Stigmatization: a diversionary political strategy

Tue, 3 Jan 2012 Source: Tsikata, Prosper Yao

The recent revolting development in Ghanaian politics, whereby stigmatization of certain individuals for perceived or real “abnormalities” is fast becoming a diversionary scheme to distract from the gigantic developmental issues that confront our country.

When news broke out in the run-up to the 2008 general elections that then National Democratic Congress (NDC) presidential candidate, John Evans Atta-Mills, was sick and hallucinating, party aficionados saw it as a propagandist scheme by the ruling government to stigmatize him in order to declare him unfit for the highest office of the land. While there are constitutional provisions that prohibit the sick from holding office, especially if the sickness potentially impedes his/her ability to discharge the duties of the presidential office, the accusation could be regarded as speculative in the absence of any tangible evidence.

I believe, in reprisal, the then standard-bearer of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, was targeted with the malicious tag of being an alleged drug user. Akin to the first case, we can also only refer to this allegation as speculative.

If what become the moral and ethical codes against which members of society are judged are products of social interaction, then stigma and social identity are also products or offshoots of social interaction and for that matter emanate from symbolic interactionism.

That being the case, all societies frown on the undesirable human qualities in juxtaposition with what is acceptable. As members of society, we imbibe those codes consciously or unconsciously and they become ingrained in our sub-conscious minds. We, therefore, instinctively refer to those codes to isolate that which is undesirable among the human stock. But with our limitations in knowledge, there is the propensity to isolate what we consider threatening, inferior, and undesirable on a faulty premise for stigmatization.

The point, however, must be made that stigma based on an individual’s character, for example, a known record of alcoholism, drug addiction, radical political behavior, and criminal activities are choices that individuals make at certain stages of the life course, and there is imputation of responsibility to some of these forms of stigma. The same may not be the case with abominations of the body and acquired deformities such as sickness. Therefore, there stigmatization may be borne out of ignorance, since they are things individuals do not have control over.

The bottom-line in both cases, however, remains at the speculative stage when they cannot be proven, but do not fail to carry the stigma that is associated with the abnormalities that undergird stigma, and for that matter the labels the sitting president, John Evans Atta-Mills, and the opposition standard-bearer, Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, now carry.

When congenital deformities or abnormalities become the basis for stigmatization and discrimination, they become unjustifiably cruel since these are things that the affected individuals do not have control over. But since it is the reaction of society to people differing from socio-cultural norms, each society shapes its own characterization of stigma. The scale, however, tilts largely towards negative attitudes towards what is considered abnormal and subsequently stigmatized. In Pharaonic Egypt, Warren Dawson informs us that the Pharaonic Egypt, dwarfs and other misshapen human beings obtained positions of seniority in the household of nobles. Even acquired deformity was no barrier to holding high office in ancient Egypt, connoting cultural acceptance rooted in religious beliefs of the Egyptians whose pantheon were deformed.

The implication is that these deformities differentiated the affected individuals who are in the image of the gods. In this case, they differed from the socio-cultural norms, but the reaction of the society towards them deviates from Guffman’s typology of spoiled identity. There is no doubt that this is an exception. For history is copious with spoiled identity as a result of abnormalities or deformities from the norms of society. Dating back to ancient Greece, where Western civilization drew its strength, attitudes toward deformity were cruel. Plato’s Laws emphasized sound and hale body and Aristotle proposed a law to prevent parents from rearing deformed children. In Sparta parents were legally obliged to abandon deformed infants to death, as deformity was viewed as expression of divine anger.

Stigmatization, discrimination, and exclusion in modern Western society and that of other societies may be traced to these ancient practices. In its most recent forms, death was administered by inhalation of carbon monoxide to the deformed under physician supervision in Nazi Germany. In Ghana, being an albino, hunchback, or extremely short are different enough to attract stigma. While in the case of the Pharonic Egypt that attracted a pride of place, in my own society, it has been a qualification enough for one be used for religious rituals such as human sacrifice.

Stigmatization of a whole ethnic group – the “inward looking juju peddling ethnic group” and the “uneducated arrogant cocaine trading cluster” – is akin to the stigmatization of congenital deformities and even acquired deformities on the life course. They both evoke stereotypical images, prejudice, and discrimination. When stigmatization of an ethnic group becomes the basis for how members of the group are treated, stigmatization may carry perceptions of ignorance, as there may be some variations within ethnic groups, for example, when people begin to categorize all Somalis as violent people or refugees that need help, this may carry some negative connotations that are akin to stereotyping. If it becomes the basis for negative treatment of the individual who bear the emblem of these groups, then it is indeed negative as some members of the same group may not bear the overarching categorization of the group but tend to pay the price for the overall stigma of the group.

