Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Doka's idea of disenfranchisement

"Lives unworthy of life."
Nazi slogan 
while murdering 
Romanian gypsies

Language is a powerful predictor of outcomes. The ways in which we speak of an event or a person or a group of others reflects societal feelings and beliefs.  Words dictate worthiness or unworthiness; they value and devalue.  

At a macro level, language labels have been used throughout history to isolate, marginalize, and endanger. They have been villainously used to justify the burning of countless women as witches at the stake and conduct unethical medical research on the mentally retarded. Language has been used to justify genocide, infanticide, and eldercide.   The old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones but...' could not be more false.  Language can be used in a way that threatens the lives of millions. It can also be used to persecute just one person, sentencing her to a life of loneliness and despair.

On a micro level, society foists labels on us all.   Whether or not we are slapped with a label that will cause us to be hated or targeted by others is not always predictable in a society.   In Western culture, our use of language results in less obviously draconic outcomes for those individuals who are not of the assigned norm. Still, this social sequestration and stigmatization exists, from school playgrounds to corporate America.  It even exists within the world of the bereaved.

Ken Doka is known for his work on disenfrachised losses.  These are losses deemed by society as unworthy of grief, or those that are somehow justified by the relative actions or inactions of a person.   Suicide is one type of disenfranchised loss. Others may view the death of a 21-year-old to suicide as somehow less worthy of public sympathy because of the implications of self-infliction.  Another disenfrachised loss includes deaths of young children deemed preventable.  For example, if a two-year-old drowns under the watch of his father,  others may (cruelly) assign blame to him, offering less sympathy as passive punishment for his perceived neglect. Stillbirth, called the invisible or silent death, is yet another disenfranchised loss, as people often categorize this tragedy as unworthy of the same degree of grief responses as the death "of a real child," while mistakenly believing that a parent's love is commensurate with a child's age. The death of a developmentally challenged child will also bring disenfrachisement, as others wrongfully believe that the parents are "better off", no longer sacrificing their could-be-life of leisure to care for a handicapped child.

Mostly, these labels we assign- self-inflicted, preventable, silent, handicapped- come from a place of sheer ignorance, misinformation, and, in some cases, fear.  Unfortunately, people suffer when they are marginalized; they suffer far beyond just their loss. They suffer as a result of social outcasting, and this leper-effect has dire consequences for individuals, families, and society.

William James said that to be alone is one of the greatest evils for a human being.  Being targeted by others as unworthy- whether it is because of the color of our skin, our religious beliefs, the clothes we wear, our sexuality, or our experiences of grief-  does not only affect the person or group being targeted.  When we act against another, we act against ourselves. When we disregard another, we disregard ourselves. Compassion for all. Kindness to everyone. In it's best state, language should express love, acceptance, and tolerance, not hate and rejection.

"Man did not weave the web of life - he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

Chief Seattle, 1854

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The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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