Stigma

Blasey FordAn excerpt from The Sun Magazine‘s January 2019 interview with Dr. Anne Hallward.

Professor Blasey Ford demonstrated remarkable bravery in telling her story and responding to questions in front of a phalanx of men who were hostile to her. Her experience of not being believed, of being threatened for daring to speak up, was all too familiar.

I do think her willingness to make herself vulnerable was in the service of women everywhere. Her testimony is a powerful example of how telling our stories is a form of nonviolent social change. Though the outcome of the hearing was painful, I believe it will bear fruit in the long run, raising awareness of sexual assault and helping people understand what makes it hard to bring up. Professor Blasey Ford was highly credible, and yet many senators had already chosen not to believe her. Part of how the powerful maintain the status quo is by rendering certain voices noncredible. In our culture women’s voices are often not taken seriously. We demand proof that is impossible to obtain, or we critique them as shrill or strident. In Professor Blasey Ford’s case, she suffered death threats in an attempt to silence her.

When people of color speak out, their voices are often silenced. Poor people’s voices are dismissed. Uneducated people’s voices are mocked. Trans people’s stories become the butt of jokes. So many of us are not trusted as experts, even regarding our own experience, because we have some social stigma attached to us. Sociologist Erving Goffman defines stigma as “a sense of spoiled identity that you can’t wash off.” The original Greek word stigma referred to a permanent brand burned into the skin of people who did not pay their debts, so that others would not lend them money. Stigma basically had to do with whether you were trustworthy or not. And that is how it still operates: it sends a message that the stigmatized person is not someone you can trust.

When society renders some voices noncredible, we don’t hear their perspectives on other important issues, like disparities in public education, pollution in poor neighborhoods, or police brutality. It’s to our enormous detriment that we silence people who have inside knowledge of a particular problem, yet we do it all the time. In some states, if you have a past felony conviction, you cannot vote. That’s a way of silencing someone. You can still fire people for being gay in some parts of this country, no matter how good they are at their jobs. In our mental-health system, the voices of the mentally ill are not seen as credible, yet only patients really know what it’s like to be hospitalized. I once read an extraordinary article comparing being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital to being sexually assaulted. The author outlined many parallels including feeling powerless, being treated without consent, and not being heard. Our mental-health system could be so much more humane if we invited former patients to help design it.

Stigma silences us from the outside, and shame silences us from the inside. When I was in college in 1984, I went to Poland shortly after martial law had been declared there. I saw firsthand how totalitarian regimes exert control by limiting freedom of speech and freedom of association. Years later it dawned on me that shame, too, makes us stay quiet and isolate ourselves. It’s like an internalized fascist regime, keeping us silent.

When any one person dares to overcome that internalized aggression and speak about the shame that has silenced them, it is an invitation for everyone else to do the same. And, little by little, you build a constituency around that story, until together you have a movement.

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