02. Jun 2020 - Joanna Tokarska-Bakir

“Illnesses are not there to teach us anything,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay Illness as Metaphor (1978), “illnesses are there to be treated.” But people have always assumed there are lessons to be learned from illness.

An illness is a crisis; an epidemic is a global crisis. It undermines the faith we have in our system of values, which failed to protect us from it. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921–2007) believed that in their reactions to catastrophes, human societies, irrespective of time and place, always seek a scapegoat, and within that paradigm are unable to go beyond a small number of blaming scenarios. The purpose of blaming, which is a way of explaining the world in the face of an unexpected, inescapable and dangerous situation, is to uphold and reinforce the value system that has been threatened by the crisis.

In Risk and Blame (1992), Douglas maintained that although most societies represent hybrid cases, in the ideal sense there are only three basic types of blaming. Each one gives rise to a kind of theodicy, a body of explanations whose function is to provide an answer to the questions ‘why me?’ and ‘why now?’, which are highly likely identified as the earliest existential questions.

In a hierarchical society, catastrophe is perceived as the consequence of the violation of a taboo that was customarily observed in a particular time and place. In theory, it should suffice to pinpoint the ‘leak’ in the system and stage the appropriate propitiatory rites for the violation of the taboo, and the situation should return to normal. 

In the societies that are organized like sects, the blame for the misfortune is attributed to the machinations of an external or internal enemy. The treatment is the identification of the enemy and the reinforcement of boundaries and borders. In market-based societies, the blame for the catastrophe is construed as the defeat of the weaker actor in a confrontation with a stronger actor. The catastrophe itself is framed here as one session in a game, under the premise that ‘you win some, you lose some’. In a society in which everything is decided by fate, there are no purification rituals; the only options are to restart or pause the game.

This latter, market type of blaming was espoused at the beginning of the current epidemic by the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who advocated relying on Britain’s population acquiring ‘herd immunity’. His overt message to his fellow citizens was that they were about to find out who among them were going to be winners or losers; the latter would be bidden a regretful farewell. He soon changed tack, however, and adopted the guidelines recommended by the WHO, which are now the standard across Western Europe.

Although these guidelines are founded on rational, science-based reasoning, in the functional sense they fall into the group of behaviours described by Douglas as characteristic for hierarchical societies, i.e. those organized around a set of proscriptions (taboos). Though European society is founded on science rather than magic, its proscriptions and prescriptions have much in common with the rituals of pre-modern societies. Hierarchies, in every instance, prefer action based on tried and tested procedures, though the trying and testing methods vary. “[Hierarchy] is smug about its rigid procedures. It is too slow, too blind to new information. It will not believe in new dangers and will often be taken by surprise. It will accept large risks if they appear on a horizon beyond its institutional threshold of concern”, Douglas writes in Risk and Blame. Hierarchies believe in the common good to such an extent that, on occasion, they will sacrifice individuals to preserve it. Interestingly, it is the doctors and nurses on the front line of the battle against the epidemic who have evinced the greatest belief in this common good. We accept this with gratitude, but take it for granted, paying no thought either to the poor foundations of this belief in contemporary European legislation or the nature of the social contract.

The region of eastern Europe from which I come I would prefer to call Mitteleuropa, after Milan Kundera in the 1980s. Alas, the epidemic has revealed the brutal and reactionary truth about the lasting, profound division of the continent into two parts, almost entirely devoid of a ‘centre’. On the one side of the divide are the countries with the experience of diversity, largely the result of the cultural consequences of the Reformation; on the other, those with the baggage of the unprocessed stigma of feudalism, partition, and wars, all still very much alive. Here it really does not take much to trigger atavistic xenophobic reactions.

This was visible even at the start of the pandemic in the decisions of the Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Ukrainian states to close their borders. In Poland, the decision was most certainly taken with insufficient thought for the preparation, costs, and consequences, which were left entirely to individual citizens to contend with. It will remain long in the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian memory that their citizens were prevented from transiting Poland to return to their countries. It is nonetheless to be hoped for that the Poles will gratefully remember the support extended to them by Germany, by both individual citizens and the state, when they were queuing for long hours and even days to re-enter their own country.

It is sad that so much of what Douglas writes on the functioning of sect-like societies has found confirmation in the way that the government of my country has reacted to the epidemiological crisis. Bearing in mind the words of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, from a few years ago, about refugees spreading diseases (‘protozoa’), some people have even suggested that, somehow prescient of this pandemic, he was even then shaping the Poles’ toxic notions about its causes.

Douglas argues that this fixation on borders has its roots in the fact that in sect-like groups evil is considered fundamentally impossible to control. The sect considers evil essential, not accidental. It must therefore be expelled, for it cannot be modified by either persuasion, education, or therapy. Thus, in the context of this epidemic, the question arises whether this is the reason why so few tests for coronavirus are being carried out in Poland.

In sect-like societies the fear for the boundaries of the “community body” is taken to extremes, Douglas writes. As an example, she offers small, conflicted village groups in Central Africa, who are incapable of solving their problems. Essentially, the only decision they are capable of making is exclusion, which leads to further homogenization of the already highly homogeneous group.

A good example of a similar exclusion strategy is the current battle with ‘gender’ and LGBT in Poland, waged with particular gusto by those hierarchical church members whose orientation seems still to be a secret only to themselves. Granted, the ‘gender war’ was being waged many months before the pandemic, but when the pandemic erupted some of the more traditional priests – often in the habit of confessing other peoples’ sins for them – vented their homophobic hypotheses regarding the causes of the virus. Many people reading the news coming out of Poland have probably been wondering whether the reports of LGBT-free zones were fake. Alas, they are not: drives stigmatizing gays and lesbians have gained significant popularity in the Polish provinces, perhaps as a surrogate way of coping with the day-to-day lack of agency. The Law and Justice authorities ignore both citizens’ complaints and journalists’ questions. Healthcare workers have been threatened with fines for releasing information about the dangers and the top-down rigged statistics. The only method of problem-solving in the sect is reprimanding and excluding, so the Polish sect makes abundant use of these measures.

Douglas warns that sect-like societal organization impairs risk awareness capabilities in a particularly dangerous way. This element, too, is discernible in the way that the pandemic is being managed in my country. Even though the presidential elections, originally planned for late May, were ultimately postponed due to the pandemic, the newly proposed date of late June is in no way more reasonable and extremely risky.

The Polish government is not the only one whose authoritarian intentions have been laid bare by the pandemic. Things are even worse in Hungary. In this context, Sontag’s intuition about the metaphoric character of illness is presaged rather aptly by the somewhat brutal words of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). In reference to views held on consumption by physicians, Machiavelli says:

in the beginning of the illness it is easy to cure and difficult to recognize, but in the progress of time when it has not been recognized and treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to recognize and difficult to cure. So it happens in affairs of state, because when one recognizes from afar the evils that arise in a state (which is not given but to one who is prudent), they are soon healed; but when they are left to grow because they were not recognized, to the point that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any remedy for them (The Prince, 2010, p. 12).

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About the author

Joanna Tokarska-Bakir is professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences and currently a fellow at the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena

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