It was about seven or eight years ago that I first heard the word “shun” applied to our current day and age. A Midwest farmer who had just a few years earlier severed ties with his Amish community told me how he and his family were “shunned” by friends and even close relatives when they returned to their old community for a relative’s funeral. They were only permitted to sit at the very back of the church where the ceremony was held. “They could have denied us food as well,” the farmer explained, but in this situation his old community hadn’t resorted to such a harsh expression of anger, at least not as of that moment.
Shunning is merciless in its implied anger and cruelty, especially when it is upheld by old friends and close relatives.The Bible includes several references to shunning, with instructions to avoid individuals considered guilty of various sins. But alas, the Amish aren’t the only ones who haven’t let shunning disappear—the practice seems to have reasserted itself ever more frequently in our modern society.
It’s been used as a tactic by both sides in the seemingly endless raw milk controversy. Back in 2009, a committee of the American Veterinary Association actually sponsored a day-long session on raw milk, which included two raw milk proponents (I was one). The presentations and discussions were what diplomats might refer to as “frank and open,” but in retrospect, the public health community determined that such open get-togethers were not to be tolerated; one public health official, since deceased, summed up the attitude of many when he said at the 2009 event, “Raw milk is a niche product for a few nut cases.” He had begun a dehumanizing process, and since then, the two sides have actively shunned each other, with just a few largely symbolic exceptions, mainly to hold public debates.
The raw milk community demonstrated over the years that it wasn’t immune from using the shunning tactic. Three years back, members of a Kentucky food club essentially shunned one of their own, a mom whose child became seriously ill from drinking raw milk. The mother took issue with a large segment of parents of children who didn’t get sick for insisting the milk from the club’s farm supplier couldn’t have made her child ill—essentially they shunned the mother of the sick child for seeking answers to her child’s illness.
Then, two-and-a-half years ago I found myself the target of a shunning campaign, from the Weston A. Price Foundation and its founder, Sally Fallon Morrell. Chapter leaders were warned not to link to my blog, under penalty of being sued. This warning followed the expulsion of the organization’s vice president, Kaayla Daniel, for raising health concerns about fermented cod liver oil, and the exclusion (shunning) from its annual conference of Ron Schmid (since deceased), the owner of a nutritional supplements company that had exhibited at the conference for many years prior.
The sin of the three of us, dubbed “the three amigos” by Fallon-Morrell? Encouraging her and the producer of the FCLO to have the product carefully tested to understand why a number of people who consumed it were becoming seriously ill.
What distinguishes shunning from simply avoiding other people because you don’t like them? Shunning is particular to people from the same community, or political movement, or with similar roles. Such as when Democrats exclude from decision making those who supported Bernie Sanders. Or when members of a college fraternity shun other students who were rejected by the fraternity. Or when members of urban youth gangs shun members who dress the wrong way or hang out with the wrong people, sometimes with dire consequences, like being shot and killed.
It seems as if shunning is coming up ever more frequently in our culture’s social and business life. In Portland, OR, foodies nearly destroyed a bistro serving dishes drawn on British colonial history because the owner had the gall to name the restaurant Saffron Colonial. The owner finally gave in to the demonstrations and negative Yelp reviews by re-naming the restaurant British Overseas Restaurant Corporation. Other similar examples of shunning have combined to poison Portland’s food scene.
To me, the ostracizing and verbal abuse seen on social media of of teenage survivors of the Parkland, FL, massacre by parents of school-age children also smacks of shunning. The survivors’ crime? Speaking out in favor of gun restrictions after watching their friends being slaughtered. They have been smeared with videos suggesting that the Parkland massacre, like the Newton, CT, slaughter, and other mass killings, are somehow faked as part of a government conspiracy.
It might even be said that more of us are shunning each other because of political views we find distasteful. Family members and long-time friends avoid all contact because they are so turned off by the individual’s support, or lack of support, for our president. I’ll admit, I have difficulty conversing with parents who post videos like the one I linked to above. I find it repulsive to engage with people who on some level seem to be sanctioning the slaughter of innocent children. But I also know that shunning is killing our country. We need to be able to move beyond our differences, and embody the reality that we have more in common than we have differences. I need to be able to listen closely enough that I can at least begin to understand the fear and/or anger that is driving otherwise decent individuals to hold tightly to views I find terribly offensive. One thing is for sure: shunning offers no path to reconciliation.