Lu: Not a Laughing Matter

by Jessica Lu | 10/15/14 6:21pm

A few weeks ago, I was trawling through Dartmouth Yik Yak when I came upon one of the most popular Yaks: “Ebola will strike Penn first because it’s easier to get into.” It had 100 upvotes, and it wasn’t the only Ebola joke.

I keep hearing comments that attach a notion of the survival of the fittest to Ebola. They imply that the people suffering and dying from this epidemic are weaker than those who are unaffected. These jokes pop up on social media, but also in person, in casual conversation. People joke that when Ebola spreads, only the hardy Canadians will survive, that it’s unsurprising for it to have hit Africa or that we won’t see an epidemic in America because we’re superior.

There is something deeply and insidiously ethnocentric about the jokes that perpetuate that assumption. Maybe I was naive for thinking we had moved past the Social Darwinism that dominated the 19th century. But I guess we haven’t, as evidenced by former South Carolina GOP director Todd Kincannon’s tasteless tweets, with one reading, “The people of Africa are to blame for why [the situation] is so shitty. They could stop eating each other and learn calculus at any time.”

Kincannon’s openly derogatory statements display a disgusting attitude of cultural superiority.

Somehow people don’t seem to understand that it is unacceptable to make light of a disease that has killed thousands of people. Characterizing Ebola as an African issue builds on a history of white imperialism. Thousands of West Africans are dying not due to any racial or cultural reasons, but rather because of their geographic proximity to a deadly disease that still has no associated vaccine or cure. Making jokes that suggest Ebola is killing off the weak and less civilized implies cultural inferiority.

But almost more troubling than this cultural othering is our utter lack of empathy for the situation. Americans aren’t rushing to donate or help. Our dialogue on Ebola focuses almost exclusively on how we are affected. Our news media doesn’t report on how grim the epidemic in West African countries is, or how desperately aid workers and funding are needed. Instead, my CNN app sends me updates on the details of the case of one U.S. aid worker in Germany. The life and death of one U.S. citizen is more newsworthy than the lives and deaths of thousands of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Perhaps Americans are empathetic now, but only because the disease has begun affecting us directly.

Maybe this lack of empathy is due to the geographic distance from the outbreak, but that never stopped us from rallying in the face of other diseases, like SARS, in Asia. And a lack of connection to the epidemic doesn’t explain the ethnocentric jokes and remarks that are cropping up all over social media.

We don’t make the same jokes about cancer or ALS — and rightfully so, because we should never make light of a disease that causes people suffering. But while cancer and ALS have prompted awareness months and Ice Bucket Challenges, Ebola has drawn jokes and fear. Popular media, through medical dramas and the recent movie “The Fault in Our Stars,” portrays cancer victims in a way that elicits a sense of empathy that portrayals of Ebola victims do not. Somehow, the fact that Ebola’s impact is concentrated in a foreign place seems to have convinced some that dismissive and offensive jokes about it are acceptable.