Ian James Kidd on Pathophobia

Guest blogger, Dr  Ian James Kidd, will deliver a CTTR-sponsored Faculty of Arts Public Lecture, ‘Pathophobia, Illness, and Vices’, on Wednesday, 10 April, 4-6 p.m., MK405 George Wallis Building.

Pathophobia as the social oppression of ill persons

Everyone knows that being chronically ill is awful – the pain, loss of functions, and the trials of treatment and recovery are hugely physically, psychologically, and emotionally difficult. A less obvious source of the awfulness of illness is the awful treatment to which chronically ill persons are typically subjected. If one read through the testimonies and narrative written by ill person, one finds constant descriptions of morally awful treatment – of hostile stares and glares, of intrusive questions, of thoughtless remarks, of insensitive comments, of a horrible lack of care and concern. The American feminist, Audre Lorde, summarised this very nicely in her Cancer Journals, written during her experience of breast cancer as a woman of colour. Their main theme is what she called her ‘fury at the outside world’s viciousness, the stupid, brutal lack of consciousness or concern that passes for the way things are’.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (1980)

What Lorde is describing are experiences of what I’ve labelled pathophobia – the variety of morally objectionable forms of treatment to which somatically ill persons are subjected. Pathophobia can involve ways of thinking and talking about illness and ways of interacting with ill persons that either cause them harms, or express various failings or vices. Subjection to pathophobia can harm chronically ill persons in all sorts of ways. It can cause anger, bitterness, frustration, and resentment, of the sort described by Lorde, and worsen feelings of low self-esteem, social alienation, and loss of agency. Such bad consequences are especially bad since they come on top of the various bad effects of illness, such as pain and diminished mobility. But pathophobia can also express certain failings, such as what Lorde described at a ‘stupid, brutal lack of consciousness or concern’.

The ultimate value of the concept of pathophobia is that it might help us to reduce the incidence and severity of the offending sorts of behaviour. By naming these behaviours, we take a first step towards understanding their sources and wrongness, which in turn helps us to do something about them. (Compare it with the concept of sexual harassment, which was developed in the Sixties by women as a means of identifying and describing the variety of discriminatory behaviours to which they were subjected.) We already have concepts like ableism and sanism, of course, but these relate to morally awful treatment of persons with disabilities and mental health conditions. Although they overlap with pathophobia, they are not specific to chronic somatic illness, while the sociological concept of ‘stigma’ describes a source of pathophobia, rather than the wider phenomenon itself.

In my talk at Wolverhampton, I’ll introduce the concept of pathophobia and give you a set of examples from some influential pathographies, such as Kathlyn Conway’s Ordinary Life and Porochista Khakpour’s recent memoir, Sick. Such first-persons narratives offer lucid descriptions of the everyday experiences of pathophobia that scar the lived experiences of people with chronic somatic illnesses. I also suggest we can make sense of the moral wrongs of pathophobia by thinking in terms of clusters of pathophobic vices – negative character traits and dispositions such as banality, coldness, callousness, negligence, selfishness, and cold-heartedness. Such vices are a pervasive feature of narrative accounts of pathophobia, in the form of cruel actions, insensitive questioning, and tactless comments.

Hopefully, the concept of pathophobia can help us to mitigate such morally awful treatment of somatically ill persons.

Dr Ian James Kidd is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham. His research interests range from, in his own words ‘epistemic virtue and and vice in education, moral and spiritual exemplarity in ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the philosophical significance of illness’. For more information, see: https://www.ianjameskidd.weebly.com

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