Shame and Blame: Moving On

By | November 24, 2015

I have become accustomed to writing blogs as thought-in-progress, typically in a café or bar. This one is no exception. What is slightly different however is that it is entirely spontaneous. I have given its subject matter no thought prior to opening my laptop. It is about stigma and deviance.

I have previously commended an analytic distinction between stigma, involving an infringement against norms of shame, and deviance, involving an infringement against norms of blame. Stigma/deviance and shame/blame require separating. This is not new of course (witness the distinction between ‘ascribed’ and ‘achieved’ deviance for example). But it is a distinction that may have slipped out of fashion and need re-asserting. Shame, implying an ontological deficit (an imperfection of being) is not the same thing as blame, implying a moral deficit (culpability for morally flawed act/s). Amidst the general messiness of ‘real life’ it is often difficult to differentiate them, or their impacts and effects.

I have also distinguished ‘felt’ and ‘enacted’ dimensions of both stigma and deviance. The adjective ‘felt’ denotes internalizations of shame and blame, plus a fear of encountering discrimination from others. ‘Enacted’ denotes actual discrimination.

Using these distinctions, I have maintained that in the present era of (post-1970s) financial capitalism it has proved politically expedient to extend the vigour and reach of the notion of ‘personal responsibility’. This has led to new sets of citizens – formerly ‘merely’ shamed for their poverty, disabilities, declining mental health and so on – being blamed for their shame. If this charge can be made to stick, then these citizens cease to be the responsibility of the state and can more easily be abandoned (as they progressively have been since 2010). The salience of Foucault for framing felt stigma and deviance in terms of technologies of the self and governmentality is evident. So much, so old.

Sitting with my glass of wine in TCR (see yet another blog), I am pondering the theoretical value of and empirical justification for a quartet of ideal types: stigma + deviance +; stigma + deviance -; stigma – deviance +; stigma – deviance -. This translates, of course, as shame with blame; shame without blame; neither shame nor blame; and blame without shame. I should stress that what I have in mind here really is a set of Weberian ideal types (that is, no individual need sit over-comfortably for over-long in any one category).

It might help to give these four ideal types provisional labels. Here goes: stigma + deviance + might be called ABJECTS (acknowledging but if necessary apologizing to Imogen Tyler); stigma + deviance – might be termed REJECTS; stigma – deviance – are more obviously NORMALS; and stigma – deviance + might be labeled LOSERS. There is an uncomfortable brutality to these labels. But I will suggest that this reflects the calculating and uncalculating brutality of the labellers and the labelling process.

The ‘abjects’ are those to whom blame has effectively been aligned/appended to shame. Beyond the social pale, people so assigned can be safely ‘written off’. The ‘rejects’ comprise Goffman’s admix of the discredited and discreditable, possessors of conditions or attributes beyond their capacity to repair that nevertheless disqualify them from the pluses of social inclusion. The ‘normals’ are those who have somehow escaped the negativity of being excluded by either shame or blame. Finally, the ‘losers’ are those who are deservedly cast out, having failed to observe the prevailing conventions and proprieties.

All but the normals are likely to suffer hardship, felt and/or enacted, whether expressed in terms of loss of regard at one end of the spectrum or truncated life expectancy at the other.

A qualification before I get down to an hypothesis or two. All norms, including those of shame and blame, are socially constructed. They are not arbitrary, but they are conventional; and conventions shift by time and place. Moreover conventions are responsive to social structures as well as to cultural recipes. Wealth and power matter here. This is why somebody who uses a wheelchair or who has nicked a can of beer from a supermarket is more likely to fall foul of felt and/or enacted stigma or deviance (respectively) than a ‘bankster’ post-2008-9. Outside of Iceland, the latter have emerged more than unscathed, in fact in profit.

If there is merit in what I see as the premier generative mechanism of financial capitalism, its novel class/command dynamic (whereby a hard-core of transnational capital-owners buy policies to their liking from the national political elite), it must be concluded that norms and their enforcement are conditional. Polls suggest less public compassion for banksters than for war veterans re-learning how to walk or for homeless persons the worse for alcohol. BUT who enforces which norms?

Banksters and the co-investing or for-profit political elite who wrap them up safely escape as normals. The abjects, rejects and losers are less fortunate.

Now for a few hypotheses: (a) stigma and deviance, norms of shame and blame, reflect social relations; (b) social relations are typically, enduringly and invariably structured; (c) structures of class and command predominate with renewed and refreshed vigour in financial capitalism; (d) the class/command dynamic in financial capitalism is prepotent; and (e) an upshot of this macro-class/command dynamic is the neglect or even micro-management and abandonment of the most vulnerable of our fellow-citizens.

Wealth buys the power that shuts out those it can get away with defining as abjects, rejects and losers.

As ever, feedback welcome. Critical is good.












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