It is curious how shameful events are impressed upon one’s memory. I remember vividly the way kids in my elementary school singled out Jenny Kern for daily emotional abuse.
Why did we pick on her? She was chubby, awkward and her clothes were dirty.
If someone touched her, we said they got “Kern’s germs.”
We were normal; she was not. We made her life hell.
The term “stigma” comes from a Greek word referring to a mark on the skin, such as a brand, tattoo or piercing. By the Middle Ages, the term had come to be used in largely symbolic fashion, referring not only to visible marks but any condition taken to be a “mark” of shame or disgrace.
The worse thing about stigma is that those who are stigmatized often come to internalize the shame, seeing themselves as outside the bounds of normal humanity.
There are many occasions for stigma — poverty, ethnicity, disfigurement, disease, mental illness — but they are occasions only and not causes. Stigma is connected to conditions from which people want to distance themselves. When we stigmatize someone, we attempt to establish an illusion of invulnerability, as if we ourselves were not also susceptible to misfortune.
For centuries, people suffering from mental illness have been stigmatized.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2011 45.6 million American adults (20 percent of the population) experienced some form of mental illness. Given the prevalence of the condition, it’s remarkable that our society has so little understanding of what it is, how to talk about it and how to embrace those who suffer from it.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness takes a wise position on the topic of stigma. The group does not object to the use of particular words like “crazy” or “loony” unless they are used to denigrate people with mental illness. What they object to is language that dehumanizes. “We protest calling a person a schizophrenic; NAMI policy calls for people first: people, persons, individuals with a mental illness, schizophrenia, bipolar, clinical depression, OCD, panic disorder.”
Stigma is a form of injustice; it identifies a person with a particular condition, and in so doing, obscures the person’s humanity. “We” attempt to keep ourselves separate from “them” by using language to create an emotional distance.
The only thing that removes stigma is empathy. Whenever we identify with someone, we see him or her as a person like ourselves and no longer as an object of fear or disgust. But this is difficult to do. It is one thing to acknowledge someone’s misfortune; it is another thing altogether to genuinely imagine that we ourselves could be subject to that misfortune.
Simone Weil writes that justice begins when we imagine our vulnerability: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as myself. There is nothing that I might not lose.”
Every form of cruelty, brutality, nastiness and injustice — whether individual or institutional — comes from a failure to acknowledge the radical contingency of our lives. When we acknowledge that contingency, the barriers between “us” and “them” cannot be sustained.
My attempt to keep an emotional distance from Jenny proved short-lived.
My mother was the school nurse. She noticed what was happening to Jenny and began inviting her to stop into her office in the morning. There she would discreetly wash Jenny’s face and hands and give her a hug and some encouragement.
One day after school, my mother told me about Jenny’s home life, how she lived in a little shack with no running water and how her parents could not afford to buy extra clothes. As she told me this, I recalled the stories about my mother’s childhood in similar conditions. She didn’t say it, but I suspected that she had endured the same treatment as a child.
From then on I could not join in the teasing; I could not help but see Jenny as a person just like me, only perhaps a little more honorable in that she had never treated me cruelly.