Yesterday “Here and Now” on the radio had a story about the girl who was so bullied and stigmatized that she committed suicide. She struck back after her death by leaving video tapes of what happened. The persecuting girls, who made their attacks on the Internet, inadvertently provided more evidence and have been formally convicted in court. http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2011/05/06/bullying-massachusetts-court
I often send comments to this radio program, partly because Robin Young is an intelligent and responsive person who weighs ideas carefully and partly because they often choose issues I relate to. In this case it is bullying and stigma more than the issue of suicide, though suicide is HIGHLY and SPECIFICALLY stigmatized as a sin by the Catholic church and punished by exclusion from the church’s ceremonies after death. Presumably also punished by condemnation to hell. That is, suicide is more punished by the Catholic hierarchy than sexual abuse by priests who infect their victims with HIV because the church forbids condoms.
Leaving that aside, the management of stigma seems a crucial issue in a time when many people are in mixtures of society without much confidence about who is in and who is out. The sociologists and psychologists and biologists are hurrying to explain how deeply embedded in evolution this is. One of the early experiments consisted of painting a crow white, whereupon the other crows ostracized and attacked it. This was part of the effort to remove stigma from dark people. But it ended up stigmatizing racists, at least for many of us. It’s just harder to identify racists who’s not wearing a sheet. Until they open their mouths.
Stigma is attached to a person who seems to embody something that the group finds non-conforming, whether or not it’s really “bad” or “wrong.” It is often mindless, so now good priests are having to bear the stigma of bad priests. Our advertising society tries to stigmatize things in order to sell us the “cures.” Stinking, being fat, being old, being clumsy, being inarticulate, being “foreign,” being stupid, being sexually non-conforming to the rigidly prescribed formula of the media (sometimes stigmatizing even celibacy or faithfulness to committed marriage), and a host of other real and invented conditions from lack of fashion sense to conviction of murder -- all can cause stigma to be attached to someone.
The point of stigma is that then it is legitimate for others to persecute them without rebuke. We find it funny to ridicule stigmatized people. Snatching a cigarette out of someone’s mouth, yelling at young women entering an abortion clinic, throwing paint on a fur coat, and accusing the president of being a foreigner are all seemingly justified to some people. The stigmatized might be labeled diseased or filthy. Stigmatizing is a way of controlling people you don’t like, excluding them from power or significance. Even exterminating them. It is also a way of inflating the “stigmatator,” getting them the attention and -- from some people -- approval they need.
I find myself judging people in categories. Sometimes I see a story about bad behavior, look at the name of the person, and think-before-I-think, “Oh, no wonder. No surprise.” In the Thirties two families were given false names: “the Jukes and the Kalikaks.” Social-worker-type literature described them as everything stigmatized: no education, always unemployed, tumble-down houses, dirty kids in rags, alcoholism, abuse, crime. No one wanted to be the Jukes or the Kalikaks. It was a way of enforcing assimilation in a time of immigration and limited resources. In Valier it often drives things like the appearance of the town or the keeping chickens or horses. Criticism is framed as the stigmatized person failing to attract business.
I find myself sitting with the Jukes and the Kallikaks on a voluntary basis. When I went to kindergarten, I was enrolled late in the fall and a little bit young (October birthday). I had no social skills because our neighborhood had no other kids at the time. (I had two younger brothers.) The class had formed into its patterns and didn’t want to make room or figure out how to fit me in. In the next few grades I was sometimes the target of bullying because I was such a klutz on the playground. I was near-sighted but no one had figured it out. Reading was my preoccupation so instead of learning the class rules of how-to-be, I was busy conforming to “Anne of Green Gables.” Yup. Red hair. Stigma. High school came to the rescue when I discovered dramatics and never looked back after that. I used my imagination to sympathize with the stigmatized.
But it could have gone the other way. I could have become one of those nervous people who is always trying to fit in, please others, earn a place in society. I did buy into one strategy: hitching onto an outstanding person. Mixed success. Part of the mixture is the pleasing sensation of helping someone you love, which can wander over into a slightly more dubious category: “do-gooder.” This can earn you either prestige credits or -- in the eyes of those who are having “good” done to them -- stigma stinker status. A reputation for self-righteousness.
I suppose that’s part of the reason people will not step in with schoolyard bullies. They feel it will stigmatize them -- they might be attacked next. So I welcome the idea that one way to address bullying is to energize and honor interventions. Often it only takes one person to turn the tide. Not that there isn’t a price.
I rode the bus to work in Portland, usually crowded. I had a bad back at the time and really suffered if I had to stand. On this morning there was one seat empty though many were standing. Occupying the seat next to the window was a down-and-outer nodding and ragged. I assumed, “Oh, people think they’re too good to sit by him.” So I sat by him. Standing people raised their eyebrows. The ride was only ten minutes, which was lucky. This guy had (ahem) “filled his pants.” I spent the whole ten minutes debating how stubborn to be, while the people around me watched with amusement to see which way I would go. Actually I got off a couple of stops early, hoping the walk would blow off the stench. But I can’t really quite blow off the guy. I still wonder what I could have done, but he wasn’t even conscious. Help would have had to be involuntary on his part -- maybe involving police.