Mero Moment: The Role Of Stigma

This week I want to talk about public stigma. The Georgia Children’s Health Alliance, a private, not-for-profit organization, has begun a public opinion campaign against childhood obesity. Their latest tactic is to post billboards that remind Georgians that their childhood obesity is second highest in the nation.

The billboards are somewhat controversial. They say things like “Chubby Kids May Not Outlive Their Parents,” and “Fat Kids Become Fat Adults,” and “Big Bones Didn’t Make Me This Way … Big Meals Did.” The campaign raises the issue of stigma and its value in changing, or preserving, human behavior.

The Obesity Action Council, another not-for-profit group, has excoriated the billboard campaign. They state that one of their major objectives is to “eradicate the negative stigma and weight bias of individuals affected by obesity.” And they say that the billboard campaign “greatly promotes the negative stigma, weight bias and bullying often associated with obesity and childhood obesity.”

Now let me take what will sound like an otherwise unpopular position in support of stigma. I was glad to note that the Obesity Action Council recognized “negative” stigma, implicitly stating that there is such a thing as positive stigma.

Stigma can have negative effects, truly. But it’s stigma that helps keep a free society free to the degree that it keeps morality and ethics in the private sector. We can only imagine what a government campaign against obesity would have looked like in Nazi Germany.

Many advocates of political correctness worry and fret about how nice we are to each other. In a free society, stigma plays an important role. It reminds all of us of our common culture built over centuries about how we’re to behave toward one another, including how we make individual choices that could possibly affect our neighbors. In a world without a welfare state such matters are relatively harmless. If someone wants to eat themselves into a state of physical dependency on their loved ones, so be it. But when the welfare state requires our neighbors to rescue us from our own problems, that is quite something else.

Under the circumstances of a welfare state, the alternative to private stigma expressed publicly is government-enforced direction and intrusion into our private lives. When we live in community, someone will always set group morality. In a free society, that is done by families, neighbors, churches, and other voluntary associations dedicated to human improvement. In an un-free society, morality is set by government officials. Again, you see this sort of experience most clearly from the historical example of Nazi Germany, who persuasively told otherwise decent people that killing Jews was OK.

I don’t know if those anti-obesity billboards are effective or not. I do know that stigma is an effective tool to remind the better part of us – the part of each human being that strives to become better – that we’re personally responsible for our actions and that our private actions can often have public consequences, especially in the era of the welfare state.

I get the argument against negative stigma – meaning I get the idea that stigmatizing people can have an adverse affect. I just want us to acknowledge that outside influences on our private lives are healthy, in general, and stigma can play a positive role.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.