Libertarian feminist Cathy Reisenwitz (who, by the way, is a nice person) stirred up some discussion in libertarian circles with her recent blog post on the topic of social shaming and coercion.
A favorite topic for Cathy is what she calls “sex positivism” (which inspires the name of her primary blog, Sex and the State). She passionately denounces “slut-shaming” tendencies in society, and I find many a reason to agree with her on that.
One of her recent posts, however, has caused some mildly heated discussion among libertarians discussing social issues. In her TOL blog post, Cathy argues that societal ostracism, including slut-shaming, should be considered unjustifiably coercive. To quote her directly:
Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation. Where is the justification for this? 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. In fact, there are studies which indicate that social exclusion is far more psychologically damaging than property crime.
Knowing libertarian tendencies, it can be seen why many libertarians have taken issue with this. The question of how to define unjust coercion is an interesting one, which I partially addressed in this post.
First off, to properly identify coercion, there must be a defined framework of rights that individuals have, in accordance with their utilitarian pursuits of happiness and efforts toward this end. In the material realm, these are referred to as “property rights;” in the personal/social realm, we call them “privacy rights.”
Having established these rights, we can now identify what coercion really is. Coercion exists wherever someone either uses or threatens force upon the existing rights of another. Furthermore, this coercion can either be just or unjust. In my view, “just coercion” is that which is done defensively in order to protect rights; “unjust coercion” is that which is not defensive of rights, but is instead exploitative against them.
Outside of this, there exist social actions which are “not coercive.” This is where the traditional debate regarding so-called “negative rights” and “positive rights” becomes relevant. The benefits one obtains from the services and social actions of others, for instance, would be considered in the positive realm. Many people, myself included, argue that no one inherently has an entitlement right to said benefits from another.
Therefore, if someone decides to discontinue a business or social relationship with another for whatever arbitrary reason, or to exercise free speech against that person in a critical fashion, such an action, however unwise or insensitive, is “not coercive,” because it does not infringe upon either property rights or privacy rights.
In accordance with privacy rights, there is a useful distinction to be made between “shame” and “harassment.” Shame can be understood as a negative feeling that one experiences upon being disassociated, ridiculed, or criticized by others, for whatever reason. Harassment is ridicule that is so persistent and pervasive that it continues to be presented to the subject, regardless of one’s attempts to retreat from association and escape interaction with the harasser. Critical discourse crosses the line from “shame” to “harassment” only when it goes beyond a simple discontinuation of positive benefits and begins to infringe upon privacy rights.
In conclusion, it is my belief that social actions are only unjustly coercive if they infringe upon the privacy rights of others. As much as I concur that slut-shaming is socially imprudent, it does not become unjust coercion until it turns into outright harassment.
Hopefully this can add some clarity to the debate being had.