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Shunning is the act of social rejection, the deliberate avoiding association with, and habitually keeping away from, an individual or group. It is a sanction against association, often associated with religious groups and other tightly knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include, but are not limited to, apostates, whistleblowers, dissidents, people classified as "sinners" or "traitors" and other people who defy or who fail to comply with the standards established by the shunning group(s).
Social rejection was and is a punishment used by many customary legal systems. Such sanctions include the ostracism of ancient Athens and the still-used kasepekang in Balinese society.
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Shunning can be broken down into behaviours and practices that seek to accomplish either or both of two primary goals.
Some less often practiced variants may seek to:
Shunning is usually approved of (if sometimes with regret) by the group engaging in the shunning, and usually highly disapproved of by the target of the shunning, resulting in a polarization of views. Those subject to the practice respond differently, usually depending both on the circumstances of the event, and the nature of the practices being applied. Extreme forms of shunning have damaged some individuals' psychological and relational health. Responses to the practice have developed, mostly around anti-shunning advocacy; such advocates highlight the detrimental effects of many of such behaviors, and seek to limit the practice through pressure or law. Such groups often operate supportive organizations or institutions to help victims of shunning to recover from damaging effects, and sometimes to attack the organizations practicing shunning, as a part of their advocacy.
In many civil societies, kinds of shunning are practiced de-facto or de-jure, to coerce or avert behaviours or associations deemed unhealthy. This can include:
Shunning is often used as a pejorative term to describe any organizationally mandated disassociation, and has acquired a connotation of abuse and relational aggression. This is due to the sometimes extreme damage caused by its disruption to normal relationships between individuals, such as friendships and family relations. Disruption of established relationships certainly causes pain, which is at least an unintended consequence of the practices described here, though it may also in many cases be an intended, coercive consequence. This pain, especially when seen as unjustly inflicted, can have secondary general psychological effects on self-worth and self-confidence, trust and trustworthiness, and can, as with other types of trauma, impair psychological function.
Shunning often involves implicit or explicit shame for a member who commits acts seen as wrong by the group or its leadership. Such shame may not be psychologically damaging if the membership is voluntary and the rules of behavior were clear before the person joined. However, if the rules are arbitrary, if the group membership is seen as essential for personal security, safety, or health, or if the application of the rules is inconsistent, such shame can be highly destructive. This can be especially damaging if perceptions are attacked or controlled, or various tools of psychological pressure applied. Extremes of this cross over the line into psychological torture and can be permanently scarring.
A key detrimental effect of some of the practices associated with shunning relate to their effect on relationships, especially family relationships. At its extremes, the practices may destroy marriages, break up families, and separate children and their parents. The effect of shunning can be very dramatic or even devastating on the shunned, as it can damage or destroy the shunned member's closest familial, spousal, social, emotional, and economic bonds.
Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature. When used by church members and member-spouse parents against excommunicant parents it contains elements of what psychologists call parental alienation. Extreme shunning may cause traumas to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.
Some aspects of shunning may also be seen as being at odds with civil rights or human rights, especially those behaviours that coerce and attack. When a group seeks to have an effect through such practices outside its own membership, for instance when a group seeks to cause financial harm through isolation and disassociation, they can come at odds with their surrounding civil society, if such a society enshrines rights such as freedom of association, conscience, or belief. Many civil societies do not extend such protections to the internal operations of communities or organizations so long as an ex-member has the same rights, prerogatives, and power as any other member of the civil society.
In cases where a group or religion is state-sanctioned (e. g. in communist states), a key power, or in the majority (Singapore), a shunned former member may face severe social, political, and/or financial costs.
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Passages in the New Testament, such as Corinthians&verse=5:11-13&src=! 1 Corinthians 5:11-13. and Matthew 18:15–17, suggest shunning as a practice of early Christians, and are cited as such by its modern-day practitioners within Christianity. However, not all Christian scholars or denominations agree on this interpretation of these verses.
Policies governing the use of shunning vary from one organization to another.
Prior to the Code of Canon Law of 1983, the Catholic Church expected in rare cases (known as excommunication vitandi) the faithful to shun an excommunicated member in secular matters. In 1983, the distinction between vitandi and others (tolerandi) was abolished, and thus the expectation is not made any more.
Some sects of Anabaptist origin shun former members.
Upon taking instruction classes, each applicant must make a confession to uphold shunning of all excommunicated adult members, and also submit to being shunned if they are excommunicated. The stated intention is not to punish, but to be used in love to win the member back by showing them their error. (Ref Johns Hopkins Press, below).
