it seems we are casting a pall over the entirely innocent child. Something similar to this happens when we incarcerate people, though we often don’t realize it’s happening: we put one person in prison, but look askance at everyone affiliated with them.
We could invoke the language of ‘stigmas’ to explain the phenomenon, and would be right to do so. As I understand the concept, a ‘stigma’ is a system or complex of social attitudes and judgments that demarcate a person as a violator of our community’s norms. We mark the person, in other words, and in doing so give ourselves the pretext for avoiding that person and—at our worst—discriminating against them unjustly. This is a relatively common phenomenon, and not one that is obviously bad to me; it’s not clear that a society can live without stigmas. They are, if nothing else, an efficient way of regulating and ordering a community’s behavior.
But what of secondary stigmas, the stigmas that get imputed to innocent bystanders like the children in our immigration case? Here I think we have a different set of problems, and a more transparent set of injustices to name. A community that incarcerates someone might behave justly—but if that community extends the stigma to those people who are associated with them, well, then I think we’ve actually gone beyond what justice demands of us. Such an extension may be inevitable: I am not sanguine about the possibility of eliminating every secondary stigma. But if they are inevitable, then the work of justice is inherently tragic: in enacting it through punishing offenders, we inherently create new injustices along the way.
I think the puzzles secondary stigmas generate demonstrate the challenges of communitarianism on the one side, and the weaknesses of liberalism on the other. Regarding the former, communitarian accounts of society tend to emphasize the interdependency of individuals and the primacy of social and cultural formation for our political order. The family is the ‘building block of society,’ the refrain goes. That’s not wrong—but when it comes to norms and accountability, such a framework allows the negative judgment punishment expresses to spread throughout that entire network. An etiology of criminal behavior, for instance, that privileges the breakdown of family bonds or economic deprivation might struggle to impose guardrails that would prevent a stigma upon such behavior from spreading to a person’s network.
But liberal accounts fare no better. As such approaches emphasize the individual’s irreplaceability vis a vis the state, it seems like they would offer a bulwark against the spread of secondary stigmas. And so they should, in principle. But such approaches have little to say about the proclivity to expand stigmas to related parties besides that we shouldn’t do that. “Just say no” is not a particularly effective bulwark, and liberal accounts rarely offer any account of what virtues or practices are needed in order to sustain such liberal constraints. Instead, they have left a vacuum—into which the most expansive and aggressive form of stigmatizing (read: shaming) has rushed. In this way, both communitarian and liberal accounts engender the conditions in which we extend stigmas to those who are closely related to offenders.
I don’t have any grand solutions to this problem, at least not in this newsletter anyway. But it is one reason why I think I’m something like an Augustinian imperfectionist about the world—that is, someone who thinks the state’s work of justice is not only unable to eradicate evils in full but actually contributes to the conditions of further injustices. (Or at least it does so absent further remedial acts, either by the state or by other influential actors in a society.) Note that I parsed my sentence carefully, though: I’m not suggesting that the state actually acts unjustly, but only creates the conditions for further injustices. We might simply accept that as a feature of living in a fallen world, and not trouble ourselves very much about it. But it seems like we should qualify and temper our expectations for what the state can do in terms of bringing about just relations accordingly.