By Trenton Peterson, Oakland University
Responding to Rachel Yoakum’s “Fear is Contagious: is AIDS?” is an incredibly unique situation to be in. To be examining a piece that explores the public’s reaction to a virus that is highly difficult to spread while simultaneously living through a pandemic of a highly contagious one is truly once in a lifetime. Not to say I’m glad I have the opportunity, per se. I would much rather not have these viruses exist in the first place. They do, however. And it is this contemporary affliction that colors my interpretation of this work. And what a work it is.
Yoakum paints a narrative of shifting public opinion. She begins with the 1980’s, where the panic around the threat of transmission was an ever ballooning hysteria. The actions of the public represented here is one of irrational paranoia, with unsubstantiated rumours on how the virus could spread. As I watched this I could not help but reflect upon the panics of decades past, with the 1960’s Red Scare having everyone ready to turn over their neighbor to the authorities for being “one of them”. A scapegoat, it seems, is always the public’s highest priority. The public found their target in the gay community this time, and took no time in pointing to them as the problem. Rachel highlighting the story of Ryan White, and his repeated torment at the hands of his classmates and peers shows just how far the voice of an angry and scared public can go.
The actions of an angry public is a concept this piece forced me to deliberate over. A public can form an opinion that speaks so loudly that the truth may as well not exist. Even when this dangerous beast is quelled, the echoes of its statements are rarely completely muted. The aforementioned Red Scare permanently tarnished the word socialism in the eyes of many, and any mention of it for the purposes of societal change is met with fierce resistance. The public’s outward disdain of the LGBT+ community in the 80’s (although it certainly existed before) was no doubt at least partially responsible for the night-insurmountable difficultly of passing gay marriage legality in recent times. I am unable to ignore the public that I see outside of my window currently. A public that seemingly refuses to give up even the most minor of freedoms to help inhibit a virus that is infinitely easier to spread than the one in this piece. A public so angry, so unwilling to consider that their actions have consequences. Rachel’s piece makes me consider the power of our scared populace, one that no longer has someone to blame.
Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom. This piece has two halves. The second half shows a different public. A newer, more mature public that shows compassion to the same group that the past showed such scrutiny. Rachel pulls up footage of fundraisers made in Ryan’s honor. She even shows the story of an AIDS patient who contracted it through a relationship, and it’s presented as a tale of hope and acceptance. The public opinion on this topic has shifted much, and Rachel does an excellent job showing it.
I have spoken much of “publics” as if they are definite and unchanging. This is not true, of course, as few opinions are uniform among the masses. What this essay highlights to me more than anything is which of these publics are remembered. It would be absurd to claim that every American in the 1960’s was a McCarthyism fanatic, but it is undeniably the caricature our history paints. Similarly not everyone in the 1980’s vilified the gay community, but the fear is what we remember. As I close this reflection, I can only wonder how the future will view our public’s reaction to this pandemic. Will we remember the swaths of people who dutifully wore masks to prevent the spread? Or will we morbidly jeer at our past, scoffing at the protesters who railed against such a painfully small concession? I cannot say for certain, but this essay shows us that time is often more interested in the fanatical than the correct.
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