The Production of Stigma

Since Swarthmore seems likely to be stuck debating or struggling over divestment for at least another year or more, I remain interested in trying to push at the central weakness of the pro-divestment argument.

The major argument of many divestment advocates is that divestment by higher education and other large civic organizations will cumulatively stigmatize fossil fuel producers within public culture. More than a few divestment advocates find it hard to stay “on message” with this idea, and often invoke instead tropes of purity or imply that divestment will produce direct economic pressure on fossil fuel companies by devaluing their shares, but when pressed, the movement generally underscores the stigma concept as their key strategic insight.

I’ve complained before that I think this entire argument is a distraction from other kinds of tactics that might produce more meaningful political and social pressure on fossil fuel producers as well as produce a direct impact on climate change itself. The response of many advocates is that institutions can both divest and pursue other kinds of tactics and work to reduce their own consumption of fossil fuels. For that to be true, divestment advocates would have to stop being scornful or disinterested when other tactics or strategies are being formulated. But let me stop with my own distractedness right here and just hone on one major question: are there good historical examples of the production of stigma from direct political or social action which in turn forced the stigmatized institutions or actors to behave differently, or led to general changes in public outlook that marginalized or disempowered the stigmatized? If so, how closely do those examples resemble the current divestment movement?

This takes asking as prologue: what do we mean by stigma? I suppose you could take stigma as accomplished if people, actions, things or institutions, are treated as moral and social pariahs. There needs to be a general social consensus that it is acceptable to mock, despise or shun the target of stigma. Stigma casts its targets out of the social order, and thus also requires ideologies of respectability. Stigma is categorical and even stereotypical, it relieves us of the burden of having to argue case-by-case about why something or someone is wrong. We bundle their wrongness into our common sense. As this definition probably underscores, stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal: stigmatizing racism or fascism, for example, not only seems useful but follows on generations of struggle that should serve as sufficient justification for pushing towards that objective.


1) Consumer boycotts such as the Nestle boycott, the boycotting of South African wine, or the boycotting of Israeli hummus. These campaigns I think by and large serve as good examples of successful direct action. It is possible to change how a proportion of the consuming public perceives a particular product through media campaigns of some kind or another. Some of those campaigns have been methodical and sustained, some of them have been the result of clever or viral strategies. Do they share more in common? I think so. First, most of them have involved products that it’s relatively easy to give up, generally single brands or types of a general commodity. Asking people to stop consuming chocolate, wine or hummus generally would have been a much harder sell. Second, most of these campaigns have involved petitionary addresses to the producer asking for a change in the producer’s behavior. That’s a bit more ambitious when it’s aimed at a state or a regime than when it’s aimed at the selling of infant formula, but in all cases, it is at least imaginable that the producer could try to respond positively to the boycott. Third, the stigma in these cases was mostly fairly limited to particular social groups or classes. When the intended stigma applied to a product that the most responsive social group didn’t consume, the campaign was not very successful. High-income liberals already didn’t drink very much Coors, for example. Fourth, successful cases of stigma creation were actually hard to undo or manage. The Nestle boycott has been cancelled and renewed multiple times and at this point I think is quite beyond the ability of organizers to actively manipulate or change as a result. I brought a South African wine to a party five years ago and the host frowned in concern because they couldn’t quite remember why they weren’t supposed to drink it, just that they were.

2) Tobacco. Tobacco has gone from being culturally omnipresent and generally legitimized to being conventionally loathed, tobacco producers have become commonly viewed as synonymous with dishonesty and the destructive pursuit of profit, and smokers have become marginalized, pitied and/or despised. This is probably the closest match to what the fossil fuel divestment movement might have in mind. The stigmatizing of tobacco has moved the tobacco industry from having strong political influence across the nation to being relatively vulnerable politically except in a handful of states. Defending the tobacco industry is almost synonymous with being grossly self-interested.

Because it’s a good model, it’s worth reviewing how it was accomplished.

First, a broad spectrum of campaigns targeting consumption and consumers of tobacco were integral to creating stigma, and most signally, those campaigns worked across many different cultural domains and communities. Public health and medicalization were the most powerful and earliest weapon in the stigma-producing arsenal, but there were many others along the way. Anti-tobacco campaigns brought pressure on consumers through domesticity and family life (the prenatal impact of smoking, the effects of secondhand smoke on family members); through trying to remove romanticized or positive images of smoking in popular culture; through underscoring how smoking made the appearance and smell of smokers unattractive; through emphasizing the pathos of addiction and early death from lung cancer.

Second, the anti-tobacco campaign did an effective job of exposing the manipulations and deceptiveness of the tobacco producers themselves and that exposure itself contributed to stigmatizing tobacco by pushing the companies involved to act more and more desperate, cynical and predatory. Big Tobacco stigmatized itself, and this reveals another dimension to the politics of stigma. In a public struggle, behavior that violates common or widely shared moral sentiments (in this case, about truth, honesty, care for others) makes it much easier to create stigma, even if that behavior doesn’t directly relate to the focus of the campaign. E.g., the point was to stigmatize the consumption of tobacco, but if its producers were unsympathetic moral actors, so much the better. This also requires the stigma-producing movement to appear morally superior or preferable to their targets, however.

