Stigmata, scars, and brands

October 10, 2016 § 5 Comments

As incarnate beings, our bodies bear witness to many of the choices we have made.

A more or less neutral term for this is scars. Scars may be the result of accident, of injustices committed against us, of noble acts, or of shameful acts.

When our bodies bear witness to noble actions on our part, we might refer to these as stigmata. (The most noble of stigmata are the fatal wounds of the martyr and, well, stigmata).

When our bodies bear witness to shameful actions on our part, we might refer to these as brands.

Stigmata are ennobling; brands are shameful; mere scars in themselves are neither ennobling nor shameful.

Examples of stigmata include the physical signs in a woman’s body caused by bearing children for her husband[1].  The same scars on an objectively unmarried woman or an adulteress are brands: signs of her immoral actions.

Tattoos in modern liberal societies are most often brands: self inflicted scars which make personal flaws manifest in literal scars deliberately engraved into the body.  Sometimes though tattoos can be stigmata, as when they symbolize the brotherhood of a particular group of men fighting for a noble cause. The same kind of common mark is a brand when the cause is ignoble, for example, in gang tattoos.  As deliberately self-inflicted, no voluntarily acquired tattoo is a mere scar.

Sterilization deliberately acquired is a brand.  Sterilization accidental or forced is a mere scar.

These are objective characterizations.  You don’t get to choose in an act of will whether a particular wound on your body is noble stigmata, ignoble brand, or mere scar: it is what it is because of how it got there. You can choose whether or not to mutilate your body with brands; but you cannot in a revisionist act of will turn what is objectively an ignoble brand into mere scar or noble stigmata.  It is no genetic fallacy or retreat to subjectivity to observe that noble stigmata and ignoble brands are different kinds of objects, with different moral implications.

Most people understand this to some degree, whether or not they want to accept it.  Thus things like fat shaming as a reaction to fat acceptance: fat acceptance attempts to neutralize the shame associated with gluttony (a vice which is all too easy to indulge in modern society); or even to turn it into something noble. But of course not all fat is shameful brand.  Some, as with the aforementioned fecund wife and mother, is noble stigmata. Stereotypes are useful, but they aren’t an excuse to turn off your brain.


[1] Or, as we might say today when referring to her actual husband, her first husband; with all the usual caveats about widowhood, prior fornication falsely labeled ‘marriage’, etc.

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