Chapter II – The categorization of society


Stereotypical reflections oftentimes result in the categorization of individuals. Societal groups tend to utilize presumed characteristics to better understand the social worlds we live in.  Though there might be different interpretations across cultures, one thing is mutual:  stereotypes are ubiquitous.  I am convinced that labeling a group is not necessarily negative and rather important to make sense of an increasingly complex world, because none of us will ever be able to fully comprehend its complexity.  Differentiating oneself from others may help to overcome an inherent angst of the unknown.  However, I would like to claim that stereotypes need to be understood both in terms of their perception among various social groups and regarding likely pitfalls they may carry.

Rebellion against the odds of life

We all have encountered circumstances where we felt lost and/or misunderstood.  Frankly, while knowing better, I also tend to find a solution by putting the blame on someone or something else; sometimes even successfully. Most of us, however, have probably failed and were caught in a web of anxieties and rebelliousness; afraid to discover that only we are responsible yet disobedient towards good reason and support that we might were offered.  We may have ended up in putting ourselves in an artificial cocoon, being untouchable to others, being emotional distant, blaming others for being responsible and believing that our situation cannot be changed.  Most likely such tactics create a rather hostile environment than opening opportunities to escape the situation or even allow to move on, while discovering something new about us and the world we live in.

It can be a very cleansing experience to discover personal weaknesses and faults, because they are inherently human and none of us were born perfect (or will ever be). We learn and prosper through successes but more so through failures!  However, to accept that one derivates from that social and cultural assumption of flawlessness, one need to apply a positive attitude towards life to overcome hardship and to get up, over, and over again, which is much harder than one might think. Setbacks are common and getting up does not become much easier over time or by experiencing it more often, particularly as social pressure and negativity towards failure appears to be a stubborn attitude of most societies (speaking as a true Germen).

Many might use strong language, become emotional, or just burst out in anger to find a solution and to free themselves from the groups that are holding them back.  Perhaps we remember the positive emotions we felt when our rebellion against the odds of life have been successful.  Nonetheless, we may as well end up in resignation, if we lose the fight, despite those efforts.  If this happens our self-esteem might diminish even further, to an extent that others don’t see us anymore as the person we are; or in other words society assumes that our bitterness, fear, or rebelliousness are inherent and better to be ignored – we become invisible.

Some of us might remember a situation as narrated above; others might not understand why I integrated the discussion at all.  However, while talking about marginalized groups, we could argue, that the struggle of overcoming societal and cultural expectations is a constant one.  It is not, but also, about assumed perfection as certain flaws are understood of being inherent characteristics of specific groups (e.g., ethnicity, religion, disability, etc.). It becomes a battle against the ones in power. Fighting such, makes it even more likely to be perceived as an angry and unreasonable child that is rebellious against odds that cannot be beaten (e.g., you are black, which is why ….).

Language is powerful tool to convey emotions, rationale, wants, and needs; though the tone makes the music, as does appearance, social status, sex, race, functional abilities etc. Those elements, however, are also connected to our socio-cultural background and so biased in perception. People with disabilities, for example, may not have the ability to use ‘perfect’ language within societal norms, i.e. what is perceived as the normal (e.g., legal lingo) way to communicate.  Perhaps one might be perceived as rebellious, while trying to overcome language barriers with excessive body language. Most likely ending up being turned down, which, in turn could lead to inner resignation.

Even though those people may still put up a smile, because they have learned that a smile is rather sanctioned than punished, its meaning might be different.  It could be the hope that people stop feeling bad about you as an individual and trying to ‘cure’ what is not to be cured.  It could also be resignation to be understood and to give up discussing causes or reasons of their pain, so acting out to be happy in order to be accepted as part of society might be the easier solution.  To not become invisible, i.e. to smile despite of hardship, while already having resigned internally, requires expression on various levels: words, actions, looks and moves must be in sync to convey what we are fighting for.  We need to frame ourselves in a way that we want to be seen and perceived by others.  While doing so, however, we need to understand our inner self, in order to not get lost in the cause.  We may create a false image to get our point across, relentlessly trying to draw a picture about something and someone else but us. Nevertheless, it becomes imperative that we always look back and ask ourselves if the cause we are fighting for is still worth the risk to give up who we are.

Fighting for the rights of oppressed groups can be tiring and many of us will fail to change society’s assumptions and beliefs.  In particular in the beginning, advocacy is a rather self-less act with little hope that the immediate and personal situation may change.  Rebellions based on selfishness, on the belief that success is determined by easing one’s own life, will most likely fail as well.  If we, however, act regardless of who benefits from our actions and irrespective if it is now or in a distant future, we may recruit others who think alike and we might even establish an identity on which a social movement can be built upon.

For the disability rights movement one cause generally has been society’s belief that disabled people must be ‘cured’.  Advocates have tried to establish an understanding that ‘they’ are not any less human and that pity is not helping anyone.  If pity becomes an even chronic attitude it is even perceived as humiliating.  As it means one is taking away one’s voice and choice about which ‘treatment’ is right for that person.  We are living in the here and now and must cope with the moment. Reducing the barriers which are hindering us today, are the things we need to discuss, not to debate about the terrifying things which might have happened in the past.

From legislation and constitutions of an assumed normality

The Americans with Disability Act might be understood as some form of governmental confirmation of the mostly ignored fact that people with disabilities have been largely discriminated.  Prior to such, people with disabilities were not recognized as victims of so called hate crimes. Only those founded on someone’s belief that people of different race, religion, or sexual orientation deserve punishment. However, though crimes at people with disabilities might not be popular in today’s media, scorning someone for his inability to perform a physical act is as much of a crime than other forms of defamation.  Interestingly, the government doesn’t mark people with disability as a minority group in society, yet as discussed earlier, support the social construction of the word disability through its medical model.  We need to begin understanding that it is the environment we provide, which separates and makes people with disabilities as well as other oppressed groups appear abnormal – Inaccessibility, for instance, not a functional inability, causes limitations.

