Wednesday 1 December 2010

A thought for World AIDS Day

I wonder whether the language that we use when we talk about HIV/AIDS always helps.

We talk of "the fight against HIV and AIDS", or "the struggle against HIV and AIDS". While at the same time we try to oppose the stigmatisation of and discrimination against those who are living with HIV/AIDS. This language of warfare can be found in two of the contributions of the Catholic media to mark World AIDS Day this year, this report on the website of Vatican Radio and this article at Thinking Faith. I think this latter makes for interesting reading in the context of recent controversy about the Catholic approach to HIV/AIDS.

My first thought is that the use of a language of "fighting" or "struggling against" HIV/AIDS inadvertently supports a kind of stigmatisation. This is the language we might normally use about our opposition to or campaigning against people with whom we disagree or people who represent a threat to us. And, in its most extreme form, it does literally take the form of warfare. The context of our normal use of this language means that the difference between working to eradicate HIV/AIDS and to counter its effects among people affected by it and, in some rather indistinct manner, seeing those who carry the virus as being those against whom we "fight" and "struggle" is lost to conscious reflection.

Much better, I think, would be the language of working on behalf of those suffering from the HIV/AIDS virus and working on behalf of communities that are affected by it. Within this style of language our attention is drawn to the positive steps that can and are taken to support those affected by the pandemic. Our attention is also drawn to people and to communities (who are affected by HIV/AIDS), and sees them as people to whom we offer solidarity, rather than being drawn to HIV/AIDS as some impersonal phenomenon distinct from the people affected, a phenomenon that is to be feared and fought at all costs.

I think the change of language that I am suggesting here is of particular importance with regard to the question of stigmatisation of those infected by HIV/AIDS, and is a vital contribution to overcoming that stigmatisation. But I also think that it influences our response to policy making at the national and international levels. It is much easier to accept the idea of promoting condom distribution within the context of an impersonal language of fight and struggle against HIV/AIDS, the impersonal language of international policy; and it is much easier to rally support to initiatives on the behalf of individuals and communities affected by HIV/AIDS when one has the more positive language suggested above.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in answering "that question" in his now famous interview, words that have not often been quoted:
Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering.

In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

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