3) Racism. The point here I think would be that stigma alone can only accomplish so much, and that the more general the target, the less potent it is as a political tool.

It’s true that the civil rights movement and its immediate aftermath did a great deal to make the open expression of racist sentiment disreputable, a shift which still holds to a large extent within American public culture. But only in very limited and particular ways, e.g., political actors and elites who want to make use of racial sentiments or mobilize on a more or less racist basis largely use various codes and ‘dog-whistles’ to accomplish their goals and hide behind plausible deniability. It is almost a case of James Scott’s “weapons of the weak”, only transferred to one subset of the powerful.

What’s worth noting here is the specific requirements for stigmatizing a widespread cultural or social phenomenon that resides in the everyday practices and consciousness of a large proportion of the population. Even the limited and tentative degree of stigma attached to overt racist sentiment required a very overt, aggressive use of the politics of respectability, especially invoking ideas about class and social mobility. It required building a general moral consensus about the harms of racist sentiment as well as formal structures of racial discrimination. To keep some sense of stigma in the air also has taken incessant amounts of public shaming and regular cultural mobilizations, even in the pre-digital culture of the 1970s-1990s.

4) Same-sex marriage, abortion, premarital sex, divorce, unmarried parenting, etc.

I cite these as examples of practices concerning sexuality, marriage, family, gender, etc. where “stigma” has been highly mobile over time and across social groups, moving in and out of general consensus, and also where “stigma” has been intensely felt and applied to real human beings with very real consequences. In every case, the development or falling away of stigma was also affected by some kind of deliberate social or political action, though many activists involved with these issues have tried to portray shifting sentiments as a natural byproduct of progress (or as a sign of deep-seated devotion to tradition).

Note again that stigma here is not merely spontaneous and purely social but is largely potent and powerful in everyday life because the practice in question also involves either state sanction or prohibition. However, when stigma enters the picture in any of these cases, it does through moral and emotional language and operates at the level of everyday social relations, not as a matter of dry debate over public policy.

A contrast here could be made to practices that have been in some sense “stigmatized” but did not involve substantial interaction with state authority as their cultural status shifted. Long hair on men, for example. There was still an enforcement mechanism in that case: a man who grew long hair prior to 1970 or so might have been terminated from his job, might have been denied service in a place of business, or might have been verbally or physically assaulted in some social situations. What I think the contrast shows is that individual (or even institutional) behavior can shift from stigmatized to legitimate (or vice-versa) more quickly if the state is not involved, and that the shift is more likely to be lasting. But also these tend to be less consequential or potent kinds of practices. Note that even in these instances, stigma and legitimacy operate through highly moralizing, visceral, emotional discourses.

5) Mental illness and alcoholism

Here are two examples of social issues where there has been an earnest attempt over many decades to destigmatize them via medicalization. Given that this effort has been at best only partially successful, what I take away from this is that if stigmatization takes hold, it’s very hard to undo. Shame and disgust are a very powerful social formation as well as individual psychological experience. If they’re imposed on a phenomenon whose persistence derives from very deep-seated structural roots, they do not stop or prevent that phenomenon but instead largely aggravate the suffering of individuals and groups who are entangled with it. Stigma may help those who do not suffer from the issue feel more secure or positive about themselves, e.g., the sober and the sane feel more self-righteous, more moral, more ‘normal’ via the enforcement of the stigma.

This is especially true if the stigma extends to or demands criminalization. Sex work might be an example of this, given that it is both stigmatized and usually criminalized. Neither does much to prevent sex work itself, but together they make the life of sex workers (and sometimes, but much more rarely, customers) more precarious.


To sum up, if a political struggle wants to use stigma as an instrument, it will need to accept the following as preconditions of success:

1. An embrace of “respectability” as an ideological formation which must make active use of some form of social division or cleavage, and an acceptance of moralizing rhetorics that accompany it. The problem here is that respectability is not an a la carte issue-driven coalition. For respectability to have real power, it has to mobilize across an entire social group, whether that’s class-based or otherwise. It has to operate as manners, as an unspoken everyday orientation towards life. It has to align and assemble assumptions about decency, fairness, righteousness, justice, goodness and attach them to places, people and practices in a somewhat consistent manner.

For campus divestment activists, the primary issue that the requirement to make use of respectability poses is two-fold. First, it requires some degree of investment in the cultural capital of the civic institutions being enlisted in the cause. You can’t exalt the trustworthiness and legitimacy of science, universities, churches, and so on simply when they’re endorsing divestment but otherwise scorn them as handmaidens of neoliberalism or as defenders of reactionary values. This is not just about being considerate to coalition partners: the point is that because the production of stigma requires operating within the register of respectability, to use it successfully a political struggle has to invest wholesale in the authority of respectable institutions. Second, divestment activists will have to pay more attention to large-scale forms of social consensus if they’re interested in using stigma as a weapon, meaning primarily that gestures that accentuate the radicalism or vanguardism of activists are self-defeating. Those moves only make sense in a politics that is attacking a settled consensus or that is seeking to mobilize a strongly radicalized class fraction, e.g., a politics that doesn’t care about being stigmatized rather than a politics hoping to confer stigma.