From a personal point of view, I am usually somewhat hesitant to mark a group a minority.  It sounds to me like already attaching a stigma – making someone different by definition.  Nevertheless, I enjoy being seen different, perhaps even be part of a minority. Either given my ethnicity, my belief system, or whatever else may distinguish us as individuals. What counts for me is that people are interested in discovering those differences.

I like questions about Germany, my culture, and even our not so flattering past.  It shows me that people are open-minded, interested in the world, and that they care who I am.  No matter how political incorrect questions I may encounter, it is a good start to establish a mutual understanding.  If we would ‘treat’ people from marginalized groups the same way, I believe, we wouldn’t need to make them a minority, because we would accept and understand the ‘differences’ we perceive or experience.  However, until we reach a point of a worldwide common understanding for the normalcy of individual differences, keeping hate crime statistics and grouping people into minorities, to allow their voice to be heard politically, might currently at least not be wrong.

The US constitution, and other similar documents around the world, have their origins as being pamphlets, written and agreed by a few – some who consider themselves as ‘normal’ and probably feeling superior compared to ‘others’.  Though over the years various social movements took place, the sustainability of success is still unclear, largely due to an intensification of globalization, threatening equality.

Segregation starts on an individual level and soon becomes a stigma attached to a whole group, which is also true for people with disabilities.  Society does not realize that the environment creates the equation of ‘disability’ meaning ‘uselessness’. We use definitions and make assumptions of defined groups; for instance, the abled-bodied or even the superiority of white-middle class male. Though the latter might be less vivid today, back in the day, the founding fathers of the United States, belonged to that group basing the constitution on THEIR image of ‘normality’.

However, not only must society understand and accept the environmental constraints we, the people, create; similarly, people from oppressed groups need to be vocal about their conditions, heritage, beliefs, etc. to establish a mutual understanding and gain acceptance.  Resistance needs to be heard and felt. Marginalized groups require a political voice to reduce barriers, to create a wider understanding of what normal means and who is considered as such.

Generally, everyone is normal in its own regard, irrespective of any medical condition or characteristic we may perceive as being different.  However, currently normalcy might be the biggest threat for a social movement, because society continuously categorizes individuals and groups, while attaching stigmas. So, we need to continue the fight and resist until we come to that understanding that there is in fact no distinction between normal and not.

Losing ourselves in the dark

Becoming invisible may happen on two levels: an individual’ hides from society or masquerades his true self.  Considering the latter, I would like to refer to a rather personal experience: During my time as business consultant, I learned to be a great actor; all too often did I find myself living a lie and even believing that I was someone who I was clearly not.  We could say that I was hiding my inner-self, or probably just didn’t understand who I am supposed or wanted to be.  Slowly I began discovered my strengths and weaknesses, while particularly accepting the latter as being an inherent part of myself, helped me to find out what I really wanted, personally and with regards to my place in society.  I started to understand that we are all equal, as every one of us has ‘superior’ abilities one way or another. Similarly, we also all carry flaws and to understand both is the challenge, but most likely also struggle that we face day in and day out.

Marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, however, do not only face personal barriers, they also battle against societies’ wrongful assumptions of who they are and what they need.  Society sanctions pity towards people with disabilities, we all shall try to find a ‘cure’ and it is believed that their condition must be treated.  We may even punish an individual with a disability who is not thankful for society’s paternalistic attitude, though that person may not even want that type of support. We have our ways to push someone to appreciate things, which are neither wanted nor necessary.  We keep on failing to realize that one’s self-esteem is at risk, while forcing someone to behave in a certain way. We take away that person’s ability to discover his own strengths and weaknesses, because we make him believe that only the latter is what society allows him to be – a victim of his flaws, manifested in some form of functional disability.

We may compare what has been said in the last paragraph with Western society’s obsession for beauty.  Everyone who either doesn’t fit in that picture is considered to be not ‘normal’.  For example, within the field of body-building, or recreational fitness more in general, the media populates a normality of muscular, lean women and men, even though only a few of us will ever be able to live up to that ‘ideal’.  The models we see in the media, in magazines are anything but ‘normal’; in fact, they present the minority. However, society makes us believe that we all should and can strive for that lookalike, while for most of us, our genetic potential will prevent that ‘dream’ to ever come true.  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if we stop chasing the impossible, accept ourselves the way we are, our flaws and weaknesses, and create an environment where it is accepted to be just ourselves?

When we get to know people with disabilities and other marginalized individuals, we may experience that some of them have answered those questions above and have established an empowering, a supportive atmosphere.  We may wonder how they managed to do this, considering that they must have faced hardship.  Stamina, assertiveness, and a positive attitude towards life may be some of the ingredients, but more generally it is probably the realization that they don’t need to be saved or cured; the understanding that despite their disability they are well capable of ‘saving’ themselves.  This is not to be said that we all should become disabled, to develop those traits and habits.  It is rather meant to create an understanding that we all get stronger with experience, if we believe in ourselves, if we understand that we are all human beings and that we are not any less normal than other people.

Maybe becoming invisible is part of it.  It is likely that we need to feel different, to be excluded from social and cultural ties for a while, to escape the world a little, to day dream, and to see the things which are important and which make us special.  Personally, I admire people who are able to take this ‘time out’ to search for their souls, given that I have had a hard time to do so myself in the past.  Nonetheless, a word of caution, and though I believe it is a good experience to step out of this world for a little: we should not lose the ability to relate our dreams to reality and not to get overly hung up on those imaginations; sometimes we need to let go and find a new dream.