Stigma Punishes Victims, Helps Perpetrators
30 December 2016
Over the holidays, I got into a heated debate at the dinner table over the most effective way to combat racism. This interaction shed light on a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between destigmatization and normalization.
Stigma is a negative attitude towards people based on one aspect of their experience or identity. To destigmatize something is to remove the barriers of shame and open the door to dialogue. To normalize something is to integrate a behavior or belief into mainstream society and to accept it as a common and unremarkably ordinary part of life. Destigmatizing rape does not normalize rapists; rather, it works to combat victim-shaming. To destigmatize conversations on race in America does not normalize racists; it removes the disgrace and shame associated with discussing race.
Stigma is a term that is frequently misunderstood and misapplied. It is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Stigma expects us to stuff it all down, it tells us we must be ashamed of the truth. A lack of education contributes to stigma, and stigma itself discourages education on the stigmatized topic. This is why stigmatized topics tend to be passionately divisive. From addiction to racism, there are people with strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
Children who are incarcerated for sexual crimes are a prime example of the dangers of stigma. A major part of treatment involves the young offenders speaking about the unspeakable shame of their illegal sexual behavior. This often leads to, or is grown out of, admission of abuse done onto them. Stigma keeps us all from admitting things done to us, and
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