Fighting Bias, Stigma & Common Knowledge

by Lizabeth Wesely-Casella

Fighting Bias, Stigma & Common Knowledge


LEAD BY EXAMPLE Out of the mouths of babes.  Damn, if it wasn’t my favorite babe too. I just got to spend some high quality time with a 9 year old boy.  Man, I’d forgotten how much fun nonstop contests about annoying noises and gross-out jokes can be.  Fortunately for me this kiddo is truly a great kid and when it became apparent that I could no longer keep my head from splitting open from the “Let’s see if we can find the worst noise in the world!” game, he took pity on me and talked hockey. I thought that would be the end of my challenges, I mean what could be worse than the most annoying and worst noises in the world?  Well, maybe hearing that his “go to” humor was all about fat people. This, in and of itself, wasn’t the problem because we discussed the complexities of health and weight as well as what it means to stigmatize and discriminate – we had a few teachable moments between Monopoly and touring the monuments (you thought I  made him write a 1,000 word report and read it in front of my husband and me didn’t you??!!).  The problem, as I see it, is the sheer enormity of his frequently declared “common knowledge”. Since our conversations, every time I think about strategy, how I plan to engage people on a large scale to change the way they actively behave toward a certain demographic, I get totally overwhelmed.  It wasn’t as though I didn’t realize my life’s work was going to be tough, it’s just that I hadn’t thought about the argument “common knowledge” and how I would address changing that knowledge without saying “but you’re wrong”. What I learned from my discussions with the Boy Wonder are the following insights:

  • If you think you’ve got the ‘knowledge’ why would you be interested in in hearing conflicting information?
  • If you’ve memorized this and people have told you that you’re doing it right, why should you change?
  • If everyone knows it and people in authority have said it to you all of your life it has to be right. Right?

So, I’ve come away from these conversations with the following plans:

  • Advocate high on the food chain.  I am not as talented as many of the people I am lucky to collaborate with.  The Deb Burgards and Ragen Chastains, the Golda Poretskys and the Ted Kyles – they can speak meaningfully and intelligently when confronted with this concept of ‘common knowledge’.  (Truly, if you ever get a chance to see these folks speak – DO IT!!!!)  I get lost in the details and lose my larger point.  For me, I need to write and organize my thoughts, deliver presentations or help create policy.  My work will be done with the docs and the policy makers who can’t argue ‘common knowledge’ because they come across the pitfalls in that argument every single day – these folks know there is always a second side (or more) to every story.
  • Aim for my dream scenario to earn opportunities to challenge this “common knowledge” on shows such as Melissa Harris-Perry, Charlie Rose, All In with Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart‘s the Daily Show.  I’d LOVE to engage thought leaders who critically listen, bring up salient points and above all, THINK (or should above all be CARE?).  These are some of my media heroes.
  • Find the thought leaders.  Some of people most instrumental in social change are the ones who are ‘outside’ the community.  Some of the best advocates against stigma are people who don’t seem to have a clear and immediate connection at all.  For example, economists such as Robert Reich who discus the ramifications of poverty in creating bias, or those who advocate against mental health stigma because it reduces the employable population.  And beyond our current examples, looking from  a historical perspective, men who supported suffrage so that voting became a more accurate representation of our national values or whites who have joined the fight for racial equality during this country’s ongoing struggles.

I mention the historical perspective because it ties in with my fourth strategy for fighting stigma, which is:

  • ‘Walk the walk’.  This struggle, the fight against stigma in all forms, be it weight bias or mental health stigma; discrimination against gender, culture, race and beyond… it’s about changing the way we treat each other and that is a many centuries long fight.

In my lifetime I am only assured to change one person – me.  But I hope that by walking the walk and leading by example (from the front or behind or beside, I really don’t care….) I can generate hope for a better life, a better future, a better way to coexist with people.  I want to move and talk and write and smile enough to make a difference in the lives and behaviors of those around me.  I’d like to think that my Boy Wonder nephew will think of our conversation the next time he considers saying something about a “fattie” – that maybe he remembers that it still counts even if he doesn’t “say it to their face”, that it’s still unkind. I realize this is a very Melissa Harris-Perry PSA (to which I aspire) however, it’s one that is very much from the heart.  Go out and make some change – mix some metaphors – pass the mantle early and often!

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