David Cameron, condemning the violence, looting and arson seen on streets across England as “sick,” made recourse to the powerful metaphor of illness in order to convey a sense of gravitas, portentousness, and deviance in his words. His exact words – that “there are pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick” – implies that sickness is a state beyond brokenness, not easily fixable like a broken appliance but something chronic, irredeemable and requiring major surgery.
The statement made me – and, I suspect, many others involved in the medical humanities – think of Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” first published in 1978. In this work, Sontag examines the literary, social and cultural meanings attached to illnesses, particularly cancer and TB. Tuberculosis, for Sontag, became “romanticised;” “the tubercular look had to be considered attractive once it came to be considered a mark of distinction, of breeding” (p.29). Conversely, Sontag sees in the metaphorisation of cancer a deromanticisation: “far from revealing anything spiritual, it reveals that the body is, all too woefully, just the body” (p.19).
Yet the most relevant part of Sontag’s argument is in the uses to which metaphors of illness can be put. Concentrating on the political uses of these metaphors, Sontag sees disease becoming “the synonym of whatever was ‘unnatural'” (p.75). Yet an interesting point is raised by Cameron’s use of the word “sick”; does he have any particular disease in mind, and does the word resonate with listeners to suggest a particular sickness? I would read “sick” in this sense as meaning moribund, but also helpless and vulnerable – sick like an elderly patient who is close to death. And the issue of agency is also important; does Cameron imply that this sickness comes from within society, or has been brought on by external, pathogenic factors? Politically, the word “sick” transcends political divisions right, but these explanatory and potential therapeutic options (should we amputate the sick part? Or try to rehabilitate it?) might be aligned with traditionally right- or left-wing views.
Cameron’s metaphor is interesting for the questions it raises as much as for its direct effects. Sontag would warn against the use of such metaphors, claiming that they not only demonise the genuinely sick by association, but imply a morality attached to illness which may not be helpful. And Sontag has another warning for Cameron, which hopefully will not prove to be prophetic: “to describe a phenomenon as a cancer is an indictment to violence” (p.84).