Anthropomorphism is the term for our tendency to give human characteristics to animals or non-living things. Many of us might recall it from our high school English classes, but there is a psychological basis for our use of anthropomorphism, as well.
It may help us develop empathy with the natural world, reducing loneliness through connections with animal companions, for example. It could also help us better communicate complex issues. Remember not so long ago when Floridians were preparing for the arrival of Dorian rather than merely a major hurricane?
We need look no further than current events for another striking example. COVID-19 has upended our lives seemingly overnight. In both media and everyday conversations, I often hear people refer to the virus in human terms. It is ‘evil,’ ‘exploitative,’ ‘clever’— it is our enemy, actively plotting against us.
At the end of the day, the virus doesn’t care because it can’t care. It is a microscopic package of genetic material that exists only to replicate.
This language certainly helps us relate to one another and rally with common purpose. But it is misleading.
Those who claim this is “a great equalizer” are biologically correct; the virus doesn’t care if you work out, if you smoke, how big your house is, what your skin color is, who your god is, or how old you are. It will use the same mechanism of viral replication no matter the host.
But, generally speaking, the host’s response will determine the chance of survival. This is where the playing field is anything but equal. And at the end of the day, the virus doesn’t care because it can’t care. It is a microscopic package of genetic material that exists only to replicate. That’s it. It doesn’t exist to kill or to harm; those are just side effects.
There is no thought, no intent, no malice on the part of the virus. It is neither good nor bad. It just is.
This pandemic has thrust our nation’s inequities into the spotlight. Much has been written already about the flaws of an economy that is carried on the backs of our most vulnerable, remote education that can only be offered to those with means, and healthcare that cares less about persons of color, among others. These conditions existed long before the virus showed up.
To be clear, this is not a critique of the many selfless individuals who are putting their lives at risk to treat patients, finding ways to reach their students, or paying their small-business employees. The point here is to consider a world where they did not have to fight so hard or risk so much. The virus did not build a nation of inequality—we did.
We are giving too much credit to a microorganism.
Interestingly, the opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanization. When we talk about systems, we tend to blur the very real struggles of individuals; we take the humans out of the equation.
When I find hope during these times, it is because I sometimes see glimmers of an awakening to the challenges so many of our fellow humans are facing, and have faced for a very long time, as a result of our systemic failures. When we assign intent to a virus, we shift attention away from such uncomfortable realities.
But I have to wonder, are we ready to confront our past to move toward a better future?
Can we truly begin to dismantle systems that have deeply embedded inequities and institutionalized oppression? Can we start to see the humanity in other humans? Can we, as a society, really look in the mirror and recognize that this virus is not our enemy?
The enemy is us.
Katie Philp is the research and evaluation manager for the Parramore Education and Innovation District, a project of UCF’s Center for Higher Education Innovation. She can be reached at Katherine.Philp@ucf.edu.
The UCF Forum is a weekly series of opinion columns from faculty, staff and students who serve on a panel for a year. A new column is posted each Wednesday on UCF Today and then broadcast on WUCF-FM (89.9) between 7:50 and 8 a.m. Sunday. (A podcast of this column is available on the radio station’s website.) Opinions expressed are those of the columnists, and are not necessarily shared by the University of Central Florida.