Words Matter

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

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