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[ Opinion ]

The Violent Human History Of Stigmatization: Can It Be Overcome? 

By Tim Burnette

Asthma, Type I Diabetes, ALS, cancer, and…addiction?

All of these conditions are technically classified by both medical and psychiatric professionals as diseases. So, why does addiction feel different than the rest?

The short answer is that addiction carries a stigma that the rest simply do not. It’s not a stretch to say that we are more likely to view the first four diseases as unfortunate maladies of life while categorizing addiction as some kind of moral failing. The list of reasons why addiction is stigmatized in this way is long and complicated. Yet at the same time, stigma as an archetype also reaches further into the key components of who we are at the deepest levels of our collective human consciousness.

So, from where did stigmatization arise? What is it about humanity in particular that moves to negatively stigmatize not only those who suffer from addiction, but also others on the margins of society? Lastly, how can we fight to end the stigma of addiction?

In order to shed some light on these core questions, we first must take an uncomfortable look into humanity’s dark and terrifying history of stigma.

Stigma’s Bloody Past

When we think about a word as powerful as stigma, it’s most helpful to begin by looking at its etymology. Therefore, we’ll have a context in which to understand how it has come to function and influence our society today.

The Dictionary.com definition of stigma tells us that it is:

“A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”

Simply put, a stigma is a mark. More specifically, it is also a mark of disgrace.

Looking even further into the past, the 16th century Latin form of the word from which we derive our English version can actually be traced back to the Greek texts of the New Testament Bible. It is here that we realize that the word “stigma” (the very stigma that we know and use in common language today) has its beginning in the stigmata; the very marks borne by Jesus Christ in the crucifixion.

No wonder they’re considered marks of disgrace.

We’re talking here, of course, about marks created by hammering nails into the hands and feet of a first-century Jewish prophet; a convicted traitor of the state. One who, outside the city gates, was stripped not only of his garments, but also his dignity, identity, and more importantly, his humanity.

That’s what we mean when we talk about any kind of stigma. That is what this “mark” represents.

It’s also important to note some of the other destructive associations that these physical marks have had in our tangled history:

The bodily mark of the beast in Revelation has ties to the ‘stigma’ of Greek origin, and is still a common sign for evil. You may notice it as the numbers 666. In addition, authorities in the Roman empire would burn convicted criminals with a brand to humiliate them in public. During the trans-Atlantic enslavement, European, American, and other colonial slavers also branded millions of slaves to denote slave ownership.

The point is, this type of physical branding has a vicious history. In fact, it is most often a way for a master class to exercise power, often to the demonization or humiliation of those in the slave class. And so, it is with this background that we recognize the stigma of addiction for what it is: a horror.

Whether or not there is a physical manifestation of this mark today on addiction sufferers (though, of course, there are sometimes very real markings on the arms of intravenous drug users), the negative typologies and repercussions remain the same.

When someone receives the mark of “addict,” they simultaneously lose the most important demarcation they ever had: “human.” When someone becomes an evil beast, a criminal, or less than human in the eyes of society, he or she loses their status as a contributing member; and in many cases, become damned to its fringes. That is what we do when we stigmatize any demographic.

The Human Phenomena of Victimization

So, if stigmatizing someone is in some ways a deliberate move to dehumanize them, then just what kind of inhuman battle are we fighting here as we seek to put an end to stigma?

Well, the problem is that it’s not a very inhuman battle at all. In fact, it’s a very human one, and it’s just what we do as a human race.

Let me explain.

A French anthropologist and philosopher named René Girard, building on the work of scholars like Kenneth Burke, proposed a theory of communal scapegoating in which he observed something called a “phenomena of victimization.” This theory, which is rooted in both human evolution and sociology, goes like this:

-Humans have an evolutionary tendency to imitate one another, including each other’s desires. 

-These shared desires lead to competition, rivalry, and eventually conflict.

-This conflict leads to violence.

-Internal violence does not bode well for the community.

-Thus, we learned to instead project our communal violence outside the community onto a scapegoat to promote internal peace.

-Hence, we victimize and repeat!

In other words, we know who we are precisely because of who we scapegoat as our common enemy. This may sound like some primeval way of being, but in actuality, we see these same phenomenon playing themselves out on various levels in our modern society.

As in, ‘we know we Bruins are the good guys, because our enemies, the Trojans, are the bad guys.’

Or, ‘we are the United States of America. They are…well…not.’

Or even, ‘we know we are healthy and thriving, because clearly the addicts are examples of those who are not.’

See how easy that is?

