WASHINGTON, March 7, 2012 - Negatively categorizing others is something humans regularly do. None of us can point a finger at others for labeling people unfairly without pointing also at ourselves. So, at what point does a label become stigma? Those who stigmatize and those who feel stigmatized are not very different, except in one respect. Those stigmatized experience a loss of status within their society, or social circles, because of the label.
Anytime we slap a negative label on someone we have accomplished three things. First, we have discerned a difference between that person and ourself. Second, we have decided the difference puts the other in a derogatory light. Third, we create an “us” versus “them” situation. Here is where a groundswell of stigma might arise.
If enough people hold the same negative label about someone, or a group of someones, and have enough economic, cultural, social, or political power to give the label discriminatory consequences, what we call stigma is created or sustained.
Some stigma has a primarily emotional consequence. For example, someone diagnosed with COPD may not experience economic or political fallout because of this diagnosis. However, he or she may experience an ongoing emotional consequence of having a chronic, possibly activity limiting, disease.
There are many people whose daily lives are affected by stigma in multitudinous ways. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) phenomenon can lead to treatment or housing facilities for the mentally ill being set up in less desirable areas of a city. This changes the residents’ job opportunities, self-image, and perpetuates ungrounded fears.
Public name calling that does not actually diminish a person’s status in the world doesn’t seem as important in comparison, although it certainly gets more press. Yet, the source of nasty but non-diminishing name calling is no different than that of labeling and stigmatizing.
Trapped by Experience
Edward R. Murrow wrote, “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices - just recognize them.” None of us understands what a particular experience is like unless we have lived it. A psychotherapist recently revealed, “I would not have empathy for depressed people if I didn’t experience depression myself. I would never have a believed someone could not get out of a chair and take a shower.”
The same is true for divorces, illnesses, childbirth, disabilities, job loss, mental, and emotional problems. No matter what the experience, if you haven’t lived it you will never have the emotional memory of going through it. Luckily for the human race, we can empathize without having lived through identical situations. All of us know what pain, grief, and fear are.
One More Thing In Common
Name calling and stigmatizing are a human problem and very few people discipline themselves not to participate in it. There is a part of every person that takes pleasure in putting others down, and a part that relishes being put down; each of us has his or her own ways of managing fear. This doesn’t excuse name calling, but we all participate. (Apologies to any fictional, or rather, exceptional people who are prejudice-free.)
Feeling fear or anger about something does not determine whether it’s something to fear or be angry about. However, as long as people fear the loss of personal perspectives, or require their triumph, there will be name calling.
Link, G. Bruce & Phelan, Jo C. (2001). Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 363.
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