Sunday, May 5, 2013

More About Stigma

Miri at Brute Reason has a very thought-provoking post up about social stigma, and whether anyone deserves to be stigmatized.

She doesn't think so, and she gives lots of very good reasons, including these:
When a group is stigmatized, they are considered less than human in some ways. Whichever aspect of them is stigmatized becomes the whole of their identity in our eyes,  and often this means that even if they change the actions that caused them to fall into that category in the first place, the stigma remains. ...
...
[W]ielding psychological manipulation as punishment really, really rubs me the wrong way. The attitude that if someone does something bad they deserve to be cast out and hated and seen as inhuman scares me. I think it's very normal and understandable to want to punish someone for doing a horrible thing, but, as I wrote after the Steubenville verdict, I'm not sure that's the most useful and skeptical response. I feel that our primary concern should be preventing people from doing bad things (both first-time and repeat offenses) and not satisfying our own need for revenge by punishing them.
But, as good as these arguments are (and I am still turning them over in my head, and will probably keep this idea, that stigma and ostracism are inhumane and that there is nothing anyone can do that is bad enough to make them deserving of such treatment, for a very long time*), I'm not sure I can follow them all the way.

Between the ongoing story I've been following in my local newspaper about a girl in my city --- identified only by the initials LP --- who was found locked in a closet in her mother's apartment and my discovery of the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog, and also Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism blogging somewhat regularly about the disturbingly popular child-rearing philosophy of Michael and Debi Pearl, my mind has been more preoccupied than usual with the vilest, most extreme forms of child abuse.

I commented on Miri's blog that, if anyone does deserve to have a stigma permanently attached to them, it's the perpetrators of those horrors, particularly the Pearls (who were not content merely to abuse their own children, if indeed they followed their own method, but who wrote books proclaiming their combination of hard-core obedience training, enforced by frequent beatings, and withholding food from "defiant" children is the only thing that will guarantee a child will grow up to be a Godly person who is saved from Hell) and the mother in this ten-part personal narrative on Homeschoolers Anonymous.

Doing that to a child, for as long as the anonymous author's mother did --- from the spread in ages of the various children in the family, and the author's Conclusion where she mentions that her two youngest brothers are still with her parents and the abuse is ongoing, it had to have been more than a decade --- is a world away from, say, committing an armed robbery. This wasn't a single act, this was a long-term campaign this woman waged against her children. She stayed at home, ostensibly "homeschooling" her children throughout this period, so it's hard to see a line between these acts and the rest of her life. 

Yet, with the LP story, which is just as horrific, and which makes me feel just as much rage on the victim's behalf, I can see more of Miri's point. LP's mother was very young when she had LP, and at several points in the story you can see hints of someone who was overwhelmed, and who might never have done what she did to her daughter if she had gotten the help she needed but probably never asked for. It's hard to see whom it would help to stigmatize her, when she was already probably stigmatized for other reasons (poverty, blackness, living in a subsidized apartment, being an unmarried mother of three children by two different fathers), which might well have contributed to her feeling that the only thing she could do with her eldest daughter was to keep her out of sight.

But the Pearls, and the parents in the anonymous woman's story? They're not stigmatized at all, except by people like me, who have no power in their lives or social contact with them, or people who have left the conservative evangelical Christian circles those people move in. Within that community, they are revered as leaders and role models. I'm sure that this knowledge is part of the reason I want so badly to rain down opprobrium upon them: because, unlike Jacole Prince, they're getting off scot-free, and they continue to believe that what they are doing is right.

And Miri does grapple with the problem of great evil in her post, too --- where I chose to focus on child abuse, she wrote about rape. And she made another great point in doing so:
Being a convicted rapist is actually a very stigmatized identity -- it's just that rapists rarely become convicted rapists. Rape is known to be a Very Bad Thing, but rapists know that they can get away with it if they commit it in certain ways. Despite the stigma, rape is pervasive and rape culture exists.
I absolutely see a dynamic like this playing out in mainstream society's attitudes about child abuse; child abuse is so heinous, so evil, so stigmatized that we can't ever believe anyone we know is abusing their child. So we second-guess ourselves when we start to wonder about a child's suspicious bruises, unexplained absences, dirty clothes, poor hygiene etc. The stigma attached to child abuse is terrible, so we are reluctant to call it down on our neighbors' heads, even if we suspect they are abusing their children. What if we're wrong? We'll have ruined an innocent person's life! 

