Doing Harm — Perpetuating The United States Warrior Narrative Within The Language of Healthcare

By Kimberly J. Soenen | July 26, 2017

Weeks before his scheduled surgery to remove a blood clot Senator John McCain stumbled verbally and struggled to reach for accurate words during a public Congressional hearing. He was laughed at across the mediascape for what appeared to be “old age,” “incompetence” and being “infirm.” We now know he has received an aggressive brain cancer diagnoses.

This episode tells us a number of things about ourselves as a society. Within the context of the perpetual healthcare debate economic status, absurd rhetoric and The Plague of Positive Thinking run like hairline fractures through the American Dream Myth.

We learned that the senator accessed immediate top quality healthcare at Mayo, access that few people have in our country. We’ve read the carefully edited version of his health status updates — the PR versions that are fit for public consumption — which indicate no physical weakness, no vulnerability, no fragility and no compromised capacity related to neurological function. And earlier this week Senator McCain returned to Washington to vote in support of the motion to proceed to begin debate on health care legislation.

The United States approach to healthcare reinforces the pattern of assigning worth and value to some, while marginalizing other(s.) We ingest only glossy language when discussing a person’s health in public and tend to go silent when it gets messy. And, we continue to perpetuate the irresponsible and insulting “Warrior” narrative — Strong people have surgery and get back to work, at any cost… because they are “strong.”

Because we’ve been conditioned to carefully perpetuate the United States “Warrior” narrative within the context of illness, disease and injury we will continue to hear and read the phrases “he’s a fighter,” “he’s a strong guy,” “he’s one of the toughest,” and “he’s been through much worse.” This perverse language within the context of health and medicine is unique to the United States and needs to be consciously extinguished.

In place of this tired rhetoric a new way of thinking about health and wellness could be fostered deliberately across our nation’s vernacular because the pervasive notion that strength and will factor into overcoming illness for anyone is false.

What Barbara Ehrenreich defined as “The Plague of Positive Thinking” in her book “Bright-Sided” provides evidence of the social damage the “Warrior” narrative has imposed on U.S. society. The book boldly cited examples of the destructive and essentially adolescent language we continually use to frame dialogue related to healthcare and illness.

As the “Fighter” and “Warrior” myths are perpetuated aggressively across the mediascape, medical field and pop culture sphere, possibly we should reconsider the way in which we understand, respect and refer to the human body. All persons are vulnerable to aging, illness, injury, unknown disease, consequences, circumstances, chance, and luck. Illness, disease and injury are not always about “choice.” Rehabilitation, recovery, management of and surviving illness have nothing to do with “being strong,” “fighting” or “staying positive.”

“Being strong” is merely a post modern sentiment that has been concocted by those in close proximity to illness to convince themselves that there is fight remaining. The alternative to coercing one’s intellect to chant the “Warrior” mantra is often unbearable. Using battle language like She’s such a fighter or He’s so strong is a game we play with our intellect to endure pain. Because the alternative is unbearable.

Even loved ones who witness illness at close range rarely see the bleeding, fainting, vomiting, seizures, chronic pain, spitting up, tears, fear, writhing, fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss, dehydration, financial distress and terror that accompanies the horror of illness. Conversely, nurses are sometimes callously matter-of-fact and unsentimental about illness because they understand that being a fighter does not prevent illness or death. When a scientific explanation or medical reason for illness is clear — and when it is not — often times illness is stronger; injury and pain are tougher and death ultimately “wins.”

For those who manage illness quietly everyday, every time this perverse Warrior and Fighter language is floated, it sends the message that overcoming and surviving illness is an esteemed character trait rather than what surviving illness truly is — nothing more than lucky.

Kimberly J. Soenen writes from Chicago. She is the curator and editor of “SOME PEOPLE” (EveryBody) — an exhibition that intimately exposes the universality of vulnerability and fragility within the context of the United States healthcare policy debate. View the digital exhibition on Instagram at @HealthOverProfit. (Photo: Decay & Decline. Sister Lakes, Michigan Playhouse, 2016.)