Sharks, contaminated foods, polluted water, heat waves, droughts, floods, tsunamis, rising ocean levels, financial collapse, the police, radical Muslims, young African American men – we live in fearful times, or so we are told. These fears are reinforced exponentially in our media (with special thanks to the feeding frenzy of viral videos) and, of late, presidential candidates stoking the fires for political advantage.
We are also fearful of the other. How many white people can say that they feel no fear when they encounter a group of young African American men on the street? How many Africans-Americans, by contrast, can say that they have no fear of an encounter with a white police officer? How many of us can say that we are at ease among young Muslim men attending Friday services at a mosque? We have always been fearful of the other but today media images expand and deepen these public fears. Are we at the point of cultural collapse?
Perhaps our deepest fears are those associated with illness, contagion, and death. No one embraces illness, especially chronic conditions that have no cure. W hen we confront someone whose disease sets them apart—the hairless, skeletal body of cancer patient, someone with the visible lesions of an autoimmune disorder, the Alzheimer’s patient listless stare—do we not flinch or keep our distance?
How do we confront these broadly based fears of the other, of contagion and of death? Surely, we can develop technological solutions to our social and epidemiological problems. Bill Gates seems to think so. He believes that many of our social problems, including the ubiquity of disease, can be solved through technological advances in science, medicine and technology—hardly a revolutionary idea in 21st century America. Gates is one of a long line of Euro-American thinkers and entrepreneurs who adhere to one of Euro-American culture’s master narratives: namely, that science can enable us to control, if not conquer nature.
But can technology conquer our fundamental fears? In his recent VOX article, Ezra Klein discussed with Bill Gates our preparedness for pandemic disease. Gates admitted that we are not yet ready for something like The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Given the frequency of contemporary travel, the death toll for a future pandemic would far outweigh the millions of deaths attributed to The Spanish Flu. In his article Klein not only wrote about the potential devastation of a future pandemic but also the cultural parameters of our fear of contagion.
“It isn’t just the news that carries warnings,” he said. “The culture is thick with our fear of infectious disease. Zombies, for instance, are everywhere — World War Z was a best-selling book and a blockbuster movie, The Walking Dead, has become one of television’s most popular shows. And zombies are a metaphor for infectious disease.”
Fear of infectious disease is not simply an epidemiological phenomenon; it is profoundly cultural, which means that it has also morphed into a political issue. In our media saturated world, fear of infectious disease becomes fused with our fear of the other. Contagion is one of the bad things that “others”—immigrants legal and undocumented—bring to a nation be it in Europe or North America. Donald Trump recklessly stokes our fear of the other by claiming that they (Mexicans) contaminate society with their crimes (theft, rape and murder) and exotic diseases. If you get too close to a zombie, you too will become infected. Sadly, this kind of xenophobia resonates well in contemporary society.
To combat this disruptive political and social ignorance, the Bellagio Task Force on Epidemics and Xenophobia, a group of physicians, anthropologists, public health workers and historians, recently met in Bellagio, Italy, and drafted a statement that says, in part, “The damaging connection of foreigners with danger and disease relies on false analogies based on biological and social models that promote racial apprehension and fear of the foreign.”
It will take an awful lot to combat the politically disruptive and socially ignorant fear of the other but, through the efforts of the Task Force, we’re at least headed in the right direction.
To read the petition statement and support the efforts of The Bellagio Task Force, click on this link http://chn.ge/1Il4vuL
Submitted by: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stoller/Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University
Author, Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World