Stigma and disabling images
For Goffman, we never meet others with our hands open and with an attentive gaze. Rather, we meet the other with a multitude of pre-existing categories and stereotypes into with the stranger may immediately be fitted. • As a consequence, we are able, ‘without special attention or thought’, to meet a stranger and “anticipate his category and attributes, his ‘social identity’ …” (Goffman, 1990: 12). • In other words, we all carry with us, ‘normative expectations’ (Goffman, 1990: 12).
However, we are often unaware of our ‘normative expectations’. • We are not, that is, actively conscious of our projecting of a character type onto the other at the point at which we meet them. • Thus, ‘the character we impute to the individual might better be seen as an imputation made in potential retrospect - a characterization ‘in effect’, a virtual social identity’ (original emphasis, Goffman, 1990: 12). It is a ‘socially anticipated category’ (Goffman, 1990: 13).
It is not until a stranger enters into our midst and disrupts the stereotype or identity we had projected onto them that a distance opens between this ‘virtual social identity’ and ‘his actual social identity’ (original emphasis, Goffman, 1990: 12). • Goffman characterises a stigma as ‘a special discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity’ (Goffman, 1990: 12-3). • It is ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’ (Goffman, 1990: 15). • Hence, before we can begin to examine stigmas, ‘a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed’ (Goffman, 1990: 13).
The discredited and the discreditable • Goffman points us to stigma’s ‘double perspective’: there is ‘the plight of the discredited,’ for whom ‘differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot’, and ‘the discreditable,’ for whom ‘it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable’ (original emphasis, Goffman, 1990: 14). • Goffman (1990: 14) observes: ‘This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations’.
The distinction points to two ways in which images might come to disable persons. • First, it might strengthen the exclusionary force which acts ‘discredit’ the stigmatised by magnifying ‘differentness’, and thereby reinforcing the belief that ‘the person with a stigma is not quite human’ (Goffman, 1990: 15). • Second, it might act to shift the plight of the ‘discreditable’ to that of those who are ‘discredited’ by making a hidden ‘differentness’ visible.
The stigmatised and the ‘normals’ • ‘We and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals’ (Goffman, 1990: 15). (Note: irony.) • “The notion of ‘normal human being’ may have its source in the medical approach to humanity or in the tendency of large-scale bureaucratic organizations, such as the nation state, to treat all members in some respects as equal” (Goffman, 1990, f/n: 17). (Consider connection with Arendt’s views about ‘society’.) • A view of the ‘normal’ human being is itself a stereotype. To delimit the other is to have already done the same to one’s self. We are a subject of the tyranny of normality all the more we stigmatise the other as being something different to or less than ‘normal’.
Stigmas and disabling images • Prejudice is not just interpersonal – between the abled and the dis-abled – but is also implicit in cultural representations of persons with impairments (Shakespeare, 1994).
From Barnes (1992): Categories of disability • The disabled person as an object of ridicule • The tragic conception of disability • The disabled person as sinister and evil • The disabled person with super human abilities • The disabled person as incapable of participating fully in community life
The disabled person as an object of ridicule • A stigma, Goffman observes, acts upon an individual to exclude and disable, it ‘spoils his social identity; it has the effect of cutting him off from society and from himself so that he stands a discredited person facing an unaccepting world’ (Goffman, 1990: 31). • Perhaps, no images do more to amplify the exclusionary force of the sigma than those that present persons with impairments as objects of amusement.
The tragic conception of disability • The consequence of a pitying gaze is, Goffman suggests, ‘that the stigmatized individual is a person who can be approached by strangers at will, providing only that they are sympathetic to the plight of persons of his kind’ (Goffman, 1990: 28). • There is a loss of privacy and human dignity. • ‘The pitiful disabled characters initially evoke hostile feelings because they have come to represent experiences – such as vulnerability and dependency – which have been repressed in the spectator. These hostile feelings are then quickly transformed … into guilt and attempts to secure forgiveness’. (Marks, 1999:166-67)
The disabled person as sinister and evil • ‘Newspaper articles sensationalising the connection between intellectual impairments and criminality are common in both the tabloids and the ‘quality’ papers. The overall message coming out of these stories is that such people cannot be trusted, are a danger to children and should be locked up’. (Barnes, 1992)
Schizoid (1972) The Warning: ‘Not Recommended Viewing for Persons with Schizophrenic Tendencies!’
The disabled person as a person with super human abilities • Of the sigmatised individual, Goffman observes: ‘[H]e is likely to feel that the usual scheme of interpretation for everyday events has been undermined. His minor accomplishments, he feels, may be assessed as signs of remarkable and noteworthy capacities in the circumstances’ (Goffman, 1990: 26). • ‘... by flaunting normal accomplishments as extraordinary, by hailing people with disabilities as human wonders, aggrandized presentations probably taught the lesson that achievement for people with differences was unusual rather than common’. (Bogdan, 1988: 279).
The disabled person as incapable of inclusion in community life • The disabled amount to just 1.5% of all characters portrayed in TV films and dramas (Cumberbatch & Negrine,1992) • In contrast, Government evidence reveals that at least 12% of the British population are disabled people (Barnes, 1992).
Goffman speaks of ‘moral careers’, that is the learning of what and who we are and how we are perceived by others (Goffman, 1990: 45). • Goffman points, in particular, to the significance of formal school in the ‘moral career’ of those who come to be stigmatised. He writes: • Interestingly, the more the child is ‘handicapped’ the more likely he is to be sent to a special school for persons of his kind, and the more abruptly he will have to face the view which the public at large takes of him. He will be told that he will have an easier time of it among ‘his own’, and thus learn that the own he thought he possessed was the wrong one, and that this lesser own is really his. (Goffman, 1990: 47) • What then of those images which point to the ‘natural’ segregation of persons with impairments? What is their educative force in the ‘moral careers’ of disabled persons?
Warned New Yorkers to beware of a terrifying new crime wave: "In our newfound complacency, we have forgotten a particular kind of violence to which we are still prey. The violence of the mentally-ill."
Wiseness: Beyond disabling images • ‘Wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other’ (Goffman, 1990: 41).
References • Bogdan, R. (1988) Freak show: presenting human oddities for amusement and profit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press) • Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, [Online] http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/Barnes/disabling%20imagery.pdf • Cumberbatch, G. & Negrine, R. (1992) Images of Disability onTelevision, London, Routledge). • Goffman, E. (1990) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity (Penguin, London) • Oliver, M. and Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, Harlow, Addison Wesley Longman. • Marks , D. (1999) Disability: Controversial debates and psychological perspectives (London: Rutledge) • Shakespeare. T. (1994) Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal? Disability and Society, 9(3) • Shakespeare, T. (1999) Art and lies? Representations of disability on film, In M. Corker & S. French (Eds) Disability Discourse (Philadelphia: Open University Press)