In our everyday lives, we can be intensely aware of the ways we differ from other people. As observers, we cannot help but notice how some people differ from others. When those differences have the potential to be viewed negatively, we are confronted with one of the most fundamental issues in matters of fairness: Is the difference really a deficit, or is it just a difference?
Some of the most significant stories of social justice are those that succeed in achieving a widespread transformation in ways of thinking – from a prejudice that sees the difference as a deficit to a more fair-minded assessment of the difference as just that, a difference.
In the history of professional psychology, just such a transformation has taken place in official perspectives on homosexuality. Before the 1970s, homosexuality was actually included in the official manual of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Now reputable psychologists and psychiatrists are united in their belief that homosexuality is a difference, not a disorder; many actively work to push back against stigma and discrimination against gays and lesbians.
When Professor Morton Ann Gernsbacher was president of the Association for Psychological Science, she repeatedly urged her fellow psychologists to be aware of their potential biases:
“As psychological scientists, we are experts at empirically identifying a vast array of distinctions among humans. But as psychological scientists, we can also fall prey to drawing invidious comparisons – contrasts and conclusions between groups of people that are made with either the explicit or unconscious goal of showing one group in a negative light (Cole & Stewart, 2011). Differences get framed as deficits, and such negativity enables stigma (Amundson, 2000).”
How do we know that a difference is being unfairly interpreted as a deficit? Gernsbacher suggests that we switch the labels of the different groups and see how that alters the interpretation. I do this all the time when I read media reports or even scholarly articles about single and married people. Imagine, for example, what explanations might be offered if a study found that single people gain more weight over a 10 year period than married people do. The results of the study were actually just the opposite – the married people gained more weight. When a New York Times reporter asked a scholar what she thought the results meant, the professor said that the results reflected positively on married people – those married people have better social lives, and go out to restaurants more often. They don’t, but no matter. Scholars, like everyone else, seem to be consistently biased to interpret results in ways that make married people look better than they actually are and single people seem worse.
I’ve been trying for many years to point out similar instances of singlism and to push back against them. Recently, another group of people has begun to advocate for less prejudice and more fairness. Asexuals want everyone to know that asexuality is not a deficit, it is a difference. It is a lesson that professionals – and not just laypersons – need to learn.