The words we use… Is coronavirus our enemy?


By Basilio G. Monteiro

Words are force to reckon with. They have the capacity to help, heal, hinder, harm, humiliate… Contrary to the adage sticks and stones may break my bones; but words will never break me, words tear one apart as Neil Harmon of the Divine Comedy band rhapsodized in 2004.

Everything begins with words. They build our present and our future, and more importantly our relationship with the ecology in which we live. Ecology has to do with the relationships between things. The types of words we chose helps us to weave this relationship by describing, explaining, classifying the individuals, other sentient species, and other things in our environment.  Words help us to form mental images of the other and those images guide our interactions with them, whether human beings or other species on the planet. Words embody relationships. The choice of words demonstrates the strength or the fragility of civility and thus of the society.

When we describe the coronavirus as our enemy, which ought to be conquered and destroyed, we set up the nature of our relationship with this virus. It stands to understand that the people who destroy the natural environment for profit and exploitation for their own self-interest, the antagonistic language serves to demonize the other and to justify to be conquered and destroyed. It establishes us against them contentious relationship, which history has proven every couple of hundred years human empire has been brought to its knees at a lightning speed, without any fanfare.

The tyrannical supremacy of the human species over other species in the ecology of the planet earth, our Common Home, has proven to be counter-productive. Other non-human species have proven to be resilient to ravages that humans have hoisted on their ecosystems and they find ways to create new habitats including human body. The exploitation of the natural and social worlds and the pollution of words run together.

That virus is our enemy with whom we are at war, that virus is evil …. it is corrosive language and creates antagonistic relationship with the species which are integral to earth ecology where humans also share. Human relentless drive for domination and re-structuring the existing ecosystems to exploit the resources for amour-propre (Rousseau). Through words we conceptualize our ecology and weave either a harmonious or warring relationship.

Re-wording our relationship with our Common Home

A shift in the words we use to describe our relationship with the planet earth is imminently necessary for the survival of human species. With all the bluster, humans are the most vulnerable of species in any inter-species kerfuffle. Reflecting on what is happening to our Common Home, Pope Francis in Laudato Si describes:

The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called “rapidification”. Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity (18).

Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet. Let us review, however cursorily, those questions which are troubling us today and which we can no longer sweep under the carpet. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it (19).

Philosopher David Hume makes a case that humans can know nothing about the physical world, what he calls “matters of fact,” because they do not directly experience the world. Hume asserts that what we actually perceive are nothing more than ideas – ideas of which we can never know the origin; according to him we can know truths from relations of ideas, which, nonetheless, leave humans impotent in the physical world.

Hume’s observation helps us to consider re-wording our understanding of the planet earth and re-establish a renewed sustainable relationship with all the species in gaia ecology. What words to use to describe the little creatures that invade our body and kills us?  Our choice of words will describe, explain, classify and will weave our relationship with our Common Home.

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