Why what we say about this global disease matters.
A few years ago, I was traveling in Kenya and Rwanda, researching the rhetoric of the evangelical sexual abstinence movement. Although HIV prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa are some of the highest in the world, I was surprised to find that few young people mentioned the fear of AIDS as a motivation for abstinence.
A development worker responded matter-of-factly that African teenagers know all about AIDS, but figure they will die from malaria first, or even a car accident. I was stunned. In our country, talk about AIDS in Africa often sidesteps the thornier issues of poverty and oppression. The problem is much deeper and broader than a slogan on a T-shirt.
Is AIDS a symptom of global poverty or a gay disease? Is it a worldwide pandemic or a fashion statement?
For many of us, our only experience with something like AIDS is through the words and images that shape our understanding of its reality. This is the realm of rhetoric. In a political campaign season, we tend to associate “rhetoric” with bluster and pretension. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Current scholarship expands rhetoric to the study of symbols and their role in shaping meaning.
The new frontier in the struggle against HIV/AIDS is not medical or even political; it is cultural. New York Times Magazine reports that fear of stigma is preventing HIV-positive pregnant women in South Africa from taking an antiretroviral that reduces disease transmission to their babies (by rhonda). We have the medical technology to curb HIV; in some cases, it is cost effective and readily available. But what will persuade young mothers to swallow the pill?
Our words are powerful. Genesis tells us that God spoke the worlds into being. As co-creators with God, our words can build up or tear down.Through the power of the Holy Spirit speaking through us, we can give voice to the voiceless.
Our words influence our action. In the case of AIDS, framing the disease as a symptom of global poverty expands the scope of our care.
Our words also serve to constitute our character. Focusing only on AIDS in Africa ignores the scope of the crisis and portrays the church as hierarchical in its outreach, as if some people are more worthy of care than others.
Cultural critic Douglas Crimp has provocatively stated that “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.” The study of rhetoric at Wheaton is not just about “talk.” This isn’t ivory-tower theory. This is roll-up-your-sleeves theory in action. Issues like AIDS are matters of life and death. Our words can make the difference.
Dr. Christine J. Gardner, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Culture, teaches a course on the rhetoric of AIDS, serves as chair of President Litfin’s Task Force on HIV/AIDS, and advises the Student Global AIDS Campaign. She received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University, and has worked professionally in radio broadcasting, public relations, and print journalism. Christy and her husband, Brian, who works in development for Wheaton, are both from the Pacific Northwest. (The above statement was included at the time of publication — Wheaton Magazine, Autumn 2007)