Fifteen Eighty Four

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Pandemic words matter … but how?

Sally McConnell-Ginet

A lake with a copse of tress and a house beside it, in golden light.

“We’re all in this together,” proclaim many Americans in this time of the global covid-19 pandemic. One meme displays the word VIRUS with the letters VIR marked out, highlighting US. The solidarity slogan is printed below, followed by “We are coronavirus.” But who are ‘we’, ‘us’? Whose experiences get erased to ensure that ‘all’ are indeed included?

Apparently, ‘we’ need not include workers in meatpacking plants, many of whom are relatively recent immigrants to the US from Central and South America. Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth tried explaining to State Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack why Governor Tony Evers had issued a stay-at-home order. “[W]e just had this outbreak in Brown County very recently in the meatpacking plants. The cases in Brown County in … two weeks surged over tenfold, from 60 to almost 800—”. Justice Roggensack interrupted. “Due to the meatpacking, though, that’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”

In South Dakota, more than 700 cases broke out in a Smithfield meat processing plant. Pressed on what the company had done to keep workers safe, a Smithfield spokesperson said “It’s hard to know what could have been done differently,” given the plant’s “large immigrant population.” She seemed to lay the blame on ‘them’ and not on close working conditions at the factory and lack of personal protective gear. “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.”

Regular folks and traditional American families are us. Others are easily erased from ‘universal’ inclusivity.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate.” Well, no, but virus effects expose discrimination in US society. Blacks and Latino/Hispanics, people in low-paying retail jobs, restaurant servers and cooks and dishwashers, cleaners and hotel clerks, staff and residents of nursing homes, warehouse workers and delivery people—these populations are not only dying at higher rates but they are also bearing the brunt of the economic damage. Some are deemed ‘essential’ workers but are unprotected on the job and paid less for a year’s work than top corporate executives make in an hour. Others have been furloughed from jobs likely to vanish. Many were already leading precarious lives without health insurance, paid sick leave, or a living wage.

On 20 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that “at WHO headquarters [we] are practising physical distancing as one measure to stop COVID-19 transmission.” Twenty minutes into the press briefing, WHO epidemiologist Dr. Maria van Kerkhove highlighted WHO’s relabeling. “We’re changing to say physical [rather than social] distanc[ing] and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected.”

Going beyond concern that existing social ties be jeopardized, some have noted that ‘social distance’ is all too easily taken as license for fear and distrust of those in other social groups. Rhetoric from Trump and supporters has been fanning such racist and isolationist sentiments for years now, intensifying during the current crisis. But American pandemic talk extends beyond Donald Trump’s tweets and press conferences, Nancy Pelosi’s words, and all those in print and broadcast media on both sides of the US political divide. My discussion here has focused on a couple of maxims widely circulating on social media and a widely endorsed criticism of the standard terminology in public health directives. (For discussion of TrumpTalk see Janet McIntosh’s “The ‘Invisible Enemy’: Language, Trump, and COVID-19“, posted 8 May 2020 in this series and also the section titled “Why Don’t You Go Back Where You Came From?” in chapter 8 of my forthcoming Words Matter: Meaning and Power.)

Like memes of “all in it together” while confronting a virus that “does not discriminate,” relabeling distancing as physical can endorse social connectivity and deplore social division and inequality. Such fine words sometimes, however, serve as mere preambles to continued business as usual, papering over broken social frameworks. If these words of social connection and interdependence are deployed to fuel radical social transformation, the story changes. Words matter. How they matter depends on what people use them to do.

Words Matter by Sally McConnell-Ginet
Words Matter by Sally McConnell-Ginet

About The Author

Sally McConnell-Ginet

Sally McConnell-Ginet is professor of linguistics emerita, Cornell, and former president of the Linguistic Society of America. Her work straddles philosophy of language and linguis...

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