On Wednesday, Cathy Reisenwitz stirred up the libertarian world with a post entitled, “Shaming Others is Unjustifiable Coercion.” She argues that ostracism (and criticism, ridicule, and shame) are equivalent to state coercion. Private coercion, she attests, and public coercion are one and the same.
I don’t buy her argument, at all. Here are five reasons why:
1. Coercion has a specific meaning
Sam Wells of the Laissez Faire-Republic offers a libertarian-tailored definition of coercion. He writes,
“Coercion” (or “violent force”) is an act by a human or humans against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which is his own (his own person or property). It means for someone to take, use, meddle with or otherwise do something to the body or property of another human being without the permission or against the will of that other human being. This includes fraud and embezzlement and other indirect uses of force as well as direct physical violence.
Editor’s Note: Emphasis my own
This definition is particularly important because, when applying the non-aggression principle, should coercion be enforced against an individual, that person has the right to self-defense.
Bullying and shaming sucks, but we have seen the terrible consequences, like Columbine, of what happens when teasing is reciprocated with violence. I doubt that this is what Cathy was getting at.
2. Slander and free speech are at odds with each other, but shaming is undoubtedly an opinion
Some libertarians believe that slander is in violation of the non-aggression principle. For example, Ayn Rand writes,
They are appropriate laws, because the freedom of ideas does not permit you to lie about a person. Under the older interpretation of the courts, truth was your defense. If you know something defamatory about someone, and it’s true, then you have the right to say it. But today, you can practically say anything, so long as you’re supposedly not motivated by malice. There are some standards, but they are unclear and impractical.
This type of law is strictly to protect specific individuals; it has nothing to do with ideas. It’s an issue of whether or not you lied about someone, and caused him damage.
Of course, shaming and slander are not the same thing. Miley Cyrus may very well be a “slut” depending on the definition you’re using. In a free society, as long as one is not lying, one is not violating the non-aggression principle. There is a big difference between calling Ms. Cyrus a slut and claiming she slept with 3000 men.
3. You don’t sign a contract for every interaction you have
Cathy writes, “Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation… I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine.”
Cathy also did not sign a contract when she started writing for Thoughts on Liberty or Sex and the State that she would be devoid of opinion, or that her readership would be forced to have no opinions either. Opinion online and opinion in the real world has no need for a contract, and I would argue that having opinions on others’ sex lives and bodies is human nature.
4. You can’t have it both ways with ostracism
Ostracism, like forming opinions about other people, is entirely human as well. The University of Sydney writes, “Ostracism is a far reaching phenomenon, demonstrated by animals and young human children, as well as adults across cultures.” Its effects can be devastating, including, in primitive cultures, “death due to the lack of protection benefits and access to sufficient food resources from the group.” On the surface, this seems like a clear violation of the NAP.
However, consider the way libertarians approach markets. If a company misbehaves, we argue that the market will ostracize them as a punishment for their impropriety. The social market and one’s personal life follows this approach as well. People are voluntarily choosing not to associate with the “victim,” just like you don’t have to be friends with every person you meet. Ostracism does not violate NAP.
Luckily, opinions can change over time. I am a big proponent of social change, and I do believe that we can convince others not to be dicks to fat people or promiscuous women. Activism, not coercion, is the right way to address this problem. Indeed, by doing so, you make these people feel more accepted, deterring the ostracism problem altogether.
5. Shaming is a counterproductive, evil practice, but it’s still not coercion
It’s shown that those who engage in ostracizing others, bullying, and shaming suffer from low self-esteem, narcissism, a difficult family life, and have been bullied themselves. Shaming can often lead to spiteful behavior, serious illness, struggling to hold down a regular job, and poor social relationships. Libertarians should not engage in shaming for these reasons—it’s bad for others—but not for a half-baked philosophical assertion that it is coercive.