THE SEARCH FOR THINGS TO STIGMATIZE

My premise is that we’re going about the opposition to racism all wrong. We are assuming that the stigma is in the status of the category — color, gender, education, religion, etc. Therefore, we put a lot of effort into proving that the particular people don’t deserve the stigma, that it is a product of social exclusion dignified with dogma.

My conviction is that the kind of stigma doesn’t matter — the real phenomenon is “stigmatizing” almost any category because the dynamic is in the stigmatizer. It is a defense mechanism meant to keep the stigmatizer pulled together in identity by mobilizing as though against an enemy. They are a searchlight looking for something to blame and hate. Possibly they have no real contact or social knowledge of the category of people they so oppose. Why else would they stigmatize the old or the fat? How have those simple human conditions become immoral, blameworthy?

Let’s do the obligatory little word-root tour.

1) Late 16th century (denoting a mark made by pricking or branding): via Latin from Greek stigma ‘a mark made by a pointed instrument, a dot’; related to stick.

2) Stigma was borrowed from Latin stigmat- , stigma, meaning “mark, brand,” and ultimately comes from Greek stizein, meaning “to tattoo.”

3) Earliest English use hews close to the word’s origin: stigma in English first referred to a scar left by a hot iron — that is, a brand.

4) The name, stigma (στίγμα), is originally a common Greek noun meaning “a mark, dot, puncture”, or generally “a sign”, from the verb στίζω (“(I) puncture”); the related but distinct word stigme (στιγμή) is the classical and post-classical word for “geometric point; punctuation mark”.

5) Although the term originally described a mark made through branding to designate a person of undesirable moral character, stigma was introduced into the psychological literature by Erving Goffman in 1963 to refer more broadly to any attribute or characteristic that makes its bearer tainted or devalued by others.

6) Goffman identified three main types of stigma: (1) stigma associated with mental illness; (2) stigma associated with physical deformation; and (3) stigma attached to identification with a particular race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.

(All quotes from Google.)

So stigmata range from marks considered signs of high virtue, like Jesus’ wounds on the Cross; to social identifications of who can be owned or jailed or even killed; to technical signs of suitability for sanity; to defiant counter-culture tattoos. Awareness of tribal identification through decoration was not considered where I was looking. The tattoos of Inuit or Maori are chosen markers, showing whom to include rather than exclude.

In/Out governs our social lives, even the imaginary ones we watch on television. Dividing people into categories on the basis of their stigma potential is a common pursuit of media, witness Fox news for haters who fear others who are different. The category that is sought is NOT in the subject matter but in the people looking for those who can be hated.

We need to be working on bad citizens like these, who fan the flames of pandemic.:

Reillyt Neill tweets:

“Childlike parents rage-emboldened by a self-absorbed leader thriving on stoking chaos instead of fostering safe places for educating kids 100% created this mess in Livingston. 17 positive cases now at SGMS, six from just yesterday because parents sent COVID-sick kids to school!”

We go from issue to issue, defending who chooses whom for sex, then leaving that and defending dark skin, then some new cause like maybe “Indians” or the unemployed or domestic terrorists or illegal immigrants. Whereever there is a separation, we go about our Mannichean addiction to in/out, good/bad, friend/enemy, north/south, this side of the railroad tracks vs. that; this side of the river vs. that, the East vs. the West; the college-educated vs. the not. Our fixation on sports and the arousing emotions of opposition contribute to this.

It used to be a lot more practical and easier when society was more mono-cultural and religion was stronger and less lenient. The divorced, the convicted, the profane were easier to identify and no one forgave them or let them take communion or vote. In fact, centuries ago when things were far more rigid, the stigmatized could simply be killed in public to maintain the cultural order. We don’t let people do that now, so we resort to subtler and more extended means of punishment, like not letting people rent or giving them jobs or access to food or health care, letting their schools run down.

Confining the indigenous to reservations was claimed to be a way of protecting them and their way of life, a refuge, but then when they were prevented from leaving, it was also a kind of incarceration. In Canada the Euro invaders were forbidden to invade the rez, which turned out to be a way of looking at it that was to the advantage of those confined. It did indeed slow down assimilation, which could be taken as good or bad, depending on the goal.

Through time, various kind of stigma have been converted into near-mystical access to something transcendent, preceding the Christians, thousands of years before the invasion of the Americas. As the saying goes, the least shall prevail. But the media is still like a searchlight roaming over the crowd, looking for the next candidate to despise. Remember when it was Moms? They were all saints during war, then afterwards blamed for causing everything from schizophrenia to bad taste.

So much of my attention has gone to this issue of stigma markers and the kind of people who look for them and use them to hurt enemies because “proper” English is so often a marker. Bad spelling, poor choice of words, in-group slang, and all the little trip-wires of homonyms and convention interfere with the true object of language which is simply communication. Often the sniffy people who point out “wicked” mistakes know very well what is meant but don’t like the meaning. And what now that spell check is one of the worst offenders, totally destroying meaning. Can we stigmatize that algorithm?

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.