Friday, February 11, 2011

Stigma blinds us

The dictionary defines stigma as “a distinguishing mark of social disgrace.”  Once upon a time, it was the common term for the permanent mark burned into the skin of criminals and slaves.
We like to think of ourselves as too civilized for such things nowadays. But in fact, the practice continues for all kinds of people singled out for scorn and judgment. 
That we even sort people that way is probably the most interesting aspect of this thing we call stigma.
Scorn and judgment are not attitudes a “nice” society generally wants to cultivate in its citizens, and for the most part I think we’re fairly kind to each other. We’re respectful of each other’s differences.
But not always. Some categories of people still end up singled out for social disgrace, their lives marked as surely by stigma as if we’d burned it into them.  
This is Anti-Stigma Week in Greater Victoria, and I love the theme: “Nice People Take Drugs.” People with addictions experience tremendous stigma, and never mind that almost 90 per cent of Canadians report using alcohol or illegal drugs in their lifetime.
But stigma has an impact on a number of other groups, too. Sex workers are profoundly affected by stigma, as everything about the Pickton case continues to remind us.
If it had been bank tellers or 7-Eleven workers or small-business owners who started going missing, I don’t think we’d be in the situation of pulling together a task force 20 years later to try to make sense of why so many died while we dithered.  It simply wouldn’t have happened that way. Stigma kills sex workers.
Stigma against poor people is growing at an alarming rate. It’s why we can justify keeping income-assistance rates at levels that are impossible to live on. It’s why we build way, way less subsidized housing than we did a couple of decades ago, and wince at every tax dollar spent on supporting people unable to work.
Like every group we stigmatize, the poor have become unworthy and shameful in our eyes.
We use hateful language when describing people living homeless. We ignore our governments’ endless service reductions and policy changes that crank up the misery for people in profound poverty. We watch the creep of poverty in our community, and still think it’s “their” fault.
That’s what stigma does. It blinds you to the obvious. It misleads you.
We’ve selectively stigmatized certain health issues, too. Mental illness is the most striking example of that.
If I sprained my ankle, I’d have no compunction about posting it on my Facebook page and waiting for the flood of caring comments. Or writing about it in my column.
But what if I posted that I was staying home to work through a severe anxiety attack? Or a rough period in my schizophrenia? Or had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
Truth is, I doubt I’d even write such a thing if I genuinely had a mental illness, which is perhaps the worst part about stigma. It demands silence.
I’ve often thought that if a purple light suddenly appeared in the house of everyone in the region who’d had a problem with drugs or alcohol, we’d be blinded by the light.
If we could ever see the faces of the people in our community who have been affected by mental illness - or participated in the sex trade, for that matter -  we couldn’t help but rethink our views just on the basis of how many familiar faces we’d see around us.
But who’s going to step forward with such declarations when the stigma is unbearable? How many people are prepared to be brave for the good of the group, when the impact on their own lives from publicly revealing themselves can be horrendous?
Stigma costs people jobs. It costs them their children, and their housing. It brands them as outside the norm, forever “other.”
Our laws say we don’t allow things like that to happen. But we do.
Fortunately, there’s a simple enough solution. We can stop. Stigma is kept alive in this day and age primarily by our attitudes, and it will die as soon as we quit substituting prejudice for thought. 
We have banished many of the laws and practices that once fed stigma at the institutional level. What keeps it going now is just us. All it will take to banish stigma is for you and me to refuse to let it cloud our thinking.
So quit.

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