The language of discrimination

Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
~from The Hand That Signed The Paper by Dylan Thomas

In my last post I used the s word, “stigma”, a word I usually try to avoid if at all possible. I want in this post to explain why I don’t like the use of the word, why I feel it should be discouraged, and why in my last post I felt I was justified in using it.

These campaigns among mental health advocates to clean up “stigma” that you may have read about here, there, and everywhere else are actually a scam dreamed up by the unholy alliance of big pharmaceutical companies, front groups for Big Pharma such as NAMI, and the American Psychiatric Association to sell psychiatric drugs.

The basic concept behind this scam is not at all recovery model, and it works like this, if most people labeled “seriously mentally ill” are unable to recover from their “illnesses”, the best we can do for them is to change other people’s perception of them. It works upon the basic assumption that most people so labeled are incapable of recovering from what is perceived to be their “mental disorder”.

On this basic theoretical assumption we find other unfounded assumptions have attached themselves. Among those assumptions are the assumptions that what is customarily referred to as “serious mental illness” is biological in nature, and that it has a genetic base.

The similarities between this view and those views that we would typically refer to as racist are often missed by the people using them. Is not this claim of defective genes similar to those views that would claim one race inferior to another? In fact, I get the overall feeling that much of the steam behind this theory is a hold over from the days when eugenics was a leading school of thought around the world.

I prefer instead to use those words that come out of the movements for civil rights and social justice. The expression that I would use to describe what certain other parties are calling “stigma” is discrimination based upon prejudice. You can legislate against discrimination, but when it comes to the s word all people can seem to manage to do is talk. When it’s merely a matter of talk, little changes, including the s word.

My last post dealt with the official records kept on people who have experienced psychiatric hospitalization. The definition of “stigma”, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a mark of infamy, disgrace, or reproach.” The word originated from the practice of branding slaves and criminals on the forehead. It is my contention that those records kept by the state in order to keep track of people with psychiatric histories also represent a sort of mark of disgrace, and they are a concrete example of the prejudice expressed against people who have done time in state hospitals.

A mark that is invisible isn’t really a mark, or is it? A mark that is made on a piece of paper is a mark, and it can be used to keep tabs on people. Our state bureaucracies use such written records all the time. These records, in this case, are often used to keep people down. I’m not saying this mark is a good thing, or that it should be made. I’m just saying that it is made.

The definition of prejudice, according to the same American Heritage Dictionary, is “a hostile opinion about some person or class of persons.” Further more, the American Heritage Dictionary goes onto say about prejudice that it is “socially learned and is usually grounded in misconception, misunderstanding, and inflexible generalizations.”

A simpler way of putting this is to say that prejudice is a leap to judgment, and a leap to judgment before one has all the facts. Criminal court cases, to use an example, utilize a jury of twelve people expressly to prevent such leaps to judgment. We call this utilization due process of law. In such cases, the suspected criminal is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Civil commitment hearings differ from criminal cases in that the person undergoing civil commitment proceedings is not protected from such leaps to judgment or, to put it another way, diagnosis. I think that it makes much more sense, in practical terms, to campaign against such premature conclusions, or the after effects from them, than it does to endeavor to wipe off unacknowledged marks of disgrace. For this reason, I think we can be more effective by targeting discrimination than we can by targeting the s word.