intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Stigma

with 3 comments

Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?” – Leo Buscaglia

### 04.Jan. – 01:02

hey, do you think guys with hiv are fearsome?

*** 04.Jan. – 01:03

How did you know that?

###04.Jan. – 01:07

just like that… the question crossed my mind.

*** 04.Jan. – 01:08

now come on, what do you mean by that question?

### 04.Jan. – 01:10

well, i repeatedly had the impression, that militant despise of hiv positive people has something to do with fear.

***04.Jan. – 01:13

sure. everyone who is concerned, could be a risk for somebody else and will be hence isolated…. no need to understand that.

### 04.Jan. – 01:16

there is…. i want to, as i am just writing about it.

***04.Jan. – 01:20

how could one possibly follow every single move within a society? and then understand it too on top of it?

would be nice, if that would be possible

But now it is too late for such discussions. I am tired and think this is not the right issue for such an hour.

————————————————————————————————————————–

Well sure, 01:20 is not the right time to think about HIV and stigmatisation. But then, what is the right hour to think about it? Now, there is no question, that HIV is fearsome and that HIV positive individuals are stigmatised in a large variety of situations. Is it because of the risk then? Who does discriminate car drivers? They definitely are as much a risk to others, as they are at risk themselves. Who stigmatises the bed as a furniture? Most people do die there. If that is not a risk! It appears that it cannot be so simple: you are a risk, i avoid you. It is not just the perception of risk. There must be something more to this.

To get started, what is a stigma then. Merriam Webster explains, among other things that a social stigma would be a “mark of infamy or disgrace; sign of moral blemish; stain or reproach caused by dishonourable conduct; reproachful characterization” (Webster, 1913). So we are talking about social stigmatisation. And Webster brings it on: HIV anathematised as a sign of moral blemish. The bearer of the HIV stigma is hence identified with his disease first, and with the virus causing the disease next and the conduct that led to his infection in the last instance. Due to the mechanisms of perception and the structure of language, this erroneous identification is widely spread, although it is false to facts and a reversal of the natural order of perception: elementary event on the factual level – sensual perception, selecting and abstracting data in several steps, and linguistic labelling, which means semantic conceptualising on sensorial data and makes perceived content ready to higher nervous activity, up to moral judgement. Throughout this process, the continuous field reality is more and more segmented and structures or patterns are inferred from previously known facts and contradicting data are elicited, so that we end up finding it strange that our nice and amiable friend can contract a disease like HIV. It is not. He does not cease to be nice and amiable, actually, at all. So, you might say: there we go, it is the dishonourable conduct. Wrong, it is our perception of it, true. But that is claimed from Epiktet to Ellis, and who wants more of this, should delve into General Semantics best.

But the feeling of moral superiority breeds reproach, not fear. Or, if it does so, then again it is not the lacking moral integrity that inspires fear. And then again, is it fear in the end, as the majority of us will agree on being afraid of car accidents and of dying in bed. German language has a particular word for the fearsome in everyday life: “unheimlich”, which, at least since the translation of Freud’s essay of the same name, is translated, more or less successfully, by “uncanny”. The question hence arises, are HIV positive people uncanny to healthy ones. The answer, as seen above, is often yes. The question why, remains often unanswered. In Arabic and Hebrew ‘uncanny’ means the same as ‘daemonic’, ‘gruesome’. So obviously this kind of feeling is of ancient old history. (For Freud the fact that the uncanny returns in ever new shapes throughout times and places would constitute an uncanny fact itself. But let me not dilate on this.) Let’s see into this. Romantic aesthetics discovering the uncanny as belonging, beyond just beauty, to it’s fields, yields the best explanation to explore the uncanny in my scope here:

“Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light” (Schelling)

Guess from where the quote is taken? No, not from Schelling, from Freud, about the uncanny. And, although one does not need to adhere to his ideas about everybody being afraid of castration due to lusting for fornication with mom and craving to kill daddy, his conception about the uncanny is very helpful for our request. The prehistoric understanding of the world seems to have been largely animistic. “This was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts and the technique of magic based on that belief; by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers, or ‘mana’; as well as by all the other creations with the help of which man, in the unrestricted narcissism of that stage of development, strove to fend off the manifest prohibitions of reality. It seems as if each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to this animistic stage in primitive men, that none of us has passed through it without preserving certain residues and traces of it which are still capable of manifesting themselves, and that everything which now strikes us as ‘uncanny’ fulfils the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.

