Science Told Me (But I Couldn't) See the Point - by Rod Michalko (University of Toronto)
This is part of a series of blog posts commissioned to celebrate the launch of the new edited collection “Being Human During Covid-19”. The book is jointly edited by Prof. Paul Martin, Dr Stevienna de Saille, Dr Kirsty Liddiard and Dr Warren Pearce and is available from Bristol University Press
I had never experienced anything like this before, nor did anyone else I knew. Of course, I had read about pandemics, but to be smack in the middle of one seemed almost surreal and still does. More surreal still, the self-appointed spokespeople of the pandemic, at least the ones appearing on television, radio and other news outlets who incidentally were all medical experts, began to re-define me and others like me. I was no longer getting on, growing old, but was now one of the elderly. A few of my medical issues now became, underlying conditions. All of this, was defined by the “experts” as vulnerability. I was now vulnerable.
My blindness was another story altogether. It, too, was re-defined by those health professionals who were themselves re-defined by the media and themselves as quintessential experts on the pandemic. I was no longer a blind person whose sensorium perceived the world in particular ways. Instead, a great deal of my perceptual apparatus became redefined by the experts as dangerous. Touch and touching became more taboo than almost anything else our culture could imagine.
Under the auspices of the pronoun “we,” these medical experts and public health officials dropped their own personal pronouns, I and me, and took up the identity of science marked by the pronoun We. We have facts about COVID-19. We have protocols to address COVID-19. We are conducting research that will lead to the development of a vaccine against COVID 19. And, when any of this failed, We are not wrong. We are evolving.
As I indicated earlier, a crucial aspect of science’s mobilization was its construction of groups of people it called, “vulnerable.” The idea of vulnerability was particularly cogent to science since it could claim nearly saint-like status as they protecting “the vulnerable” against the “killer” that was COVID-19. In fact, science characterized itself as the only actor that could save the vulnerable.
Growing old and being disabled took on an exaggerated vulnerability during the pandemic. People in long term care homes were dying at alarming rates. The visits to these facilities by loved ones, family and friends were drastically curtailed and, in most instances, stopped altogether. Staffing issues compounded the problem. It was as though growing old had been stripped of its natural stage of life status and relegated to an underlying condition. Old age quickly took on the status of an underlying condition, and joined other conditions such as compromised immune system.
Blindness was affected in particular ways by the pandemic. At its beginning stages, touch, as I suggested, became taboo. It was thought by science that COVID-19 was passed from person to person by touch, and we were warned not to touch, to use hand sanitizer, to wash everything we brought into our homes, including the clothing we were wearing. Most dramatically, though, we were told not to touch one another. Keeping two metres away from one another became one of the pandemic’s mantras. Of course, science was wrong about COVID-19 being spread by touch. But, as science always does, it admitted no wrong. Mistakes
and being wrong were couched by science in the scientific concept of evolution. “We are evolving in our knowledge of COVID-19,” became a favorite refrain of experts. We was always evolving. We was never wrong. There is no longer an I in science. It has been replaced by We and we takes on a status of infallibility – its never wrong. The sense of touch is reduced by the We to its most base level. Touch became a synonym for contamination. To touch is to either contaminate or to be contaminated. Hence the admonition—stay two meters apart from one another.
As the status of touch was lowered to the bottom of the hierarchy of senses in the sensorium, sight’s position at the top was reaffirmed, confirmed and celebrated as crucial by the We. Sight’s position as not only the necessary but the sufficient condition for perhaps the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of movement, was also reaffirmed and confirmed by the We in the face of the pandemic. Such affirmation permitted sight to look down (literally) from its throne on the top of the sensorium with unapologetic hubris.
In reaffirming sight’s rightful place at the top of the human sensorium and as harboring the conditions for the freedom of movement, the We simultaneously shoved blindness to the bottom of the sensorium joining its degraded condition of freedom, namely, touch. The We once again affirmed and confirmed blindness as the harbinger of distortion and condemned it for generating a damaged sensorium. This is blindness’s true vulnerability. The pandemic was not the source of this vulnerability. The We, science, is.
How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.
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