Returning to the individual’s known record of criminal activities, it is obvious that there are elements of interplay between will and intellect, and to that extent responsibility. In this case, stigmatization may become tolerable but not wholly essential. It may be tolerable to emphasize the mores and the ethics of society to put the individual in check. The point is that as individuals are stigmatized for flouting the norms of the society, it serves as a deterrent to others not to repeat the acts of the stigmatized. The point is if a presidential candidate’s drug use can be proven, that should, deductively, be bad news enough.

As Erving Goffman points out, it is why those who desire to lead must conceal physical or moral defect. This leads us to consider the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. While some may argue that it signaled the acceptance of deformity within the American society, some writers point to the fact that it marked the lapdog era of American journalism, when journalist simply turned their eyes away from the fact that Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound.

What about our case in Ghana? There is a constitutional provision that prohibits the sick. But in both cases of accused drug usage and infirmity, if there are no practical ways to prove these things, then we better stop rocking the boat and direct our energies towards meaningful development issues than to continue to be bogged down in these endless accusations which have become a convenient distraction from fruitful political discourse.

Drawing on “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” one sees a spot in these messages in mobilizing opposing camps against each other. These mobilizations do not eliminate stigmatization of the individuals by the public. Attempts by the publicists of these high profile individuals to clean their images of the accusations have not been successful. Due to the inherent oppositional nature of politics, as each other’s camp tends to rely hugely on such negative spots of their opponent as a source to discredit them.

As it were, stigmatization has become a diversionary political scheme to distract from the crucial developmental issues that confront our country. The question may be put whether it is not important to discuss the private lives of those who aspire to public office and the highest office of the land, for that matter.

Yes, they are important! If they are important, what are we doing as a society to get to the bottom of these issues to affirm their veracity or otherwise, especially if they are so important that they substitute for the discussion of other relevant issues? Are there constitutional provisions that require the individuals at the center of these controversies to compel them to make known what has become, like in Hitler’s battle, a spot for mobilizing opposing political forces?

Obviously, all the publicists of the two gentlemen have done so far in their attempt to explain these issues away have rather served as a rallying point to their respective aficionados to inflame the issues to take attention away from very important national discussions. It is suggestive that these forms of stigma can hardly be managed successfully. Others such as physical deformities may be managed a great deal through plastic surgery, but only those who did not know the individual before the surgery are susceptible to accept the new image as the person. For those who knew the former self, there is a historic image that is recalled anytime they come into contact with that person. In this case, plastic surgery only becomes a fraud of the old self, to wit.

By the way, where are the manifestoes of the political parties? Are we in for another dry season of the guessing game with regard to whose manifesto is released first, a phenomenon that will engender a vacuum for the trivial? Perhaps the manifestoes don’t even matter anymore, as actions in government tend to deviate from the intentions, or at best inconsistent with proscriptions of a manifesto.

To conclude, it is up to Ghanaians to decide whether they want to continue in this unending vicious speculation and stigmatization of each other or see this as an opportunity to resort to scientific ways to prove what is scientifically unknown to the general public, especially if what we stigmatize becomes a source of discrimination and abuse. This way, we will be attempting to shy away from the diversionary schemes in order to discuss very important national issues.

Case Analysis Based on Erving Goffman’s Being and Seeming

Let us imagine a man, whose life is dominated by public appearance. Call the man John Evans Atta-Mills or Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo (you choose one of them and consider them in the light of drug use and sickness to do your analysis and draw your conclusions based on the article above). List the different configurations involved. First, there is Atta-Mills as he wishes to appear to the public. Then there is Atta-Mills as he really appears to the public, that’s Atta-Mills public image, which in general does not coincide with what Atta-Mills wishes the public to see; and seemingly there is the reverse situation. Further, there is Atta-Mills as he appears to himself. Then there is bodily Atta-Mills. Lastly, the images offered of him by his propagandist as they want him to appear – one living being and many ghostly appearances. Where is the room for any genuine interhuman life?

Prosper Yao Tsikata

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao