Stigmatized: How Some People Become Judged

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If you were here, sitting in a room with me and I asked you if you stand in judgment of other people, I bet that you would say "no, I do not." In fact, most of us would answer that question in the negative because we think ourselves as good people who are non judgmental. Yet, we do stigmatize certain types of people by avoiding, rejecting and even blaming them for being in their situation.

A good example of how we judge others is the recent example of the people whose mortgages were foreclosed because they could not make the payments on the houses they purchased. The reason so many people are losing their houses to foreclosure is the fact that they were asked to make absurdly low down payments to secure the mortgage and then signed variable mortgage agreements whereby the interest rate would start out very low but would rise when inflation took over. The result was that these unfortunate people were caught unable to make their payments when they lost their jobs as the economy collapsed and the recession began. I heard many extremely unsympathetic comments made by people I know on a personal basis to the effect that these people deserved what they got. The reasoning behind this is that "they should have known better than to purchase a house at a variable mortgage rate and with no down payment." In effect, those who lost their houses have only themselves to blame.


Dr. B. Weiner, Phd wrote an interesting article entitled, "Sin or Sickness," (American Psychologist, September 1993, (48)9). In the article, he states that "perceptions of controllability and personal responsibility mediate reactions of sympathy and anger." In other words, we sympathize with those who have no ability to control the events that shaped their misfortune or success. An example might be to blame those who are poor and poverty stricken under the opinion that, if they worked hard they would not be poor. To some extent that has been a dearly held American value for a long time. That value states that "if you work hard you will succeed." Of course, it presumes that everyone has the ability to achieve the same results if they just tried harder. This, of course, is not true. Yet, there is a tendency to blame the poor for "being lazy."

Another example of judging and stigmatizing others is HIV and AIDS. If a person became infected with HIV, whether homosexual or heterosexual, there is a tendency on the part of some to blame the illness on lack of caution in using self protection during sexual relations. Therefore, they are responsible for being sick and deserve little or no sympathy. Even now, there are those who view the HIV and AIDS not as a sickness but a punishment for violating sacred moral prohibitions against premarital sex and homosexuality, as stated in the Bible.

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Therefore, it becomes rather easy to move from blaming people for their circumstances to treating them with contempt. Contempt results in social rejection of people viewed as unworthy of being included in society. Among these people are homosexuals, the poor and poverty stricken, minority groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, and others, those infected with HIV, those with a past history of criminal activity and many others. Why contempt? Because they are thought of, by some, as having violated some sacred value or moral belief.

Dr. Weiner discusses another example of how perceptions of personal responsibility influence both the judgment and punishment of others. If a student is considered to be intelligent and capable but put little or no effort into studying for an exam that he then failed he is viewed as being at fault and deserving of parental punishment. The reason for his not eliciting sympathy from anyone is the fact that he exhibited a lack of effort at something he could have succeeded at. On the other hand, if a student has below average intelligence and is in a class that is above his capability then failing an exam is not viewed in the same way. In this case, the young person who failed is not blamed and, therefore, not deserving of punishment because failing the test is not his fault.

There is a debate in many circles about whether being homosexual is a matter of individual choice or biological or genetic influences. To the extent that homosexuality is viewed as a life style choice, gay people are to be blamed for not being heterosexual. Not only are they at fault but they are also "sinners" as stated in the Bible. Because of their choice they are also must be viewed as dangerous because they want to recruit others into their abhorrently viewed way of life. According to this view, these people are not only sinners but are dangerous to the entire population. This is why some individuals, filled with hatred and paranoid thoughts about gay people, act aggressively towards gay people. There have been tragic examples of homosexual men and women being violently attacked, beaten and, at times, even killed by people who think this way. A famous example was the murder of Harvey Milk, a successful homosexual politician in San Francisco. When he was murdered, along with the Mayor of the city, the police treated the murderer very gently. In addition, his sentence was short and he was released for good behavior a mere five years after the murders. Both the police and the courts viewed the murderer of a gay man with a lot of sympathy as opposed to the victims, Harvey Milk and the Mayor who was very sympathetic to gay causes. The sympathies of the police and others went to the murderer because the murder victims had transgressed and deserved what they got, in their view.  

If homosexuality is the result of biological or genetic forces then being gay is not a matter of choice and may deserve more compassion and acceptance than would otherwise be true. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. People with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and so on, may not be blamed for making a life style choice and may even be viewed with a certain amount of sympathy but remain stigmatized and socially rejected. In other words, there are those people who are stigmatized even though their life situation is not viewed as their fault.

However, anyone who is viewed as a "transgressor" can become the target of attack. Transgressors are those who are perceived as violating a moral code of conduct. After the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, people who bore any resemblance to being a Muslim or Arab was a potential target for violent attack in the United States. Instead of understanding that the violent attack on the U.S as having been perpetrated by a few radicals from overseas, all Arabs and Muslims were blamed, at least in the minds of some Americans. Some of the victims of mindless violence after September 11 turned out to be non Muslims and non Arabic peoples. Of course, even if they had belonged to these groups they did not deserve to be treated this way.

This variable called "controllability'" or the notion that people have choice plays its role in the way the less severe but serious mental illnesses are viewed. I hear many people state that ADHD is just nonsense because the real problem is a lack of discipline. According to some of these people, children do not study and control their behavior because their parents have "spoiled them." Spoiling usually implies that parents never said "no" to their children and never set limits on anything. Even if some of this might be true of some children, ADHD remains a very real diagnosis affecting large numbers of children.

This concept of controllability can be seen in the prior presidential administration of George W. Bush as he instructed young people to "just say no to sex and drugs." The implication is that everyone has the ability to be fully in control of their impulses and, therefore, their choices. In point of fact, it is often very difficult for young people to "just say no," at a time in their lives when they under powerful peer pressure and the libinal drive towards sex. Do you remember your adolescence? Was it so easy to just say no? The further implication is that if you do not say no to these powerful influences you are a failure as a person because you have no "strength" of character."

Another example of this is how depression is still viewed by many people. I continue to hear stories of family and friends insisting that a depressed person just "snap out of it." Of course this means that the depression is their fault and they can control what they are feeling. An otherwise intelligent and highly educated man recently told me that he believes that depression is nothing more than weakness of character.

One last example has to do with drug addicted people who commit crimes to support their habit. Punitive policies are in place with the goal of rehabilitating these addicts under the notion that punishment will teach them a good lesson and discourage any future addictive and criminal behavior. There are a number of problems with this. 1. Punishment has never been really successful as a rehabilitative method, 2. Once these people are no longer addicted and are allowed out into society, they cannot get jobs because they were charged with felonies. That conviction discourages employers from hiring them because they are now stigmatized. With no means of employment, they fall back into either criminal activity, addiction or both.  stigma, rejection, exile, are not effective means of helping people.

Your comments, observations, experiences and opinions are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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