In this blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor considers the language of COVID-19 and its wider implications.
In 1978, the critical theorist Susan Sontag wrote about the metaphors of cancer. She argued that the language used to discuss cancer, which at the time was considered an almost untreatable disease, echoed that of the so-called war against communism, centred on the Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Later, Sontag extended her original book to note similar trends in the language used to refer to AIDS.
Few people are now preoccupied with the war against communism but the 'war' metaphors that Sontag noted still persist. For instance, it is usual to refer to people who have cancer as 'brave' and to speak admiringly of how they are 'battling' their illness. Some cancer patients have been critical of such language, noting the implication that their recovery will depend on their own efforts, as if those who eventually die of the disease are somehow at fault because they have failed to fight hard enough.
Critical discursive psychologists and other discourse analysts approach such metaphors as part of the discourses of cancer, and illness more generally. A dominant discourse, for instance, of illness as conflict, may be superseded over time, although it seldom disappears completely. It remains available to be taken up again in new situations, often carrying an extra authority because it is familiar, as if a lost 'truth' is being recognised.
Discourses can also alter over time. For example, Shani Orgad (2009) has discussed the changing meanings of surviving and being a survivor. From referring simply to those have not died (for instance, when an inheritance passes to the surviving legatees), being a survivor has come to denote 'a desirable mode of being or identity that people are encourage to comply with and take on'. Orgad notes that the statement 'I'm a survivor' is now likely to be a claim to certain personal qualities, like 'individual strength, bravery, self-sufficiency, and determination'. In this sense, it shifts from referring to a past experience (such as, again, cancer or another illness) to a person's potential for the future.
The reporting and discussion of COVID-19 of course invite careful attention. The point of interest for discourse researchers, including critical discursive psychologists, is to draw out and make visible the implications of metaphors and the other language that is being used. For example, measures involving distancing and 'lock down' inevitably suggest that the threat comes from those outside, some 'other' people, who are different to 'us'. In the rapidly evolving situation, the people who need to be kept out have been those who are, variously, from Wuhan, all of Mainland China, Northern Italy, all of Europe and now, for Australia and New Zealand, everyone else in the world.
Sometimes the implications of the language themselves become a point of public debate. UK government ministers are currently having to explain that 'self-isolation' does not mean the complete severing of connection with other people, as if you are on an island ('isola' in Italian). Even the change of preferred name, from coronavirus to COVID-19, seems significant. COVID-19 sounds more scientific. Perhaps it also reduces the status of the virus by implying a succession of earlier forms (1-18?) that may already have been successfully dealt with!
The instruction to 'self-isolate' or 'self-quarantine' emphasises everyone's own responsibility for managing the COVID-19 situation. This is consistent with the prevailing individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism. (Orgad also links the new meanings of 'survivor' to neoliberalism, noting the implication of 'a self-responsible individual with a considerable degree of agency'.) Social theorists and researchers have explored how these discourses operate in multiple contexts so that issues like unemployment, racism and inequality are defined not in social or structural terms but as the personal problems of individuals.
Yet COVID-19 can also be seen to have challenged such individualist discourses by reminding us that our welfare is linked to other people's. Neoliberalism rests on the logic of the market i.e. that individuals must compete with each other, and the winners will obtain the greatest benefit. But when even the wealthiest and starriest celebrities (Tom Hanks!) have been shown to be vulnerable, we are reminded that winners are still part of a larger society. One person's infection is potentially everyone's problem. We can't get away from each other or, to express the point in another way, we are inevitably connected and interdependent. Perhaps, despite the undoubted threat and difficulties it is causing, COVID-19 will have the positive effect of reminding us that we are social beings and our survival, in any terms, depends on our working together.
Shani Orgad (2009) The Survivor in Contemporary Culture and Public Discourse: A GenealogyThe Communication Review vol.12 issue 2
Susan Sontag (1978) Illness as Metaphor Farrar, Straus and Giroux