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The Borders and Margins of Stigmatization and Discrimination

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Discriminating Borders and the Margins of Stigmatization

In their article Even the Birds Rough Here Cough, Bush, Moffatt and Dunn state that stigmatized places and technologies share three common features. The first, the possession of a potential threat source that provokes “high perceptions of risk” in human beings, the second, “the violation of a standard of what is right and natural,” and lastly, the unequal division of those effects created by the existence of the threat source (Bush et. al 2001, p. 47). Drawing from the definitions of stigma provided by Bush et. al, Paul Rozin, and Theresa Satterfield, stigma can be understood as the inflicted characteristic on a person, place, or thing having to do with human perception of the subject as being imbued with potential risk or threat. This definition lays the foundation work for a shared stigmatization of technology and place as they often spatially and temporally relate and coincide. Drawing on this definition of stigma as well as evidence provided by these authors of the commonalities between the stigmatization of technology and place, Bush et. al can be validated in their claim that stigmatization across lines of technology and place carries with it more similarity than difference in presentation.

The first aspect joining technological and spatial stigma, the presence of “a source of hazard which elicits high perceptions of risk” taken from the definition provided by Bush et. al can be elaborated on through two lenses. The first is through the lens of a technological entity that pollutes place “due to associated fears about health,” as Satterfield states (Satterfield 2000, p. 1). Rozin agrees with this statement, indicating that technological stigma occurs mainly in conjunction with the idea of “potential bodily harm” or of a possible threat to “bodily welfare” upon entry to the body (Rozin 2013, p. 31). High perception of risk is expanded upon through the subject of the body, which is the perceived victim of the technological assault on its health and in a dire sense, its existence. The second lens to approach this idea of risk with has to do with a fear for personal safety and of those who hold immense economic and political power and appear to withhold information from communities which remain uninformed.

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This includes any object or living organism that may have been in range of stigmatized technologies, thereby having been conceptually polluted through contamination. Satterfield reports that, in Marshall, Georgia, those houses that were purchased by the Alouette chemical works plant were destroyed or marked such that any resident who saw this transition may have felt that “the fractured landscape that they occupy is no longer, and perhaps never has been, safe” (Satterfield 2000, p. 3). This fear merges into one that becomes more personal for those within the defined and perceived zones of impact regarding pollution. The perception of risk through the potential for bodily harm is embodied in fear, specifically “the fear that contaminants have been absorbed into one’s tissues and perhaps the genetic material of survivors” (Satterfield 2000, p. 5). Additionally, this fear is manifested in the presence of the unknown as a major contributor to perceptions of risk. Air pollution in Teesside, England “has long represented an unknown threat to the environment health” tied with concerns often invalidated or “dismissed as ‘wrong’” by the wealthy and political elite (Bush et. al 2001, p. 49).

The stigmatization of technology and place additionally points to how the subject either embodies or actively defiles a moral standard of what is just and natural to the order of the world. Bush et. al discuss how perceptions about Teesside as a place of inhabitation are deeply associated and embedded within the “highly visual icons of heavy industry and air pollution” which, as an industrial area, have not been removed (Bush et. al 2001, p. 54). This aspect of visibility to the elements of the landscape that are associated with the continuous production of contamination and pollution only serves to remind its inhabitants of the constant violation by the area of a natural order. Additionally, the myriad health problems purported by residents of industrial areas in the studies of Bush et. al and Satterfield only serve to support Rozin’s claim that perceptions about health are entrenched in opinion over integrity, whether those perceptions be about a person, place, or thing (Rozin 2013, p. 38).

Due to the combination of the moralization of health and the tendency of humans to view nature as being “benign or benevolent,” stigmatization of technology often easily leads and relates to stigmatization of spatial place (Rozin 2013, p. 38). Nature is given the attributes of holiness and is thus unpurified by human intervention in the natural world, especially those aspects of technological intervention, which, combined with a sense of unknowingness and uncertainty about the specifics of their mechanics, are easily stigmatized. Whether or not living in a stigmatized and medically unhealthy environment is equitable to murder is also a contested topic. Residents of Marshall, Georgia “regard their lives as ‘one long lethal injection’ or ‘feel that they are something that will slowly kill’ them,” evidencing sentiments of lethality and the potentially murderous environment in which they live (Satterfield 2000, p. 5). These characteristics are laced with dialogue concerning good and evil and only further complicate the notion of stigma as it applies to technology and place.

