THE LANGUAGE PLAGUE
THE METAPHORS WE USE TO SPEAK ABOUT CONTAGIOUS DISEASES HAVE CREATED A GLOBAL EPIDEMIC OF THEIR VERY OWN
“He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
The dream is terrifying, and the story is always the same. A wave of gruesome, unexplained deaths appears in some poor country. An infected person makes a sudden movement and crosses the tripwire of global epidemic. Panic and fear spread, outrunning the disease itself, until another catastrophe is somehow averted. This narrative, a familiar one by now, has framed reports of every infectious disease outbreak since the mid-1990s, from Ebola to plague to West Nile virus to this year’s SARS epidemic. Although unrelated to each other, these diseases are all described in the same way, using a common language and inescapable set of metaphors.
That process continues the one identified in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), a book-length essay that changed the way people think and write about cancer. Weighting the disease with meaning only isolated the people who suffer from it, she wrote; writing about it as a battle turned dying into defeat. With AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), Sontag renewed her call for language to rid itself of military metaphor (why should a body be anyone’s battlefield?) and the dangerously Biblical language of plague (if it’s a punishment, what’s the crime?). Although obituary writers and eulogists may never stop singing hymns to “heroic battles” with illness, the language surrounding both of these diseases has, thankfully, more or less caught up to the science.
But as medicine makes one disease less terrifying, Sontag suggested, another one takes its place as the vehicle for the plague metaphor. “AIDS has banalized cancer,” she wrote. Over the past decade, emerging infectious diseases have done the same to AIDS, and this new plague narrative gives shape to outbreaks of “emerging” diseases like Ebola, West Nile virus and SARS; old ones that have “re-emerged” like cholera, anthrax and plague itself; and at least one, smallpox, that hasn’t killed anyone in twenty years. In this narrative, military metaphors aren’t metaphors at all; they are literal exhortations to send in the troops and stop the germs at the border. And the normative language of plague is stronger than ever. Only, in this case, the afflicted sinners aren’t just the sick ones—they are all of us living in an interconnected world, vulnerable to attack thanks to the folly of jet travel and third-world immigration.
This is what it has come to: Perfectly healthy people read articles about SARS and become afraid to visit stores a few blocks from their homes, because the people who shop there look like the ones wearing face masks on the other side of the world. Maybe the problem isn’t the science. Maybe it’s the writing.
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