Walls and stigma
Harold A Maio, 75, is retired from teaching German and mental health editing, though he keeps a hand in both. Through art and German he has a lasting interest in expression, particularly in language. To him word is art, he likes to discern the meaning in word.
Harold speaks to Newry Times this week about walls and stigma.
Harold A Maio
It is Sunday, I took my coffee in the garden as I usually do, the not so warm sun slowly pushing away the night’s coolness. The sun rises slowly to the south, the temperature rising as slowly around it. No sound of traffic disturbs the air. In the quiet words occur to me, trafficking in my mind.
Yesterday I critiqued a term a reporter in Montreal had placed in his paper. He wrote back, his response, not unusual, disturbed me, though not him. He had not “seen” what he wrote.
His editors had not. And likely his readers had not. Words offer disguises, some better than others. Prejudice disguises itself in words we come, through habit, not to recognize.
Prejudice arises from ignorance, leading to discrimination, the one inexorably following the other like dominoes cascading in rhythm’d fall. I asked for a meeting, a “sit down” meeting with editors of my local paper, and there explained to them that I saw words in pictures. They were not symbols to me, but images.
Their parking lot held two “disabled” spaces. They saw signs, I saw unusable parking spaces, the space disabled, like a disabled car, maybe through construction, maybe through some kind of minor natural disaster. The sign prevailed for them, the word for me. “Disabled” has risen to icon here, has it there?
The term transfers directly to people, people are “disabled.” We discussed a second word, “stigma”. I disallow its use, they had not, it had papered twice in their paper in one week. Unseen. They will now red-line it, offering caution to reporters, editors.
The reporter from Montreal had employed that term. He offered that the people whose meeting he was reporting on had employed it, ergo he had, and that his editors had approved it, they had not seen anything wrong with it, ergo there was not.
The term was not invisible to him. His parents had survived Nazism’s concentration camps, that application of “stigma” was clear to him. Directed by him it was not.To help him see beyond personal experience I sent him this:
- … the social stigma of mental illness…” (Jews)
The words “social stigma” did not then escape him, the disguise removed, he “saw” what he had written.
I am afraid we forget history, and repeat its language, not its lessons. Through walling history in we choose what to remember. By walling ourselves in, we fail to remember.
Pictures flood my mind, history does not live behind walls, but in vivid pictures cared one to see. Present history lives in my mind in vivid pictures. I cannot escape those images, the lessons they purvey. I cannot wall in those pictures and relegate them to some hidden corner of my mind.
Nor can I wall in the words accompanying that history. They do not exist insulated from the present. By their intrusion they teach. By their intrusion I learn. By their intrusion I teach that I learn.
I watched the Berlin wall I had once shouted over fall. If lucky, in my lifetime I will see other walls fall. If we are lucky, we will see other carefully built walls fall. “Something there is that does not love a wall”. Something there is that wants it down.
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