We should probably be concerned when newspapers use the “sickness” frame to describe what’s happening in “society” or “nationally”.
Real “fake” sickness
Before we get to the “sickness” of “our society”, we need to consider the popularity of the “sick-benefits cheats” narrative. This has been popularised by tabloid newspapers and rightwing pressure groups, such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA). Here’s a classic example from the TPA:
“Alison, 38, lives with her lover Ian Hurditch, 40, in Beeston, Nottingham. Sadly, Mr Hurditch has an unusual back condition which prevents him taking paid employment. True, it did abate long enough for him to erect a new porch for their house. And it must have also let up enough for him to father Alison’s ninth child, which she is now carrying. But paid work is out of the question.”
Note the curious detail about getting a “lover” pregnant – which is irrelevant to “fitness for work” claims (unless the job is sperm donor) but which, to certain readers, signals a type of “immorality” (“out of wedlock” births, via the morality-as-self-discipline frame).
Consider the implications of this narrative. If politicians and media (and rightwing pressure groups) do have it right about sickness-benefit claims, then everyone in the country (except for a tiny deserving minority of sickness-benefits recipients) is presumably healthy enough to work a 40-hr week (regardless of the demands of the job, stress, physical affects, etc).
The premise is of a society of people so healthy that they are jumping out of bed on Monday mornings in their eagerness to work.
So, when newspapers talk of a “sick” society (as they did following the August 2011 riots – see front pages, right), we should be experiencing cognitive dissonance at the very least. But mostly we don’t – because the “societal” sickness frame is already well-established in our brains.
Of course, when applied to a country, this frame is about morality, not physical condition. But that doesn’t alter the fact that certain metaphors are implied: remedy, cure, strong medicine, perhaps amputation (if things get really bad), etc. Yes, we should be worried when politicians start talking like this. The prognosis is not good.
In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:
“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.” (Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff, p309)
Given the last line, which I put in bold text, it’s interesting to note that only a few days after the headlines ‘ENGLAND IS SICK‘ and ‘OUR SICK SOCIETY‘ (concerning the August 2011 UK riots), two youths were sentenced to 4 years each in prison for creating Facebook pages which failed to incite riots.