At this point I will put forward two considerations which, I think, contain the gist of this short study. In the first place, if psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect. In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [‘homely’] into its opposite, das Unheimliche (p. 226); for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This reference to the factor of repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling’s definition [p. 224] of the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”

Now here we have got really strong stuff. The uncanny is not the other, but the self, namely a repressed emotional impulse? Let us, for the sake of the curiosity, where this will lead, assume, this were true. Let us first take what is next at hand, the understandable fear of death. Freud has in the same essay more about this: “There is scarcely any other matter, however, upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death. Two things account for our conservatism: the strength of our original emotional reaction to death and the insufficiency of our scientific knowledge about it. Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life. It is true that the statement ‘All men are mortal’ is paraded in text-books of logic as an example of a general proposition; but no human being really grasps it, and our unconscious has as little use now as it ever had for the idea of its own mortality. Religions continue to dispute the importance of the undeniable fact of individual death and to postulate a life after death; civil governments still believe that they cannot maintain moral order among the living if they do not uphold the prospect of a better life hereafter as a recompense for mundane existence. In our great cities, placards announce lectures that undertake to tell us how to get into touch with the souls of the departed; and it cannot be denied that not a few of the most able and penetrating minds among our men of science have come to the conclusion, especially towards the close of their own lives, that a contact of this kind is not impossible. Since almost all of us still think as savages do on this topic, it is no matter for surprise that the primitive fear of the dead is still so strong within us and always ready to come to the surface on any provocation. Most likely our fear still implies the old belief that the dead man becomes the enemy of his survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him. Considering our unchanged attitude towards death, we might rather enquire what has become of the repression, which is the necessary condition of a primitive feeling recurring in the shape of something uncanny. But repression is there, too. All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe officially that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have made any such appearances dependent on improbable and remote conditions; their emotional attitude towards their dead, moreover, once a highly ambiguous and ambivalent one, has been toned down in the higher strata of the mind into an unambiguous feeling of piety.” Sounds modern? It is a text from 1919.

If this is true, then, at least in some people, the HIV positive will awaken those old animistic fears of the dead, sure not to the degree, that they might sacrifice animals, but perhaps enough to raise an uncanny feeling? And if the emotional impulse can be as well a pleasant one, as long as it just needs to be repressed in order to be turned into fear, could it be that in addition to this there is, although carefully shunned, a secret desire for exactly the same conduct, that allows for transmission of HIV, in those, who fear it’s bearers instead of the infective agent? Freud again: “Whoever possesses something that is at once valuable and fragile is afraid of other people’s envy, in so far as he projects on to them the envy he would have felt in their place. A feeling like this betrays itself by a look even though it is not put into words; and when a man is prominent owing to noticeable, and particularly owing to unattractive, attributes, other people are ready to believe that his envy is rising to a more than usual degree of intensity and that this intensity will convert it into effective action. What is feared is thus a secret intention of doing harm, and certain signs are taken to mean that that intention has the necessary power at its command.” We do have hence at least three reasons for the uncanny feeling that nourish the tendency towards social stigmatisation: fear of death, fear of ones own desires and fear of the other’s intention of doing evil. But regardless if these fears are due to facts, surmounted world views or repressed emotional impulses – what opens the door for them is neither the virus, nor the disease it causes nor those who have contracted it, but the initial process of identifying all three on cognitive level. And it is there, from where the harm to perception and thinking of those healthy and those not healthy anymore stems. It is then, that imagination becomes stronger than knowledge, myth more potent than history.

But the same way as laughter can be cure for grief and in some, love can be stronger than death, no social stigma and nor any virus nor anything else can degrade the dignity of a human being, except for it’s own thinking.

Written by huehueteotl

January 9, 2006 at 2:54 am

3 Responses

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  1. This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.
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