Our Town: We’re a nation of outsiders

Our Town: We’re a nation of outsiders
"Clover Street” by Gregory Crewdson photo permission granted by Nassau County Museum of Art

(photo “Clover Street” by Gregory Crewdson )
Being an outsider is an issue that plagues most Americans. If your ancestors are Irish, Italian, Jewish, Indian, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern or African, you will be seen at some point in your life as a pariah and outcast and untouchable. This is a grim fact of life. The signs of your stigma are impossible to hide.

Perhaps it’s your name. If your name ends in a vowel like mine does, chances are you have been called a Wop, Guinea, Grease Ball, Guido or Dago. Signs of being stigmatized may be seen in the color of your skin. In America lightness is seen as good and darkness is considered bad. Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist remarked on this finding and said that those with blonde hair are considered saintly, elevated and pure and the rest are considered children of a lesser God.

Being stigmatized or seen as an outcast was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Scarlet Letter” published in 1850. This was a work of historical fiction set in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642. The beautiful Hester Prynne conceives a child out of wedlock and is subjected to public humiliation in the public square and then forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest to symbolize “Adulterer.” D.H. Lawrence described this book as “the perfect work of the American imagination.” America still has a strong Puritan streak despite recent loosening of mores in the Millennial cohort.

It is hard to predict when an act of shame will be labeled as such. If you are a professional golfer on tour and you happen to utter an anti-gay slur on air, you run the risk of losing sponsors as Justin Thomas realized. He was caught uttering an anti-gay slur and Ralph Lauren promptly removed him from their ranks and cost him millions. If you show too much anger on tour and snap a club on air, you will be fined $25,000 and labeled a hot head.

But you don’t have to be a tour player to be turned into a pariah. Country club life seems benign and gracious to outsiders, but all is not bliss within those hallowed walls. If you wear a collarless shirt or God forbid blue jeans, you will be getting a letter from the Board of Directors. So I don’t have to tell you what happens if you have an affair with someone else’s wife. The rigidity of rules, the sanctions and the stigma that unfold are every bit as harsh, hypocritical and as permanent as what Hester Prynne faced in “The Scarlet Letter.”

Being stigmatized, ostracized and marginalized is not limited to golf pros, country club people or an ex-patriot. Children are exceptionally cruel in their aggression so if you happen to be overweight, shy, too short, too tall, too smart or learning disabled, you have most assuredly been bullied, spit upon, hurt, insulted and/or ridiculed. And it is hard enough to be dehumanized as an adult, but when this occurs as a kid, you will be shadowed by this feeling of being an outcast for the remainder of your days.

A large part of the work I do as a psychoanalyst is to uncover and repair this damage. If a youngster was labeled stupid at one point in their life, it does not matter if they have an IQ of 130 and have a medical degree. They will still harbor feelings of stupidity. And if a child was told they are ugly by a peer or a parent, they will look at themselves in the mirror and feel disgust, no matter how pretty or handsome they turn out to be.

In the final analysis, 100% of America is made up of outsiders and ex-pats who are now insiders but don’t realize this. In an odd way, we all carry the scarlet letter “A” inside of our heads, due to some heinous distant memory of being ridiculed and insulted for no good reason.

And it is no small task to turn that stigma around. Being stigmatized occurs when you are called fat or stupid or ugly or worse. When this memory is discovered and shared with someone you trust, you can be helped to see that the scarlet “A” does not mean Adulterer but could mean Alpha or AOK or Alright.

We have all been shamed at one point in our life but that was due to prejudice and not because of any inner flaw. Being stigmatized produces anger, fear, isolation and depression and is one of the most problematic and insidious aspects of life in America.

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