What is social stigma?

Social stigma is a strong disapproval possessed by a society, regarding the traits or beliefs held by an individual, that are not in line, or against the widely accepted social norms. Social stigma is also an integral concept of a vast number of prejudices such as racism or homophobia. The most terrible thing about social stigma is that individuals that are affected by it have a very limited amount of ways to efficiently deal with it and sometimes it is simply impossible for them to marginalize the impact that stigma has on their lives.

StVictim of Social StigmaCredit: old photo lost the sourceigmatized individuals in the western culture include: people of different race than the Caucasian race, handicapped people, homosexuals, HIV positive people, drug or alcohol addicts, elderly people, people living in poverty, illiterate people, obese people, mentally ill people, non-Christians, communists and so on. Virtually any minority group can be perceived as a victim of social stigma. The reason for this is that stigma originates in the beliefs of the general society, in other words it is created by the majority group.

The word stigma comes from the word stigmata which is a term describing marks or bruises,  in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. Basically stigma is something that is imprinted upon an individual, something that we are born with or acquire during the course of our lives that we have to deal with later in our everyday life.

Where does social stigma come from?

There are many theories as to what is the basis for stigma, but the one that is seemingly the most plausible and widely applicable is based on evolution theory. Evolution theory is all about passing on our genes to the next generations and protecting the future generations in order for them to survive and continue the spread of our genes. Evolution theory also implies that there are certain things that we tend to avoid because they are a threat to our survival. These things include disease, parasites and antisocial behavior. Finally evolution theory explains the way males and females seek out potential partners and what traits they seek for in them.

If we consider the stigmatization of race and apply evolution theory to explain it, we would arrive at the conclusion that we stigmatize members of other races because we want to preserve the purity of our own gene pool. Similarly evolution theory explains why we avoid individuals that have a disease, that is a threat to our survival, for example individuals that are HIV positive. Physical disabilities or abnormalities are also stigmatized because in line with the evolution theory we do not want our offspring to inherit faulty genes. Homosexuality also goes against evolution theory because homosexual couples cannot produce offspring thus resulting in social stigma for that entire social group. Finally the basis on which males and females choose their partners results in strong social stigma against promiscuous behavior.

The main types of social stigma.

            Various social stigmas can be divided in to three major categories. The first category is external deformations which involves physical disabilities or abnormalities of any sort (being crippled, blind, obese, deformed and so on). The second category is deviations in personal traits which involves any socially unaccepted personal trait, habit or preference (being mentally ill, being a substance addict, being homosexual and so on). The final third category is “tribal stigmas” which includes traits (real or unreal) of religious groups, nationalities or ethnic groups that appear to the general society as a deviation from common norms. One could also mention ideological stigma as a plausible fourth category that would involve the stigmatizing of political beliefs of certain parties such as the Nazis or communists. However ideological stigma can also be perceived as a tribal stigma.

Lives of the stigmatized.

            As was mentioned before probably the worst thing about stigma is its impact on the life of the stigmatized individual. Imagine an encounter with someone that has a social stigma, for example a wheelchair bound person. During that encounter there is almost always a sense of awkwardness and discomfort for the “normal” person in the interaction. We just do not know how to behave in situations that are new or uncomfortable for us and thus, an encounter with someone that has a stigma results in us experiencing mixed or outright negative emotions during that encounter. Which in turn leads us to avoid the stigmatized and further deepen the social stigma surrounding those individuals. What we need to realize however is that for the stigmatized person the interaction he or she had with us might have been just as hard.

            Stigmatized individuals also need to deal with a major problem regarding their own image and self esteem. It is not uncommon for stigmatized individuals to be seen only for their stigma and not for who they really are. We will not know that “the cripple in the wheelchair” is actually a very talented musician until we get to know him. The problem here is that for someone suffering from social stigma it is very hard to show others something about him or her that does not relate to their stigma.

            If you are a victim of stigma you need to show the people around you that you are just as good of a person as them and that your stigma is not the only thing that counts about you. If on the other hand you are the one that is lucky enough to belong to the general public and be responsible for stigmatizing you should start changing things by spreading awareness and fostering tolerance and understanding. Stigma is something that sticks to us no matter how hard we try to get rid of it. The only way to change things for the better is to treat stigmatized individuals just like we treat anybody else. Imagine how many people are being hurt everyday for something they are not responsible for and think what you can do to change that.