2. Moral language gains very little political traction when it is nakedly instrumental and temporary, for the most part. Yes, political leaders can get away with routinely violating the moral principles they otherwise attempt to enforce. David Vitter can be caught with his phone number in a prostitute’s contact list and still claim to be a defender of “traditional family values” on behalf of a highly conservative electorate. But even in these cases, the politician in question still has to agree that he ought to follow those values and perform as if he is sorry for failing to do so. You can’t deploy moralizing language and regard your own moral adherence to that language as a secondary or deferred priority.

To stigmatize successfully, you have to also at least pretend to represent the normative, respectable alternative. For divestment activists, this means that they have to stop treating challenges to their own consumption of fossil fuels as a purely malicious non-sequitur. It may well be so, in the sense that such challenges are usually made as provocations from opponents who are unlikely in any case to be swayed by the divestment argument (or indeed, by any environmental activism). But that’s because those opponents sense this is an area of legitimate vulnerability in relationship to the desired political objective. You cannot seek stigma without using moralizing language, and you cannot use moralizing language without at least performing (sincerely or otherwise) your own comparatively greater moral respectability.

What I think this means is that divestment activists will have to stop insisting that calls for attention to consumption ought to be deferred until after divestment is accomplished, or are at least simultaneous with divestment. In fact, I think they’re failing to understand that the moral authority that makes stigma take hold requires depends on a driving commitment to the control of fossil fuel consumption as a prior condition of the campaign’s success, and for that commitment to be visible in the lives of individuals within the movement as well as in institutions.

3. Following on this, stigma isn’t usually abstract. All the examples I can think of apply to and are strongly felt in the lives of individuals. For fossil fuels, that means one of two things: either stigma will eventually have to apply to the individual lives of consumers or it will have to apply to the individual lives of producers. The former strategy has risks that have long been discussed within the environmental movement: you can campaign to make people feel guilty about Nestle chocolate or South African wine, but stigmatizing individuals over whether they use air conditioning or fuel oil is a different political proposition. Shunning producers as individuals has a lot of appeal, in contrast, in that it creates a set of identifiable villains that lets everyone else feel righteous in contrast to. The move to stigmatize the wealthiest 1% has been one of the few things to even slightly restrain the political and social power of current oligarchs. There’s a danger to that approach too, precisely because most people are very familiar with the suffering that shame creates in its targets. Done carelessly, such a campaign creates more, not less, sympathy for its targets. “Which side are you on?” might be an example of being careless: if you’re dishing out stigma, the larger the group of individuals you’re potentially targeting, the more difficult it gets to really stigmatize. Stigma requires a strong majority, even a supermajority consensus, to have much power–if you’re not Amish, you could really give a shit what the Amish think about your use of technology. Stigma is a really strong and dangerous tool that may persist well after it was intended to and apply to targets it wasn’t mean to harm, and most people sense that. I’m not sure that divestment activists recognize what they’re proposing to work with, in contrast.

4. Eventually stigma will require the enlistment of the state to be really powerful and persistent. The problem here with the divestment movement is the chicken-and-egg logic that the campaign presently relies upon–that it will be the successful creation of stigma against the fossil fuel industry in the public sphere and in everyday life that will compel state action. But almost every example I can think of, good and bad, either started with the enlistment of some part of the government or mobilized state resources prior to stigma really taking hold at the popular level. What I think this suggests in part is that stigma requires a prior condition of political vulnerability in its targets–some degree of social or economic isolation. It may be that the fossil fuel industry is on the cusp of that vulnerability both because of general awareness of climate change and because of the growing economic viability of alternative energy producers. But that means again that divestment might be a distraction from producing a condition of stigma rather than a primary means of accomplishing it. E.g., that there are other things afoot that could benefit from activist support which are making fossil fuel producers vulnerable and creating at least the possibility of governmental action.

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3 Responses to The Production of Stigma

  1. A claim from a successful negotiator that talking with terrorists works better than stigmatizing them. Possibly off-topic, but so interesting that I’m posting it anyway.

  2. Nord says:

    Good to see you posting …

    If Marie Antoinette were here today, and asked about reducing the country’s carbon footprint, she might well say “let them all drive Teslas”

    I think the American approach to DUI has changed through significant increases in criminal penalties AND elevating the stigma of driving impaired from faux pas to really, really bad. Laws alone would have changed behavior, but I think the stigma aspect of drunk driving has been very helpful as well.

  3. AYY says:

    “I brought a South African wine to a party five years ago and the host frowned in concern because they couldn’t quite remember why they weren’t supposed to drink it, just that they were”

    Heh. I think you missed the irony in this statement.

    Okay if it wasn’t deliberate and you still don’t see it, I’ll tell you what it is. You used “host” and “they” which don’t go together unless you felt a need to avoid mentioning whether it’s a host or hostess, even though there’s no reason to avoid doing so. The irony is that a reader is left with the impression that you couldn’t quite remember why you thought you weren’t supposed to mention the sex of the person, just that you weren’t supposed to do it.

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