Pathologizing the Other: From Socrates to Vaccination

When I spoke about pathologizing the victim or pathologizing the survivor, what I was thinking about was how we sort people into “us” and “them.”  Unfortunately, we (as a society) frequently do this with “the young” (e.g. students, young adults, Millennials).  In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates pathologizes those who use writing.  He identifies them as individuals who will have memory problems because they rely on words on a page as a reminder.  He essentially portrays writers as the source of poor ideas because if (according to Socrates) an idea cannot defend itself through verbal discourse, then it must not be a worthy idea.  On the surface, it appears he is pathologizing writing as an ill-informed endeavor – in reality, though, he is pathologizing those who engage in writing, those who literally (in his mind) use the written word as a “crutch” for thought and memory.

This is also the trend we see in contemporary discourses – the types of discourses where autography is prevalent.  Taking Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield as examples, they have worked very hard to pathologize vaccines as “harmful” to children – but much of their effort centers on pathologizing the medical community as uncaring, as unwilling to practice the due diligence of follow-up research.

Here, we see that the real damage arises through the selectivity of information – what scientists would call data, what Richard Vatz would call saliencies.  As Paul Offit and Seth Mnoomkin have illustrated, the medical community has undertaken the due diligence demanded by the so-called anti-vaxxers.  Vaccine “reform,” as Jenny McCarthy calls it, has been and continues to be an ongoing process in the medical community.  McCarthy demands the removal of toxic chemicals and thorough studies to test the safety of vaccines – these habits of research have long been a fundamental component of modern vaccine development, since long before McCarthy’s son was conceived.  Over time, CDC researchers and others have used epidemiology studies to ensure that vaccines are safe, and to quickly identify any vaccines that do cause side effects, even if only as rarely as a few children out of every million doses (see Offit for exact details of this example).

Thimerasol (the maligned source ethyl mercury) was initially added to vaccines as a preservative to prevent the kinds of blood infections that made early vaccines quite dangerous by today’s standards (Offit).  And compared to the variolation that Jenner himself went through, today’s medical practices are dangerously safe and sophisticated.

By dangerously safe, I mean that many people are comfortably unaware of how medicine (let alone science) actually functions.  The narrative of Jenner’s development of variola (smallpox) prevention from vaccinia (cowpox) is largely unknown – I only recently learned about it through a scholarly article I downloaded from Milner library, the kind of article that is likely unavailable even to most internet users (insert citation).

The process of variolation – which consisted of fastening a scab from a smallpox victim onto an open cut (typically on a child’s arm) in order to reduce the likehood that the patient (often a child) wouldn’t get full-blown smallpox in the future.  With the hope being, of course, that the child wouldn’t come down with full-blown smallpox from the treatment itself, and then likely die.

Jenner went through this treatment as a child.  He later tested his “vaccination” regimen on a child.  According to the source, variolation was considered a somewhat “advanced” therapy, the kind of thing that was only available to those with financial means.  Vaccination, as an entirely untested theory, was probably seen as…I don’t know.  Somewhat less risky?  Something that a parent was willing to attempt because Jenner’s idea sounded better than variolation?

Fact is, people during Jenner’s time were terrified of smallpox.  And with good reason.  It claimed children, it claimed adults, it claimed everyone.  And people knew it was transmitted through the oozing pustules – there’s written evidence of Europeans specifically rubbing blankets across smallpox victims in order to infect Native American tribes with the disease (find this source).  So it’s not like germ theory was entirely unknown – people knew that bodily fluids transmitted disease, they just didn’t know how.  And they would continue not knowing how for a long time.  (The example of Semmelweis is particularly telling – he found that handwashing with lye was effective in preventing disease in a maternity ward.  He died before hospitals accepted that his findings were true.  (another source to track down – it’s not Kuhn, but it should have been.))

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