"Stigma" is a Timid Euphemism - Let's Get Rid of It and Start Using Real Words, Instead
Let’s get rid of the word, stigma, once and for all. Every once in a blue moon, I feel the urge to sound off. Please indulge me:
As a word, “stigma” is an insult to the outrages inflicted upon our population. Its use - even by well-meaning people - only perpetuates our status as third-class citizens. A quick history lesson:
In the US, during the first decades of the twentieth century - in the name of the improvement of the human race, with the sanction of the Supreme Court - 30,000 individuals deemed mentally unfit were subjected to enforced sterilization.
In Hitler’s Germany, some 300,000 to 400,000 forced sterilizations were carried out. Then, beginning in 1939, a quarter million mentally and physically disabled people were gassed in special “euthanasia” centers.
We live in a more enlightened age, but the basic premise that we are not welcome as equals in society remains substantially unchallenged. We are not the only ones. But over the course of the civil rights era we have been by far the least successful.
Think of the historical status of women, African-Americans, and gays. Think of the brutalities inflicted upon them (actually, well more than half of you reading this), all they endured. Is stigma an accurate term to describe what they had to put up with?
How about inequality, injustice, discrimination, hate, bigotry?
Why, then, do we persist on using the term stigma? Perhaps we are afraid of hurting the feelings of those who make our lives miserable? Those who fought the good fight proved demonstrably unsqueamish in calling out their oppressors. A sampling: Bigots, racists, segregationists, white supremacists, homophobes, gay-bashers, male chauvinist pigs.
We have no equivalent language in the mental health movement. Hell, we don’t even know what to call ourselves. Consumers? Only some pointy-headed pencil-pusher in a cubicle in a clueless government agency could have come up with such a ridiculous word.
I’m crazy and depressed, okay? Only watch your tone of voice when you refer to me as crazy, buster.
Do you get the picture? “Stigma” is a timid “ahem,” a polite clearing of the throat. It is a euphemism, an apology even. It almost makes those who perpetrate hate and ignorance sound halfway reasonable.
Seriously, can you imagine Martin Luther King standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial delivering a “Stop the Stigma” speech? Let’s parse the language of that talk for just a second:
Dr King mentions Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression." He mentions Alabama “with its vicious racists.” He calls out its governor, “his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification.’"
Yes, Martin Luther King has a dream. But the dream makes no sense without an accurate depiction of the current nightmare, where his people suffer “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” where his children are “stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity,” where “the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
Where is our equivalent of “vicious racist?” Why aren’t we talking about “oppression” and “injustice” and “brutality”?
Do we really think we’re dealing with reasonable people? Can you actually explain to me how “mental illness is just like diabetes” is supposed to change people’s behavior? Who are we fooling?
But, you know, maybe if we were only a little more reasonable ourselves - you know, like deny who we are, pretend we want to be like them, accept their counsel as superior, agree to do everything they tell us - why maybe then they will accept us as honorary normal.
While we’re at it, why don’t we lay on generous doses of gratitude? You know, like thank them for no longer lobotomizing us.
Or maybe, instead, we can learn a few lessons from Martin Luther King and from other heroes who stood their ground and fought the good fight, who won a few battles, and in the process won over hearts and minds.
Trust me, you won’t hear “stigma” in any of their conversations.