The Other Social Justice

June 21, 2016


Not all justice is served by negative or positive law. As we well know, sometimes the law is itself a vehicle for injustice and some sort of extra-legal strategy is necessary to either change the law or deliver some just reward or punishment. Society itself may exact justice through our individual and collective treatment of subjects and individuals. Sometimes such action is pejoratively referred to as “mob justice” and there is a several-thousand-year-old history of this sort of action. The earliest historical accounts of such mob justice trace back to the Athenian practice of “ostracism.” For several hundred years, Athens and other city-states could expel any citizen using the process of ostracism, effectively banning them from returning under pain of harsher punishment, and for any reason they chose. To accomplish this, eligible citizens would vote in the agora, and if some certain number of votes supported ostracism, the target was expelled for ten years.

              Targets of ostracism were often political and not infrequently the ostracism was pre-emptive. In other words, the person ostracized may have been seen to be a threat, because of some behavior and often for supporting or potentially becoming a tyrant and upsetting democracy. Effectively, ostracism was (and still is) a tool for some community to punish some behavior of a member without recourse to formal law. Greek city-state ostracism fell into disuse as laws began to replace this extra-legal practice, and following some rather unsavory incidents in which the ostracism was likely used to advance particular political agendas or persons.

              “Shunning” is a similar practice in the Abrahamic religions. If you have read The Scarlet Letter you see an example of how a community may act to shun (ostracism without expelling) members of the community who have violated some standard of conduct. For Christians and Muslims, such shunning often centers upon the breaking of some commandment, although typically the seemingly more benign act of shunning (as opposed to excommunication) centers around some public violation of a community standard. Shunning by religious sects is a form of exclusion while remaining within the community, by which the person shunned is effectively avoided socially and publicly. The shame that this social act imparts is meant as a corrective punishment and as a public expression of disapproval.  Modern sects that shun include Amish, Jehovah’s witnesses, and some practicing Jews as well. While not explicitly obliged by the Bible, the practice is supported by various verses of the Old Testament that admonish believers not to associate with certain people.

              Shunning is certainly less severe than other punishments strictly advocated by Biblical verses and stories (like execution, for instance), and in ancient Greece may have helped accomplish stability and justice without resort to legal process, where laws were not capable or necessary to alter behaviors or punish those who upset the social order. But ostracism and shunning may be harmful too.

              Man is a social animal now living in a world that is increasingly connected so that social networks are broader in many respects than ever before, and yet many seem more isolated from the sort of familial social safety nets that existed for much of our evolution. Our connections to each other in our workplaces, schools, and other affiliations and social groups are more important now as we drift geographically apart from our closest friends and family. The internet provides a particularly easy mode of social acquaintance and also a rather convenient but psychologically costly means of shunning and ostracism. Shunning and ostracism via social media may even be linked to incidence of depression and suicide. In his book The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying. Kipling Williams notes that:

When a person is ostracized for even a brief period of time, the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects pain, is activated, Williams says. People experience the same initial pain when excluded by strangers or close friends, or even enemies. However, the pain may not linger once the person has had time to consider the importance of the group which has excluded him or her or had time to talk about it with a friend…Ostracism is one of the most widely used forms of social punishment, and some see it as more humane than corporal punishment, as when used in a time-out, but there is a deeper psychological impact that needs to be taken seriously … We know that when people are ostracized, it can affect their perceptions, physiological conditions, attitude and behavior – all of which sometimes can lead to aggression.

Recent studies have correlated incidents of school violence with long-term effects of ostracism or shunning by peers. In their Greek and religious origins, ostracism and shunning are limited in time. They are to end either after some set term (as in Greek ostracism) or when the person is redeemed and restored to the community through some act of repentance and communal forgiveness. When ostracism and shunning become tools merely of empowering the majority, and where the aim is to harm and punish only rather than to help correct, we might consider those instances as being a form of bullying and we should be mindful of the harm we may cause and the long term effects that may accrue to the person we shun or ostracize.  

              Law cannot always correct injustices and sometime a community may take it upon itself to do what the law cannot. Our concerns about the retributive or corrective nature of a formal justice system, however, may very well spill over into the world of extra-legal social justice and inform the means and measure by which we employ our social interactions to punish or reward behaviors.



Parramore, Lynn Stuart “The Social Death Penalty: Why Being Ostracized Hurts Even More Than Bullying” Alternet, June 2, 2014

Weatherby, Georgie Ann, Sara Strachila, and Bridget McMahon, “School Shootings: The Deadly Result of Teasing and Ostracism?” Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and Education Volume 2, Issue 1, 2010

Eisenberger, Naomi I., Matthew D. Lieberman, and Kipling D. Williams. “Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion.” Science 302.5643 (2003): 290-292.

Williams, Kipling; Cheung, C.; Choi, W. (2000). “CyberOstracism: Effects of being ignored over the internet.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79: 748–762. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.5.748.