Now, it must be said here that I am not making this point to advocate for which side of one of the aforementioned examples is actually the in-group or out-group. The reality is, wherever there is community, that is, humans interacting with other humans, there is conflict, violence, and scapegoating. This victimizing is just part of who we are as a human species. And, it is always a move to ostracize the other who is not like us.

This brings us back to the idea of stigma. I would like to propose here that stigmatizing is akin to scapegoating. Actually, I’m not the first to make that connection. Girard himself connected his theory of scapegoating all the way back to the crucifixion event as well. Our history of stigmatizing is both riddled with violence and covered in our fingerprints. It is as old as our human race and can be found in nearly every expression of societal community. And, we are often quickest to stigmatize those we deem to be our antithesis.

It’s no wonder that in a very pietistic West, it’s those with perceived moral failures that are considered our antithesis. Enter “addicts”.

Subverting the Stigma of Addiction by Listening

The theory that stigma is a move to brand somebody with disgrace, to dehumanize them, and that it is an innate human characteristic used to scapegoat, can help us see why stigma is still so menacing and resilient. The NIDA tells us that:

“It is because of stigma that: Some people don’t get treatment. Some doctors won’t treat addicts. Some pharmaceutical companies won’t work toward developing new treatments for addicts.”

Perhaps with these insights, we can now hear the cries of those marked with the stigma of addiction more than ever before. Yet what’s really frightening is that addiction is actually treatable. However, most people witnessing addiction from the outside aren’t able to make the jump past shaming in order to see the condition for our own health professionals have deemed it: a disease.

As I’ve shown here, the task ahead of us should be to subvert the human tendency to stigmatize the addiction sufferer as someone who “chooses” to participate in their dependency, which is a reaction deeply rooted in violence. However a daunting task this may be though, it is not impossible.

We can begin to change the stigma surrounding addiction if we adopt a posture of listening. And by listening, I mean two things specifically: education and relationships.

When I say education, I mean educating people about the realities surrounding the issues of addiction. This can help us get past society’s unhelpful and prevailing stigmas in order to work toward raising our collective consciousness concerning issues that matter.

For instance, there is often an unchallenged assumption that “addicts have complete free will in choosing to participate in their addictions, thus addiction is a moral failing rather than a disease.” However, an article by Tom Clark on Naturalism.org entitled The Science of Stigma shows us that, at least in scientific terms, this is a falsification:

“Although it is not yet widely appreciated, this sort of free will seems increasingly implausible given the rapidly growing scientific understanding of human biology and behavior. Acts may be voluntary in the sense that they are not compelled (most nicotine addicts don’t start smoking with a gun to their heads), but they are nonetheless fully caused, a function of personality, motives, predispositions, and situations, none of which springs full blown from an uncaused agent within the person.”

These types of discoveries are best wielded to help end stigma when they are coupled with cultivating a relationship with someone who is struggling to recover, and a great way to start doing that is by reading some of the stories on this very website. 

Though it is one of many similar platforms, The Real Edition is chock-full of personal narratives written those who have experienced the stigma of addiction themselves. In listening to these stories, we begin to humanize the “other” and directly counteract the dehumanizing marks of stigma.

But reading is not necessarily enough. Building relationships with people who are struggling is also a vital component of this battle. This means staring addiction in the face and, yes, I mean that literally.We must get to know the people behind these stories long enough to see ourselves in their stories and, as a result, breed empathy and solidarity. 

Already, many activists and government leaders are taking action by putting programs in place that combat the prevalence of stigmatizing addiction. Only a few months ago, Charlie Baker, the Governor of Massachusetts, kicked off a new initiative to take the stigma out of addiction. On top of that, he spent over $800,000 last year on a federally funded media campaign to help provide detailed information about the illness of addiction. He is, in essence, doing what we have advocate for here. He is educating his state in order to raise their level of awareness and move them toward ending the stigma of addiction.

Within the last year, The Raven Foundation, appropriating Girard’s work, proposed that: “Finding ways to form unity and ease conflict without the use of scapegoats is thus the key to establishing a real and lasting peace.”

The hard truth is, we are all mired in stigma in one form or another. It’s part of our DNA. We have got to work toward finding alternative methods of dealing with our tendency toward funneling our violence into stigma. The Real Edition itself exists to “eliminate the stigma of addiction,” but in order for us to take crucial steps toward removing that label, we first have to see stigma for what it is.

Now, it’s our choice to be persons who rise up against scapegoating, against violence, and who choose to stand stand for peace. Many are never able to push through the stigma in order to seek the treatment they need, and for far too many it can serve as a death warrant. We must choose to stand for compassion. For listening, learning, and loving.

For the outcast.

For healing.

For humanity.

And for ending the burden of stigma once and for all.