On SARS (Shameless Abuse of Rhetoric Syndrome)

By Max Fawcett | April 22, 2003

As a young man without a defined career path in front of me, I occasionally entertain the possibility of working in the media. The idea of being paid to write, alternately providing particular interpretations of “the truth” and criticizing those rendered by others, is something I’m drawn to.

Unfortunately, what I’ve just described seems to be mere fantasy. The reality of today’s journalism is much more mundane; the reportage of facts and figures, the fabrication of uninteresting “human interest” stories, and occasional ankle-deep investigations of real and important stories. This is not to disparage these tasks, because they’re worthwhile in and of themselves. Without journalists telling us how things really are (within certain limitations) we would be sitting ducks, subject to the manipulation and management of reality that Orwell wrote about in 1984 and, to a lesser extent, Animal Farm. But the SARS crisis – which it isn’t, really – highlights the fact that our chattering classes are failing to perform even these rudimentary functions, but instead are falling back on the bloated rhetoric, sentimentality and sensationalism that Orwell raged against in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Let’s be honest for a moment. SARS is no more a threat to public safety than the flu. Ironically, amid the daily SARS sensationalism, today’s Toronto Star observes that all 14 of the SARS-related fatalities in the GTA occurred in victims who were already suffering from other illnesses. Propagators of the SARS hysteria like to point out that SARS is exploding in Asia, and may do the same here if we’re not careful. So fine, let’s be careful; but let’s not distort the truth in the name of public safety, whatever that is. Asia contains well over a billion people, and a few hundred, at best a thousand, have contracted SARS. That’s less than one-one thousandth of one per cent – not very significant, in the grand scheme of things. If the global safety-Nazis, to borrow P.J. O’ Rourke’s term, want to get exercised about a health crisis in Asia, then why not AIDS, or cancer, or smog, all of which are likely to kill a lot more people in the next few months than SARS.

I visited Toronto twice during the past two weeks, and I was anticipating hordes of people wearing surgical masks in an effort to ward off the disease. That’s what I’d seen in the newspapers and on television. I should have known better. The only time I actually saw someone wearing a mask was when I was walking to work one morning and happened to look in one of the storefront windows. Sure enough, there was a young woman wearing a surgical mask. The problem is, she was wearing it to protect herself from the fumes emitted by the nail polish she was applying to her client, not to prevent the transmission of SARS. Oh well.

The real epidemic is the hysterical sensationalism and associated abuse of language that has characterized the supposed SARS crisis. I’m not denying that there is a real health risk involved, but the suggestion, made by the Star today that “no one in this generation has faced the kinds of issues posed by SARS” is both laughable and ironic. On the one hand, “this” generation has faced AIDS, a disease that spreads with remarkable efficiency and is far more deadly than SARS. We are now in the midst of another medical pseudo-crisis, in the form of the West Nile Virus. I suspect that the high-profile attention lavished on the West Nile Virus and SARS is more a product of their catchy names than their physiological effects (imagine if they were called the “East Scarborough Virus” and XXRJ9490). But as to the irony of the Star’s comments, I believe that the more important issues that SARS poses relates to the use and abuse of language and the media’s willingness to create and sustain fear and loathing. It is a corollary to Michael Moore’s more important and less understood message in Bowling for Columbine, that fear is a remarkably effective tool that can be used to distract the public from more urgent realities.

So let’s save the fear-mongering for when SARS really gets bad – if that ever happens. But already, the responsible use of language is a casualty of this crisis, and it is one that we should be paying much more attention to. If Orwell was alive today, I am certain that he would have something pertinent to say about it: perhaps something along the lines of “Everyone shut up.”

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  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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