Opinion

Until we understand what stigma is, people like Suella Braverman will get away with it every time

The former home secretary said street homelessness is a 'lifestyle choice'. Since then, there have been several incidents where rough sleepers have faced discriminaton. Academics Andrew Guise, River Ujhadbor and Simone Helleren say understanding stigma is key to preventing these problems

Suella Braverman has sparked a furious backlash

Image: UK Home Office

It feels like stigma lurks everywhere for people experiencing street homelessness. Suella Braverman spread false claims about people who are homeless. Not long after, tents belonging to rough sleepers were destroyed outside a hospital in Camden. And then soon after that there was the incident where a homeless man outside a McDonald’s in central London had his blankets soaked with water and bleach. Those recent statements and incidents just the latest in a long history of some of us being verbally and physically mistreated and attacked.

Are these incidents all because of stigma? Not just politicians standing up for what they believe even if wrong? Or businesses and local authorities carrying out their duties in challenging situations even if they harm people?

Our ongoing research on stigma and homelessness is trying to understand how the institutions that intend to support people can instead be stigmatising them. The people who we speak to have a lot to say on stigma. They often speak of care and compassion, and of their own creative and positive responses to stigma. But also, all too often, histories of individuals and institutions marking people out because of who they are assumed to be, and then mistreating them.

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Recognising stigma isn’t always easy. There are awful and outrageously clear incidents of abuse. But at other times the stereotypes and prejudice that drive stigma are not spoken aloud. Sometimes we get so used to discrimination that it might seem like “just how things are”. Stigma also isn’t a ‘thing’ people ‘have’, it is an idea that flows around society pushed along by powerful groups and has awful results. The formula of those ideas is something like ‘that experience/behaviour/appearance is bad/immoral/dangerous/disgusting and so we need to ban/harm/get rid of them’. And those ideas have nothing inherently to do with what or who is marked out, as we know from how stigma changes and evolves over time. What or who is seen as dangerous or needing control in one place and time is different to another. Trying to pin down those ideas as they develop and circulate is tricky.

Respondents to our study are describing these processes though. There are lots of people giving us enormous insight to the hidden ways in which stigma comes about and impacts on people.

A challenge across all these responses though is that whilst there is lots of deep analysis there isn’t a consistent understanding of the problem. The term ‘stigma’ comes up all the time in our research and almost everyone knows it and has a view. But there isn’t a common understanding of the many aspects of stigma and how it comes about. People are using the term ‘stigma’ and meaning lots of often slightly different things.

Debating slippery terminology isn’t just something to worry armchair philosophers. Collective uncertainty on what we are talking about has big impacts. Thinking about Covid-19 is helpful to illustrate this. Imagine if three years into the pandemic we still didn’t know exactly what the Covid-19 virus was like? There would be no vaccines and much less in the way of treatment. We would likely all be stuck in rolling lockdowns and many more people would be ill and dying. But we knew within weeks what the Covid-19 virus looked like and could respond, with precision. With stigma we are decades in to recognising it is an issue, longer, and collectively don’t have agreement on what the problem is.

The collective uncertainty on stigma is also a problem for other reasons. It allows those in power to avoid accountability. Suella Braverman saying our streets are being ‘taken over’ by ‘people from abroad’ as a ‘lifestyle choice’ is powerful language marking people out as different and dangerous. We know from history this has powerful effects.

Policy that references stigma in vague ways is also dangerous. The recent UK Government drug strategy says, “We will create a system where no one falls through the gaps, where there is no stigma attached to addiction and it is treated as a chronic health condition”. An important goal. But the strategy doesn’t say what stigma is and how this will be achieved. Stigma is just something ‘out there’, a vague problem to somehow be tackled. The strategy certainly doesn’t recognise the role of government in furthering stigma. And so the problem continues.

As many people have long pointed out, stigma is a big problem in our society. It is part of the machinery of how people are mistreated and pushed to the margins. Of the many things that would help tackling stigma, one is for us all to collectively try and understand how exactly it is stigma is involved in what we see.

Andy Guise, River Újhadbor and Simone Helleren work at King’s College London on the Social Responses to Stigma study. For information on the research, head here. Thank you to everyone living and working across south London who has given their time, energy and ideas to the study.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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