Shunning occurs in Old Order Amish and some Mennonite churches. Shunning can be particularly painful for the shunned individuals in these denominations, which are generally very close-knit, as the shunned person may have no significant social contact with anyone other than those in their denomination.
The Amish call shunning Meidung, the German word for avoidance. Shunning was a key issue of disagreement in the Amish-Mennonite split. Former Amish woman Ruth Irene Garrett provides an account of Amish shunning in her community from perspective of shunned individuals in Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life. Amish shunning is also the subject of popular fiction novels about shunning. Different Amish communities vary in the severity and strictness of shunning employed.
The Mennonite ban does not usually involve shunning, but excommunicated members are banned from participation in communion. A few Mennonite groups do practice shunning, or have in the past. Mainstream and progressive Mennonites either do not shun, or employ less extreme forms of shunning. Some very conservative Mennonite churches use shunning to exclude, punish, and shame excommunicated members. In its extreme form, Mennonites who practice shunning do so by condemning, snubbing, and shaming excommunicated individuals in all social, spousal, and familial contexts without regard for family ties. When a member is excommunicated, shunning continues until the individual's death unless they repent. The practice has been described as "one of the cruelest punishments known to man" by a shunned Mennonite and "a living hell of torture" by a Mennonite member who has practised shunning.
Jehovah's Witnesses practise a form of shunning which they refer to as "disfellowshipping". A disfellowshipped person is not to be greeted either socially or at their meetings. Disfellowshipping follows a decision of a judicial committee established by a local congregation that a member is guilty of a "serious sin", including "fornication, adultery, homosexuality, greed, extortion, thievery, lying, drunkenness, reviling, spiritism, murder, idolatry, apostasy, and the causing of divisions in the congregation"; Watch Tower publications cite sexual immorality as the most common reason.
The Watch Tower Society directs that those who voluntarily renounce membership of the religion ("disassociation") are also to be shunned. The organization cites their interpretation of various passages in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, and 2 John 10-11 to support their practice of shunning. Total shunning is not enforced in the case of disfellowshipped members living in the same household, although in this case the remaining members will not usually discuss spiritual matters with the disfellowshipped person. Parents are still expected to give Bible instruction to a disfellowshipped minor. Contact with family members not living in the family home is to be kept to a minimum. Sociologist Andrew Holden claims his research indicated many Witnesses who would otherwise defect because of disillusionment with the organization and its teachings retain affiliation out of fear of being shunned and losing contact with friends and family members.
In some Protestant groups or churches, shunning goes by other terms, such as disfellowshipping or "marking," based on the King James Version of Romans 16:17, which says to "...mark them which cause divisions...." Some groups perceive any disagreement with their teachings or leadership as being divisive, or even having a "demonic" influence and use shunning as a means of ensuring all church members' absolute submission to church leadership. Some use the so-called "Moses Principle" as a justification to shun any dissenters. It is estimated that 10% to 15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice shunning.
Cherem is the highest ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community. It is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Except in rare cases in the Ultra-Orthodox and Chassidic community, the practice of cherem ceased after The Enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy and Jews were legally enfranchised into the Gentile nations in which they lived.
Members of the Bahá'í Faith are expected to shun those that have been declared Covenant-breakers, and expelled from the religion, by the head of their faith. Covenant-breakers are defined as leaders of schismatic groups that resulted from challenges to legitimacy of Bahá'í leadership, as well as those who follow or refuse to shun them. Unity is considered the highest value in the Bahá'í Faith, and any attempt at schism by a Bahá'í is considered a spiritual sickness, and a negation of that for which the religion stands.
The Church of Scientology asks its members to quit all communication with Suppressive Persons (those whom the Church deems antagonistic to Scientology). The practice of shunning in Scientology is termed disconnection. Members can disconnect from any person they already know, including existing family members. Many examples of this policy's application have been established in court. It used to be customary to write a "disconnection letter" to the person being disconnected from, and to write a public disconnection notice, but these practices have not continued. The Church states that typically only people with "false data" about Scientology are antagonistic, so it encourages members to first attempt to provide "true data" to these people. According to official Church statements, disconnection is only used as a last resort and only lasts until the antagonism ceases. Failure to disconnect from a Suppressive Person is itself labelled a Suppressive act. In the United States, the Church has tried to argue in court that disconnection is a constitutionally-protected religious practice. However, this argument was rejected because the pressure put on individual Scientologists to disconnect means it is not voluntary.