Marketing, Morality, and Mortality by Megan Lacy

In last week’s discussion of Ryan White, questions arose concerning the Face of AIDS.  When Ryan’s story came onto the scene of media portrayals of AIDS in the fall of 1985, what were the effects? Did the Ryan White story play a role in heterosexualizing a previously “queer” disease? By giving AIDS an “innocent” face, did Ryan complicate conceptions of AIDS as an issue of morality and remind us that it was also about mortality?  Moreover, was the naming of the HIV/AIDS federal fund as the “Ryan White CARE Act” a strategic marketing ploy to replace the image of HIV/AIDS as “white, gay, and male” with “young and asexual”? Did this reconfiguration of the face of AIDS give the Act more broad social appeal? There seemed to be an assumption, in this conversation that this type of marketing, via manipulation, is somehow dishonest. Is it? The question, more clearly stated: Is appropriating and/or expanding the face of HIV/AIDS to include innocent children in hopes of securing better funding an unethical effort?

Traditionally, ethicists have asserted that if the means to an end is unethical, the end itself is unethical. Therefore, to manipulate conceptions of AIDS in order to secure funds (since the Ryan White CARE Act is the largest federally funded HIV/AIDS treatment program) is unethical, so is the result of thing funding. That is, the lives saved by treatment funded by the Ryan White CARE Act is irrelevant if the means to raising that money was somehow dishonest. This framework, though, posits social and moral constructs over against human life.  We assume that the choice to name the Ryan White CARE Act was one that intentionally avoided the immoral stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. Instead, it captured an image of AIDS that would not only be more socially palatable, but that would also “bring AIDS home”—making it an issue of mortality rather than morality. But was giving AIDS the face of a child the only way to accomplish such a task?

The Crimp article suggests that we must “recognize that every image of a PWA is a representation, and formulate our activist demands not in relation to the ‘truth’ of the image, but in relation to the conditions of its construction and to its social effects” (17). The media provided AIDS a new face, the face of a child, so that society could no longer understand AIDS as a disease of the “other.” But, why could we not find common humanity before the ace of AIDS was that of a young boy? What separated society from the image of the white, gay, male, and why did the media fail to deconstruct society’s ability to label this image, “other” and keep it at arms length? Maybe this question invests too much confidence in the media’s ability to stand apart from larger cultural constructs and provide societal critiques. If so, then as a theology student, I can’t help but wonder, should this not have been the role of religion?

In the 1980’s, the secularization thesis was just beginning to take root, yet the voice of religion, as a social institution was still strong in the public square. Just a decade before the AIDS epidemic began, religion had reared its head in anger over the Roe vs. Wade supreme court decision to override many state laws impeding abortion. The movement that followed was labeled, “pro-life.” Why then, ten years later, did it fail to see that AIDS was also an issue of life?

Rather than recast AIDS as an issue of mortality, religion played a crucial role in reinforcing AIDS as a moral issue. In particular, Christianity failed to what ethicists like Stanely Hauerwas posit as its goal: the embodiment of a social ethic. What could have been different in the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic if the Christian church, specifically, had chosen to have a consistent ethic of life (if one opposes abortion on the grounds of valuing life, one should also oppose the death penalty, war, and viral killers, like AIDS, on these same grounds). And how now, does religion continue to play a role in shaping and reshaping perception of a once stigmatized disease?

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