Let’s be honest: Every one of us is guilty of stereotyping and judging others to some degree. And intolerance for people who are not like us is at the root of racism, hate crime and all sorts of evil conduct done by human beings.
In the late 1960s, I was exposed to the teaching of sociologist Erving Goffman on social stigma, and his precepts have stayed with me. Dr. Goffman explained that stigma is “an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others as an undesirable, rejected stereotype, rather than as an accepted, normal one.”
It is the process by which one’s identity becomes “spoiled,” usually by no fault of their own, yet with dire consequences.
Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins refers to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places.
Even though this practice no longer occurs, the abhorrent principle lives on through pervasive societal mistreatment of those perceived as “different” or “other.”
Dr. Goffman described three types of stigma that are prominent in society:
- Overt, physical abnormality, (i.e., birthmarks, physical deformations and disabilities)
- Personality or behavioral characteristics such as mental illness or unusual conduct
- “Tribal” stigma associated with one’s ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs or other characteristics associated with a particular group
It goes without saying that our culture is replete with stigmatization in all three categories, a truth which signifies a serious societal problem and reason for concern.
The child, youth and family services sector focuses on individuals with the highest potential to be stigmatized. Much has been written and spoken on stigma associated with mental illness, but that is only one element of a much larger picture. I have previously written on the stigma foster children and youth experience within our educational institutions. The poor, the homeless, folks receiving public assistance and the physically challenged all fall prey to ruthless stigmatization as well.
The children and youth we serve are, by and large, all victims of trauma. As such, it is quite common for their pain to manifest itself behaviorally or through some very quirky, unusual conduct. These behaviors put them at even greater risk of being stigmatized, resulting in them being further traumatized.
So what’s to be done?
The first thing which is absolutely essential if we are to reduce stigma within our society is for each of us to honestly self-evaluate. Too often we become incensed at the behaviors of others without fully examining our own biases, stereotypes and prejudices. I have personally found that it is so easy to fall into an unintended biased or jaded point of view.
Peers, the media, associations, religious influences, politics, etc., all contribute to our patterns of thinking and perceiving, which over time can very slowly create mental pigeonholes where we inappropriately stuff certain types of individuals. You and I can help stop stigma by reexamining how we might, in fact, stigmatize.
We also need to be educators and advocates. Each of us has many opportunities to convey the damage that stigma can cause and the solutions for stopping it from raising its vicious head in our society. We all have family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances we can positively impact, and certainly many serendipitous opportunities to help others self-evaluate as well.
In addition, our high-tech, instant communications culture provides an open forum for bigots, hate-mongers and stigmatizers. We need to reclaim this territory! All of us, individually and organizationally, need to employ every communication channel and tool at our disposal for educating on and advocating for the stigmatized. For every inappropriate post, there needs to be dozens of positive, truthful communiqués reframing the conversation.
Let us remember that any of us could fall prey to stigma. One’s life circumstances can change in a moment, potentially subjecting us to being perceived as different or undesirable by others. As I have grown older, I have become much more aware of the stigma that accompanies aging. As much as there is diversity in humankind, there is the potential to be viewed by an individual or group as outside their definition of “normal” and be treated as socially undesirable.
As long as stigma continues to infiltrate our world, let’s make sure that our own thinking and conduct is under control and appropriate, and that we make every effort to protect the interest, reputation, quality of life and pursuit of happiness for those who are routinely rejected and outcast by the ignorant segments of our society.