Discrimination occurs when someone is treated unfairly on the basis of their belonging to a particular group or has a particular characteristic. Many of us have fixed ideas about groups of people who are different from themselves. We call this stereotyping. Most modern countries have laws that protect people from discrimination yet in spite of such legislation discrimination is rife within most communities.
As a principle, social justice challenges negative discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as:
• Gender or sex
• marital status
• socio-economic status
• political opinions
• Skin colour
• Racial or other physical characteristics
• Spiritual beliefs
The harm of discrimination is exacerbated for those who may be substance dependent and/or have mental health issues. The focus of this month is social justice within the context of substance users and in particular today’s post relates to how users are affected by discrimination. There is scant evidence that the draconian drug laws in place have significantly deterred drug use. Enforcing the criminal justice system to solve public health problems has not been effective but has rather proven to be socially corrosive. In this context the laws have promoted stigmatisation and discrimination, a burden carried by a population already marginalised and vulnerable.
Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of a person based on the group, class or category to which that person belongs. As such it is inevitably linked to stigma and is the social and practical manifestation of a society deciding that drug use is a distinguishing mark of social disgrace (or deviant behaviour). The idea of context is vital in the conversation because it is not just substance dependent users who are regarded in such a discriminatory way. It can be the social drinker who over indulges and goes on to behave in inappropriate ways. Generally society shuns such behaviours and is disapproving of the person rather than the behaviours that are manifested because of the level of intoxication. Please know that I am neither excusing nor condoning violent behaviours or behaviours that place the individual or others at risk of harm. I am simply trying to identify how the exception rarely proves the rule yet frequently we discriminate on the basis of the exception.
Across many sectors of the community, including those of health and welfare, drug addiction is the most strongly stigmatised of a range of health and social conditions. The complex relationship between criminalisation, stigma and discrimination is an evolutionary one. “Criminalisation is an inherently stigmatising process that often leads to discrimination, it is discrimination at wider social and political levels that initiates this process,” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). It is an unpleasant and harmful cycle.
As mentioned in a separate post, social justice is not the work of a feisty few. It is the concern of every spunky individual who has the capacity to cut across suffering and help elevate a person experiencing vulnerability due to someone else’s ignorance or bigotry.