What is Stigma? Why is Stigma harmful? Why should you care? What can we do about it?
In this short essay the meanings and meanness (and a little bit of history) about stigma will be explored and explained.
If you are involved with, or read about the drug policy reform movement, you’ve probably seen the word “stigma” mentioned in books and articles as well as heard it mentioned in videos and interviews.
If you’re over the age of 5 you’ve probably been subject to stigma at least once. And by the time you’re 10 you’ve probably joined in with the crowd to stigmatize someone else, at least once or twice too.
What is Stigma? What does it mean to stigmatize?
The New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition) provides us with these definitions
- a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person: the stigma of mental disorder | to be a nonreader carries a social stigma.
- (stigmata) (in Christian tradition) marks corresponding to those left on Jesus’ body by the Crucifixion, said to have been impressed by divine favor on the bodies of St. Francis of Assisi and others.
- Medicine a visible sign or characteristic of a disease.
• a mark or spot on the skin.
- Botany (in a flower) the part of a pistil that receives the pollen during pollination.
ORIGIN late 16th cent. (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.
- (usu. be stigmatized) describe or regard as worthy of disgrace or great disapproval: the institution was stigmatized as a last resort for the destitute.
- mark with stigmata.
Let’s use it in a few sentences. Prohibitionists stigmatize people who use drugs. Prohibitionists institutionalize stigma since they can’t always be around you to berate you; so they deputize others to enforce the stigma on their behalf.
And now for a bit of history showing stigma in action, which I also refer to at times as ‘passed down hatred,’ or just plain old ‘teaching people to hate.’ This essay had been in mind for ages, and sat unfinished for a while. But when I read more about crazy people teaching others to hate and the continued effort to put hateful ignorant laws and ordinances on society, I decided to get it online.
Extraordinary Origins of Every Day Things
One of the most fun and potentially most educational books I’ve read is Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Every Day Things.
(I’m not saying I’ve fact-checked every detail or believe every word in it or that I think you should. For the interested and/or doubters, the author provides a References section at the end to discuss the sources for each chapter along with brief commentary.)
Besides the fact Charles Panati’s book makes reading history fun, one can find parallels between the histories of disparate inventions.
In fact, one of the most important lessons I learned from his book is not an overt lesson. The sources could be checked (I haven’t) but independent of that, it’s possible or probable an etymologist could tell us on the spot — or find out in minutes — the veracity of the claim(s) quoted below. However, I’m willing to put some faith into Panati’s research and his sources for now, his research and explanation seem logical.
What seems logical? An explanation for the evolving use of some words.
What does this have to do with stigma? Good question.
But first, let’s take a look at the organization of chapters so you can see an overview of the book. Keep in mind this book aims to share easy-to-read segments about the origins of things many people take for granted.
Chapter 1 — From Superstition
Chapter 2 — By Custom
Chapter 3 — On the Calendar
Chapter 4 — At the Table
Chapter 5 — Around the Kitchen
Chapter 6 — In and Around the House
Chapter 7 — For the Nursery
Chapter 8 — In the Bathroom
Chapter 9 — Atop the Vanity
Chapter 10 - Through the Medicine Chest
Chapter 11 - Under the Flag
Chapter 12 - On the Body
Chapter 13 - Into the Bedroom
Chapter 14 - From the Magazine Rack
Chapter 15 - At Play
Chapter 16 - In the Pantry
And now for a brief quote from one of the last few chapters. Near the end of
Chapter 13, Into the Bedroom
Here are the first two paragraphs, out of the six paragraphs total in the chapter, under the subtitled section,
Sex-Related Words: Post-11th Century, England and France
With the conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy, the Anglo-Saxon language of the British Isles underwent several alterations. As the French-speaking Normans established themselves as the ruling caste, they treated the native Saxons and their language as inferior. Many Saxon words were regarded as crude simply because they were spoken by Saxons. Some of these words, once inoffensive, survived and passed eventually into English as coarse, impolite, or foul expressions. Etymologists list numerous examples of “polite” (Norman) and “impolite” (Saxon) words:
The mother tongue of the twelve kings and queens from William I (who ruled from 1066 to 1087) to Richard the II (from 1377 to 1399) was the Normans’ French, though the Anglo-Saxons’ English continued to be spoken. When the two tongues blended into a new language, Middle English, which became the official language of the court in 1362 and the language for the teaching in the universities at Oxford and Cambridge in 1380, we inherited many double expressions. In addition to those listed above, the Norman “fornicate” came to be the respectable replacement for the Saxon “fuck,” which itself derived from the Old English word fokken, meaning “to beat against.”
Among the references Panati cites, the most likely sources of the above information seem to be:
On word meanings: The Origin of Medical Terms, Henry A. Skinner, 2nd edition, 1961, Hafner; Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, John Boswell, 1980, University of Chicago Press.
For fun re-read the first paragraph excerpted above from Chapter 13. Replace the names of various people-groups from history with modern groups, whether based on nationality, root language, skin color, religion, and other stereotypes.
With the conquest of _______ in [year] by _______, the _______ language of the _______ underwent several alterations. As the _______-speaking _______ established themselves as the ruling caste, they treated the _______ and their language as inferior. Many _______ words were regarded as crude simply because they were spoken by _______. Some of these words, once inoffensive, survived and passed eventually into English as coarse, impolite, or foul expressions. Etymologists list numerous examples of “polite” (_______) and “impolite” (_______) words:
Thus there are remarkable parallels between so called “dirty words,” “curse words,” “bad words,” “foul language,” etc… and the origins of — and perpetuation of — drug prohibition. This specific essay is not meant to teach about the predominantly racist origins of drug prohibition, that can be found elsewhere.
But the main thrust of this essay is to point out that for nearly all intents and purposes it seems stigma (social shaming) is a human invention and is most often nothing more than hate conjured up by those who wish to control others, either directly by making them feel badly or by tacitly bullying others into treating the stigmatized badly.
In the short term, teaching people to hate can seem to work; hiring people to act it out often works in the short term too. In the long term society is ignorantly stuck with formerly useful words, people, and plants which mean-spirited bullies stigmatized and unfortunately the deceived and weak go along with, thus greatly reducing the amazing variety that is life. (Let alone the soul destroying they engage in: Matthew 23:15.)
However, while society as a whole has been burdened by the stigmatizers, individuals can and often do overlook the ignorance and take each thing on its own terms, not based on ignorant traditions and cultural baggage. Some people ignore the stigma (aka despise the shame) and run towards the stigmatized since they are drawn to helping the abused, underdogs, etc… some run towards the stigmatized intentionally to irritate authority figures, and among other reasons, some people are just sick and tired of wasting energy going along with a bunch of lies to appease the bullies, so they say “Fuck it, I quit.” (Or maybe they were remarkably depressed surgeons who underwent electroshock therapy.)
What can we do to help end harm-causing stigma?
Call (318) 422-6612 OR email firstname.lastname@example.org LEAP today to schedule a speaker from their expert speaker’s bureau.
You can buy a copy of Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Every Day Things at Amazon using this link and it will support LEAP.
Please note this is an educational piece for those well in to their ‘formal operational’ years, and not a justification for or excuse to go around trying to piss people off with new found liberation from Olde Thyme Cultural & Racial hatreds. But it does show how outlandish some people have become in saddling themselves and others with ignorant passed-down hatred from long forgotten cultural clashes; time can heal lots of wounds but Jesus warned about making others twice the children…