Big stigma, little stigma

by Carl Dyke

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have me thinking about stigma. Here’s Erving Goffman in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963):

And even where widely attained norms are involved, their multiplicity has the effect of disqualifying many persons. For example, in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective, this constituting one sense in which one can speak of a common value system in America. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior; at times he is likely to pass and at times he is likely to find himself being apologetic or aggressive concerning known-about aspects of himself he knows are probably seen as undesirable. The general identity-values of a society may be fully entrenched nowhere, and yet they can cast some kind of shadow on the encounters encountered everywhere in daily living.

Goffman’s project was to ‘decenter’ stigma by noting that in some dimension almost everyone is one-down and painfully aware of it. Just about everyone has a touch of double consciousness, and the management of that eerie social disconfirmation of identity is a game known and played by all; his text is a handbook of familiar rules and strategies. Since the culture wars of the sixties even the white boys have started blushing, or at least bristling, under the onslaught of the stigmatized stigmatizing back.

It may look like Goffman is talking about what I’ll call ‘little stigma’, contingent embarrassments, and one of the standard criticisms of the book is that ‘big stigma’, structuring identities like race, class and gender, operates at a different scale with different dynamics. I think the genius of the book is how he is able to show big structural effects emerging from little interactive causes, but that’s a long technical discussion. Read the book. More immediately, the question this election and some of its key players raise is whether big stigma is eroding into the mass of overcomeable little stigmas like height, weight, age, education, accent, cultural style and so on that irritate, hinder and even incapacitate us without ever rising to the level of structural disqualification. I am not therefore suggesting that racism, sexism and classism have been overcome and are now stigma-free, but that the scale of that stigma may be changing in the U.S.. (I am also not suggesting that weightism, ageism, etc., are trivial burdens.)

That race has become little stigma is certainly the argument of Obama’s candidacy. Faced with the presumption that big structural racism would disqualify him categorically from the presidency, his response is ‘I don’t think so, let’s see’. He hasn’t made race an issue because he doesn’t think race is an issue [or rather, a special issue that needs to be his issue]. Although Clinton’s candidacy had to have the same premise regarding gender, her and her supporters’ demographics pushed toward a more old-school rhetoric of embattled exclusion.

Big stigma entrepreneurs like Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright have tried to push Obama the same way, with no success. The barbarism of schematized identities (a terrific concept from Jennifer Cascadia found here) and their associated stigmas is that life without them cannot be imagined. Obama is imagining this life, and attempting to live it. So far something like half of this country, millions and millions of people, would like to help and join in with that.

Perhaps Tocqueville will turn out to have been right yet again when he wrote that “When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. When everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. Hence the more equal men are, the more insatiable will be their longing for equality.” — Democracy in America (1835/1840). Perhaps our tolerances have grown very fine. We’ll need to get to work next on sexualities, the last of the ‘acceptable’ big stigmas which remains structurally excluding, at least in national politics.

5 Responses to “Big stigma, little stigma”

  1. He hasn’t made race an issue because he can’t make race an issue. To do so would be to “play the race card” i.e. to throw the subjugation of his race back into the face of white America. They will have none of that out of either shame or a sense of superiority. Either way cries of “j’accuse” will just get you a beat down from the pigs.

  2. You’re right, of course, but the point is that he can’t win if race continues to be big stigma; and he thinks he can. So it’s not that he’s silenced on that point, but that he’s staked the campaign on other ones. Continuing to treat race like big stigma rhetorically when it has lost its structural essence is a losing game for everyone, not least for blacks. That’s the point about barbarism. Obama’s actually been very direct about this, which is what’s got Jackson and Wright so angry, because they don’t know who they are without being oppressed. This is the hypothesis currently being tested.


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