Furthermore, “the inequitable distribution of impacts” by the stigmatized body onto human beings, whether it be technology or place, refers to the unequal consequences experienced by people occupying separate demographic populations. For Bush et. al, this means inequitable distribution by means of class and socioeconomic segregation. In Teesside, people living within a distance of the industrial plants enough to be affected but not close enough to be considered those living closest to the plants attempted to further distance themselves through their descriptions of the health effects had on closer inhabitants. “In these communities it was generally felt that poor health attributable to air pollution was mainly a problem for ‘poorer’ people living close to industry,” the article explains (Bush et. al 2001, p. 53).

Whether or not these sentiments carried any accuracy remained to be seen, but one aspect to this dissociative stance by these Teesside residents led to another link in the cycle. Further research suggested that all people living in Teesside, especially those closest to the plants, became publicly shamed themselves in association of the area, in other terms, “that they [were] defined through a sense of place” (Bush et al. 2001, p. 53). Stigmatization in this way delineated a permeable membrane between the stigma of technology, place, and person in Teesside. This stigmatization found itself mainly wrapped around the poorest people of the community, as for Teesside, “stigmas associated with technologies, air pollution, social exclusion and poor health are strongly interlinked as the communities close to industry have a long history of both industrial development and social-economic deprivation” (Bush et al. 2001, p. 54).

Although it is clear that the impacts of technological and place stigma hold an inequitable distribution of impacts along economic lines, it is important to recognize the relationship between stigma, poverty, and race, especially regarding communities which hold their histories in colonial pasts that, arguably, extend into the present. Satterfield in particular addresses the complexity of color as it is applied to stigma beyond bounds of class and economic status in her discussion on what she calls “sociopolitical stigma.” Within the body of this aspect to stigmatization, Satterfield notes that “in contaminated communities the complex interplay between technological and social stigmas constructs a tangled mass of attributional actions and reactions,” similar to the research found by Bush et. al (Satterfield 2000, p. 6). Unlike their study, however, Satterfield finds that race for these communities can be as great a bearer of negative consequence as class or socioeconomic status.

“Risks are not distributed equally across social groups,” Satterfield points out, affirming that consequence is unequally divided, but continues, stating that “there is a greater-than-average likelihood that the victims of hazardous technologies will be people of color,” especially those of low, marginalized economic status. In addition to the stigmatization of people related to an area in relation to race, this stigmatization travels outward from the source as people of color living within these “environmentally degrading contexts” become subjects of what Satterfield refers to as “psychological debasement and dehumanizing innuendo” such as association with the traits of laziness, ignorance, and backwardness. The cyclical nature of these internalized phrases reflects itself in the work life and personal performances of colored people, as Satterfield states, these words eat away at their self-esteem and their motivations toward taking control of their destinies (Satterfield 2000, p. 7). Those who make racist assumptions based on the technologically and spatially stigmatized consequences of the colored poor only serve to perpetuate these ideas, oppressing these people further from finding dignity within space beyond the technologically stigmatized bounds of their neighborhoods.

This racial aspect is a critical facet to consider when discussing the inequitable distribution of consequence across line of technological and place based stigmatization. It does not, however, negate the other two highly important factors relating technological and place based stigma explained earlier. Perception of risk alongside morally charged perceptions of technology and place compound to form a mental state of fear and uncertainty, over people, places and things associated with those fears. It is critical to understand the connections between these three links in order to make changes which will better assist communities suffering from the consequences of technological and place stigma in the present. In learning from the past, including these studies which have captured the essences of stigmatization in a research based setting, it is hopeful that societies may be able to understand, and thus plan to change, these settings for the better in the future.


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