What is the Stigma Effect? Part 1

The Costs and Benefits of Progressivism

Posted Jan 22, 2019

STIGMA IS INJUSTICE!  Many of us have a fundamental need to right injustice; specifically to replace prejudice and discrimination with opportunity.  Groups hurt by stigma include those of color, women, sexual minorities, seniors… and people with mental illness.  Injustice motivates progressives who come to battle stigma with optimism and self-determination.  Sometimes progressives are victorious; gains in civil rights and women’s suffrage have addressed the social injustices faced by African-Americans and women.  Sometimes we stumble; big steps fail to bring lasting solutions.  Racism remains a virulent force. Sometimes we blunder.  Some progressive efforts not only fall short, but actually backfire.  The stigma effect addresses these unintended consequences.  Consider three examples from history. 

Source: Pixabay

In the 1960s, progressives sought to address racism by promoting color blindness, the idea that ethnic difference does not matter, that we are all the same.  Hence, we should ignore values that define the difference.  Blacks, for example, were asked to ignore their cultural roots.  Although the goal was to stifle ethnic disparity, it more likely promoted white priorities.  The Black Power movement arose to reaffirm the importance of African American identity in itself.  Among its many meanings, Black Power symbolized African American efforts at rediscovery and agency.  This included recognition of African culture, history, and accomplishments with pride.  It sometimes included a call for Black Nationalism, which threatened many Whites, a seemingly unexpected result of color-blind proponents who naively assumed we could come together under one neutral tent.

Consider another example.  In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton dealt with homophobia in the military by supporting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policies.  Prior to then, the military actively sought gays and lesbians to ban them from service.  DADT made it unlawful for military branches to exclude people because of sexual orientation.  In return, DADT barred gay and lesbian personnel from “openly” enlisting or remaining in military service.  Gay enlistees and officers were precluded from talking about their orientation.  Although an improvement over previous policies, DADT encouraged service men and women to be closeted by allowing them to stay in the military as long as they hid essential parts of their identity.  DADT soon encountered significant resistance.  It was repugnant to gay and lesbian advocates, who believed that being out and open about one’s sexual orientation were fundamental to an esteemed life, everywhere, including the military.  The Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest Republican gay organization, challenged DADT’s constitutionality by arguing it violated rights of gay military members to free speech, due process, and open association.  After several years of debate, DADT was repealed during the Obama Administration in 2010. 

Source: Prexels

A third example, which is personally important to me as a Jesuit-trained Catholic, was Pope Francis’ inaugural mass on March 19, 2013.  Jorge Bergoglio chose Francis as his regnal name in homage to St. Francis, the thirteenth century friar renowned for preachings related to care for the poor.  In this light, the Pope quoted during his inauguration verse 25:40 from Matthew’s gospel where Christ said to his apostles, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren that you do unto me.”  While clearly seeking to motivate the masses toward accepting responsibility for all one’s brothers and sisters, the quote repeats an unintended stigma; namely, that a person who is disadvantaged is somehow less than others.  It perpetuates a dated notion of charity: that the haves BESTOW upon the have nots their advantages.  The rich give to the poor, the educated to the uneducated, the healthy to the sick.  This promotes a one-up hierarchy in which the former are somehow better than the latter.  Current approaches to social justice replace notions of “alms to the poor” with those of empowerment and rightful opportunity for all.  Social justice is achieved when everyone is empowered to pursue a life that fulfills personal goals.  I do not believe that Pope Francis sought to disempower or otherwise debase people with less advantages.  Quite the contrary; his efforts to return the church to concerns of common people is remarkable.  Similarly, I do not believe that purveyors of color blindness or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were trying to worsen the lot of people of color or the LGBT community.  But indeed that’s what they did.  Advocates against social injustice need to learn from such mistaken intentions to craft ever-better approaches towards empowerment and self-determination.  In future blogs, I will address how the stigma effect has impacted anti-stigma efforts for people with mental illness.