Metaphors matter: why changing the name ‘monkeypox’ could help curb the discriminatory language used to talk about it

As we pass the one-month milestone of the current monkeypox outbreak, reports are emerging that the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to change monkeypox virus name to avoid stigma and discrimination† While this is an important step, it may require more than a name change.

As a researcher studying metaphors in health, I use critical metaphor analysis to explore how the metaphors used to understand and discuss monkeypox can reinforce problematic, discriminatory and dangerous social beliefs.

When a problem is framed metaphorically in a certain way, the solution to that problem often follows within the same framework† For example, metaphors used in the context of COVID-19 often presented it as an enemy, and the pandemic as a war† Within this framework, actions by “make sacrificescelebrating heroes on the frontline,” and “shelter in place” made sense

In the first month since monkey pox cases were identified, different frameworks have been used to understand it. Each has potential consequences.

A metaphorical criminal or child

One way Monkeypox is metaphorically framed is as a criminal. This criminal is constructed as having broke out from the West African area where it had been before contained† It has been “introduced” to the “community”, move “unnoticed”‘, creating a ‘threat’ and ‘increasing the risk’. Monkeypox can even be masked or disguised

Microscopic view of monkeypox virus particles. Descriptions of the virus in criminal terms can spill over into the way we treat people affected by the virus.
(NIAID)CC BY

When monkey pox is characterized as a criminal, the reasonable social response is to treat it as such. This is evident from how we describe the monkey pox response in criminal terms:suspicious cases” should be “investigated” and “detected”” to “contain” it. We create a story that makes sense given the kinds of stories we know and the words we have available. This can spill over into how we respond to people with the virus.

Monkeypox has also been described as being “related to,” the “cousin” of, or “in the same family” as smallpox† Compared to smallpox, which previously received significantly “more attention and resources”, Monkeypox was relatively “neglected”

Only now does monkeypox “attract attention”, “make itself known” in “unexpected places” and cease to be “dumb”. It is “show up at our doorand invite themselves into our communities. These descriptions combine to characterize monkeypox as something of a neglected, rebellious child.

How metaphors feed stories

The metaphors that frame monkeypox occur in the broader context of existing discriminatory narratives. Characterizing Monkeypox as a criminal can have problematic consequences when it appears alongside reports of cases among men who have sex with men

Ongoing LGBTQ+ history is full of criminalizationwhere identification as LGBTQ+ is considered a crime, as is a history of being considered a “disease”† Inaccurate descriptions of HIV/AIDS as a disease that only affects gay men further entrenched these harmful, stigmatizing stories.

When Monkeypox is labeled a criminal in the context of this history, it can reinforce the association between LGBTQ+ identity, disease and crime.

Likewise, when monkey pox is portrayed as a “black” disease, by the frequent images of lesions on black bodies and association with Africain addition to the continued criminalization of black people, this may further entrench that story.



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The story of the neglected, rebellious child parallels a larger colonial story that: infantilizes many African countries and peoples† Metaphorically, countries are constructed as people: political ‘bodies’ that interact within, and are part of, a larger ‘international community’.

In these metaphors Western countries are often framed as parents, and countries that are still ‘developing’ as childlike† Western countries could be seen as having a responsibility to help them develop ‘correctly’ if they rebel, fueling colonialist attitudes, policies and actions.

Tiny orange dots on an amorphous green surface
Microscopic view of monkeypox virus particles on the surface of cells. When monkey pox is characterized as a neglected, rebellious child, it can contribute to wider colonial and racist narratives.
(NIAID)CC BY

Monkeypox, characterized as a neglected, rebellious child, can mingle with wider colonial and racist narratives, fueling racist beliefs and actions. Another racist story compares black people to monkeys and other primates. This story is evoked in conjunction with the childhood metaphor by the name of the virus – monkeypox – along with descriptions of it coming from certain African regions or countries.

The case for name change

Among the reported reasons for the proposed WHO name change is to: detach monkeypox from the African continent,, especially the names of variants with African countries. There is also a call to stop using images of black body lesions when discussing the virus

In the context of broader discriminatory narratives discussed here, this makes sense. Breaking these associations can weaken the link between the language used to understand monkeypox and the broader discriminatory narratives that permeate the culture.

However, the metaphors used to understand the virus will still exist. They can still be problematic. When deciding “who Monkeypox is”, we need to consider not only whether this is an accurate characterization of the virus, but also how this story might mix with others already in circulation and what damaging consequences this could have on its survival. love racist, colonial, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes and beliefs.

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