COVID-19 is not a metaphor

A quick search reveals scores of articles by people who, like me, have recently read or re-read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).

Sontag’s thesis is simple: “illness is not a metaphor, and … the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (3). She adds, “The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil” (85).

I would say: It is wrong to use sick people as assets in arguments, as new reasons for conclusions you already held. If you want to use a disease as a metaphor, ask yourself whether you would make that argument in a sick person’s hearing. If that would be cruel, don’t say it anywhere.

There is no such thing as a fact that is innocent of comparison and evaluation, no “writing degree zero” that lacks metaphor. But we can adopt an ethic of very close attention to known details about our actual fellow human beings, or we can venture into broader speculation

Sontag explores how “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society [is] corrupt or unjust.” She shows that “to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment.” (72) But little actual insight comes from likening a moral or social problem to a disease, or vice versa. “Traditional disease metaphors are principally a way of being vehement” (83).

This is a warning against using the pandemic for rhetorical purposes. I am collecting examples for a short commissioned article of political theory that is mostly an argument against theorizing casually while people are suffering.

Sontag’s main examples are cancer and tuberculosis. She argues that they provided rich (but problematic) material for metaphor because their causes were unknown. Their mysterious etiology gave them rhetorical power. In contrast, everyone always understood that syphilis was an infection transmitted through sex, so it never worked as anything but a crude and direct trope. Since we basically understand COVID-19 already, maybe its rhetorical uses will be limited.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché; on the proper use of moral clichés; and on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it.


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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.