(This will sound painfully familiar to anyone who has been raped, or who has spent any time reading about rape culture.)

Another thing worth pondering about this problem as it pertains to child abuse is that, when the child who is being abused, neglected, or even murdered has a disability, the abusive, neglectful or murderous parent is not stigmatized so much as they are pitied. The poor dear, she was carrying an impossible burden. 

A mother can appear in a film in which she tells the camera she has thought about putting her autistic daughter in the car and driving off a bridge with her, and the main reaction to this film will be sympathy, not shock or horror. 

I point this out not to argue that parents of disabled children don't deserve sympathy, or much better support than they're currently getting from society at large, but to argue that this reaction leaves no room for the child. They're a person too, and they have the right to food, shelter, medical care, education, love, and as much freedom and autonomy as is developmentally appropriate**. Focusing on how hard it is to care for a disabled child, even if you're only trying to explain the parent's actions, works to excuse the parent and put some of the blame for their fate onto the child. It also works to make life harder for all disabled people, because it makes it sound like we're being unreasonable just by existing, and that attitude is exactly the kind of attitude that resists making accommodations for us, even when those accommodations are not particularly expensive, awkward or difficult.

Particularly when we're talking about children whose disabilities are behavioral, this idea that it's just too hard works to excuse awful things like restraint and seclusion, at home and in school. At its extreme, it can lead to parents keeping their disabled children in dog cages; they see no other way to treat them because it's too hard and it's not like the children are normal children, for whom such treatment would be abusive, no, they're abnormal children for whom it is necessary.

So even while I see that a heavy stigma attached to child abuse can be counterproductive, in that it might discourage people from reporting their suspicions, I also think there are some kinds of abuse that are not heavily stigmatized, that are even excused (i.e., abuse of children with disabilities, which is often framed as a tragic consequence of disability) or met with approval (i.e., abuse within insular communities that don't share the wider culture's norms).

And it makes me furious that there isn't a heavy stigma, that people like, say, Michael and Debi Pearl don't even think they've done anything wrong, and sleep the untroubled sleep of the just.

*"Keeping an idea" is what I do when I read or hear something that blows my mind, but that I do not immediately know whether to accept it as truth. I kept a lot of ideas related to feminism in the (long) time before I decided I was a feminist, and I kept an idea of Richard Dawkins's that I now think I do believe is true, that raising a child to believe in Hell (at least, a Hell that they could go to --- I'm not sure it's true if Hell is only for big evildoers like Hitler and Stalin) is an abusive practice. I'm also keeping the idea that veganism is a moral imperative for those who are able to adopt it. A lot of the ideas that I keep are of the form "actually, this thing that we do all the time is bad, and you should stop doing it/get other people to stop doing it.")

**This notion --- that freedom and autonomy can't be absolute when you're talking about children --- is actually more complicated than it sounds, especially when we're talking about children with disabilities, or dependent adults with disabilities. How can you define what is "developmentally appropriate" for a child whose development has been atypical? Especially if said child is ahead of his age in some ways while also being delayed in others? (This was me, and I suspect it is most autistic people!) I know only this much: the way these decisions are currently made gives too little freedom to developmentally disabled adults.

2 comments:

urocyon said...

Very thinky post. I don't have the spoons to comment much right now, but I did find it semi-depressing that Libby Anne's latest post really reinforces the points about abusing disabled kids: HSLDA: Man Who Kept Children in Cages “a Hero”. Somehow I don't think those stories would have played out the same way if they hadn't been "heroes" for adopting disabled kids.

An aside, more than anything else: Also, the very similar (and very gross) "What if we're wrong? We'll have ruined an innocent person's life!" reactions--and the idea that maybe some people deserve to be treated that way--are some of the factors which have made me start looking at these things as parts of a larger abuse culture. It really is overwhelming sometimes.

The Goldfish said...

This is a really excellent post that articulates much I've never been able to say so clearly. Thank you.