In defence of vulnerability

A couple of weeks ago or so, I came across a text which puts language squarely in the realm of the pandemic. It’s so bad that the author of the text says right in the title: The right words save lives. The wrong words kill. I’m no medic, but I do doubt that in the struggle with the pandemic, language is something medicine should worry about much. I also reject this common assault on words.

Basically, Neil Crowther, the author of the blog, makes the following argument. By calling people elderly and vulnerable we do them (and others) harm. This is because such language undermines people’s identity; it is rooted in ‘paternalistic benevolence’; it is a vehicle of othering them and therefore distancing (they are constructed as different from the rest of us). Moreover, such phrases as ‘elderly and vulnerable’ have the ‘subtext’ that only they need protection (I actually would like to see evidence of the last point, but there we are). Indeed, the author tells us that in Italy people were denied help on the basis of age, while he also quotes a news outlet playing down the seriousness of their deaths. All that, it seems, because we called them ‘elderly and vulnerable’. And I would say: what complete and utter nonsense.

The article is a common assault on language but, as I have read many of them over the years, it goes further than others. The text leaves lexical meaning behind it and just goes where fantasy has not gone before. In this post, I would like to offer the opportunity to go back to the universe most of us inhabit.

I would like to start with what hopefully is not dramatically controversial notion. There is reality behind language. It’s a hard idea, but please bear with me. What I mean is that regardless what we call a liver (here is an earlier post on weasel words in the world of transplantation), there is still an organ in most people’s bodies which doesn’t really change its function just because we call it something else. Similarly, there are people who are young and those who are old (there are also those somewhere in-between, like me), even though such categories are, of course, social, situated, and hugely contested.

Yet, despite the contesting, I would imagine that nowadays anyone would call a person of, say, 20 years of age young, and one who is, say, 85 years old, old. Is that particularly controversial? Well, I would not have thought so, so, what’s the problem? Moreover, geriatrics (and in the case of children – paediatrics) tells us that there are particular health issues relating to old age, making people, watch out for it, vulnerable for example to infections. Indeed, the American CDC offers COVID-19 advice to people over 65 because, and it says, they are at higher risk for severe illness. What the author of the blog seems to suggest is that they are doing the over-65s a disservice.

Interestingly, the CDC calls such people ‘older adults’, rather than the elderly. This is quite a common euphemism for ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. There are many reasons why ‘we’ use this euphemism, many of which are to do with the fact that ‘we’ don’t like to be old, we all would prefer to be forever young. And so, language comes to the rescue and we don’t have to be old anymore. Except, and I can’t stress it enough: we are! And even though I am not yet in the class of elderly, I know very well that my body feels very different from, say, 30 years ago. What I could do then, I cannot even hope for today, and all because I have aged. And, I might add, no amount of euphemising will take it away from me. But next to my physical decline (and, sadly, baldness), I have also become considerably more experienced, more knowledgeable, probably even wiser, somewhat wealthier.  I even became a professor (something I used to covet very much).

So, it really irritates me no end when I am told that my getting older, eventually old, is something only bad, something to be hidden, to be shunned. Somehow, it’s supposed to offend me, if someone calls me old. I am not. Well, I occasionally am, and it’s more because of articles like the one I am discussing offer even more space for age to be re-constructed into something offensive.

Now, calling people vulnerable is different. It involves more of a judgement. Vulnerability can be medical, social, cultural. Some of the judgement will be factual, some of it will be based on social/cultural values. And this is, roughly, what you will read in the definitions of the word. Basically, it’s a word describing someone at risk, possibly in need of help, protection. How on earth has it become such a problem? How on earth has it apparently become a slur?!

But let me tell you about me. I suffer from CFS (no, I don’t bloody live with it, I suffer), it’s been about 4 (or is it 5?) years since my body started aching and I have been in pain ever since. Over the last year or so, I have been better, my CFS has been quite manageable. Unfortunately, in the last couple of months, things have been much worse. The pain is not so insignificant anymore, and I need to lie down and rest much more. I see it as resulting from the stress of moving country, which, this is my luck, was closely followed by the lockdown due to the current pandemic. I happen not to bear it very well. The stress has been too much and it’s been somatised into fatigue. As in the UK, also in Poland doctors mostly make faces when you tell them about CFS, so help is not forthcoming.

And you know what. I wish someone (had) told me I am vulnerable. I so do! And you know why? It’s because I feel very vulnerable. And telling me that I am vulnerable would mean acknowledging the situation in which I found myself. Yes, you are vulnerable, and we’ll do all we can to take good care of you. Unfortunately, thanks to articles lambasting such messages, I am less likely to get it. And I am really angry that once again someone decided that words like ‘vulnerable’ kill or some such complete toshy balderdash. And in case you wonder, I did delete many a sentence here. This is, after all, a polite academic blog.

Now, the text moves between two planes. The plane of language (when he talks about words) and the plane of discourse (when he talks about how we speak of things). These two planes are in a relationship, but the relationship is complex. And using a particular word is largely insignificant, using it within a particular discourse, way of speaking, can be different (it is still unlikely to ‘kill anyone’, though it might legitimise killing, but that’s a different issue). As ever, language is written about as if it consisted only of a dictionary or words. And yet, it’s worth re-stating that we communicate in contexts. So, the critique of the discourse of ‘paternalistic benevolence’ somehow misses the idea that the whole NHS is founded on such a discourse. Are Nye Bevan’s famous words that:

the collective principle asserts that… no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

not ‘paternalistic’? I’d even say that if you don’t want paternalistic, go to Trump’s America, you will get none of the paternalism you so despise. Are Bevan’s words also not othering the sick person? We can argue till we’re blue in the face about how illness should be spoken about (with no resolution, I might add), but should we not acknowledge that the needs of the sick person are different from those who are healthy? You know, there is bloody reality behind the language! In other words, instead of using labels such as ‘paternalistic’ or ‘othering’ with rage, please do try to understand what is being said and written.

But there is one final issue. Neil Crowther makes one good point. Old people are discriminated against and, for example, deprived care. On Twitter, time and again, I read about hurried end-of-life conversations with the elderly. After all, we need those ventilators. What the article gets completely wrong, however, is the direction of the problem. No, it’s not by calling the elderly ‘the elderly’ that such discrimination happens. Rather it’s because of the complex and varied discriminatory discourses (ways of speaking) about old people that the author doesn’t want us to use the word ‘elderly’. It is because the society has a myriad and one ways of constructing age as unwelcome, problematic, bad that old people don’t want to have old age as part of their identity. And not, as the article suggests, because we call old people old.

And here is the irony. By telling the world that using the word ‘elderly’ is such a big problem, the article is part of age-discriminatory discourses. Ours is not a country for old men, the article seems to be saying. It is by denying me vulnerability, the world is constructed as one for healthy, good-looking, fit, toned and all-that-crap people. It is that article, and not the acknowledgement of vulnerability, that puts me on the margins. In other words, don’t euphemise me away, don’t euphemise me out of your reality because your aesthetics suffers. Or because you wouldn’t like me to be old and vulnerable. I would prefer being accepted precisely as that.

And so, let me end with a question. Who needs the Tories (sorry, the enemies), if you have friends like that?


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