- RHM Generosity
Pandemics have a way of humbling those with recognized expertise for responding to them. The current COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into relief medical and other experts' uncertainties about models for predicting the spread of cases and deaths, patterns of symptoms and morbidities associated with the virus, the responses of various publics to official health directives and unofficial (in cases harmful) advice, the longer-term economic and political fallout of the ongoing pandemic, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and so on. At the same time, pandemics like COVID-19 have a way of reminding us that expertise, like uncertainty, can be a fluid, distributed quality, as we have looked to and learned from the experiential knowledge of patients and their caregivers, the cultural insight and documentation of artists of various types, the ingenuity of fellow citizens in designing novel and work-around forms of protection, and other sources not typically associated with medical expertise. Indeed, we can readily point to the harms of authority figures or institutions assuming too much agency and failing to listen to, leverage the knowledge of, and coordinate responses with others.
We raise these not-especially-novel observations to make three related suggestions about the (potential) roles and responses of rhetoricians of health and medicine: 1) that we recognize our expertise as needed and valuable, even if it isn't always immediately and widely recognized as such, and; 2) that we might be both confident and humble in what we have to offer, [End Page iii] valuing and becoming parts of coordinated responses that involve a range of "experts," and; 3) that we act generously to amplify our work and that of others who study communication, welcoming others into our scholarly RHM conversations and offering our insights to theirs.
Rhetoricians of health and medicine have (co)developed a range of approaches to studying, understanding, and responding to disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics—including but hardly limited to Lisa Keränen's (2011) biocriticism, Huiling Ding's (2014) transcultural risk communication, and Heidi Lawrence's (2020) material rhetorical approach to vaccine exigencies and decision-making. One hallmark of such approaches is that they are thoroughly rhetorical but also multidisciplinary and sometimes extra-disciplinary, leveraging the knowledge of and sometimes partnerships with others across and beyond academia, and addressing larger sociocultural questions and conditions. Keränen's (2011) formulation of a "rhetorically inflected biocriticism," for example, "would enlarge the body of research that might be classified under the domain of 'rhetorical and cultural studies of medicine and health,'" including by bringing "rhetorical studies into conversation with broader lines of inquiry around the "coarticulation of germs and security," the "proliferation of risk discourses surrounding contagion," and "new subjectivities and social movements that are forming around biological categories" (pp. 236–237).
So many aspects of this pandemic are calling out for rhetorical questions and answers, and we, as rhetoricians of health and medicine, have such germane knowledge to inform this work, and such useful tools for undertaking it. We're thinking here of the rhetorical contributions we've seen and/or wished for about developing effective audience-appropriate communication for evaluating and responding to risks; identifying and countering rhetorical forms of stigma and demagoguery; offering cross-historical comparisons of cultural, political, and public health discourses surrounding different pandemics, epidemics, and outbreaks; amplifying the communication of grassroots efforts to help one another cope and access resources; tracking the roles of communication in forming emergent identities and communities; and more. Take, for example, the following recently published pieces1 [End Page iv]
• the article in Salon by Cynthia Ryan (2020) on how her students in a writing and medicine course were gaining perspective about the "complexity of illness"—something she has long lived with;
• the op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by Cynthia Ryan (2020) on the added challenges of caring for her mother, who has Alzheimer's, during the pandemic;
• the opinion/perspective piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Ann E. Green (2020) about her husband's harrowing experience on a ventilator and its lasting effects on her family;
• the Vox piece quoting Blake, Lisa Keränen, and...