Social Justice Implications of the Organism Metaphor
by Gerald V. O'Brien
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About the Author

Gerald V. O'Brien is Professor of Social Work at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.


Book by Gerald V. O'Brien
Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-Mindedness in the American Eugenic Era

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Many people are shocked upon discovering that tens of thousands of innocent persons in the United States were involuntarily sterilized, forced into institutions, and maltreated within the course of the eugenic movement (1900–30). Detailing the major rhetorical themes employed, this book is essential for anyone wishing to explore how pejorative metaphors support control efforts against vulnerable community groups.

Ostracized community groups are often portrayed as diseased entities that threaten to infect and corrupt the healthy components of the social body. Linguistic metaphors that are a central feature of the larger organism metaphor, such as plague, cancer, and virus are frequently employed to support aversive social policies directed at marginalized groups.

The organism metaphor draws on the conceptualization of the nation or community as a holistic biological body, similar to other physical bodies. Individual humans and homogenous groups are perceived to be components of this organic body. The value of these components presumably depends on the extent to which they can contribute to overall functioning of the social organism.

A prevalent theme in the use of the organism metaphor is the contamination of the healthy segments of society by the unhealthy segments. Lise Noel (1994) noted that those devalued 'out-groups' that can be perceived as invasive and destructive tumors or parasites can be acted on with relative impunity.

Intolerance, she contended, "takes on an almost immunological form, with the healthy antibodies of society violently rejecting what it perceives as 'foreign' elements".

Perhaps the most important advocate of the perceptual image that characterized the organism metaphor was the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer. Spencer (1904) wrote that "a society as a whole, considered apart from its living units, presents phenomena of growth, structure, and function, like those of growth, structure, and function in an individual body.

The foreign origin of the target group is a central feature of the organism metaphor. Just as those elements that adversely affect the human body are usually seen as infecting us from the outside, so too those groups that contaminate the social body are frequently said to have a foreign nature. The target group, like a plague, is invariably viewed as coming from somewhere else.

Writers who warn of invasion of the social body often note that the potentially destructive elements of the target group are very difficult to accurately distinguish from the 'general population.' Indeed, target group members are often feared not only because of their divergence from the rest of the community, but also because of their likeness, as these similarities may allow group members to pass as 'normal' citizens.

In such cases, the scope of social control may be expanded to include all persons within the group who are potentially threatening. In the most extreme cases, such as Japanese internment, the difficulty of differentiating the harmful from the non-threatening members of the group necessitates that social control measures be taken against virtually all members of the target group.

As an outgrowth of this inability to easily distinguish which members of the group should be subject to social control, a cadre of 'diagnosticians,' 'investigators,' or law enforcement professionals who can separate the threatening members of the group from the rest of the community will be created. The rise in diagnostic or investigatory expertise naturally leads to a rapid increase in the number of persons who fall within the target class, thus resulting in an exacerbation of the fear that such persons are indeed penetrating, spreading throughout and threatening to contaminate the community.

The organism metaphor holds that once the 'infected' group or person situates itself inside the body of the nation, it will, like a cancer, spread unrelentingly throughout the organism. Spread may occur by means of rapid reproduction, as with a quickly growing virus.

Because of both its diseased quality and its rapid spread within the social body, the target group is portrayed as threatening not only the integrity but indeed the very life of the national organism. The Nazi publication Der Stuermer reported that the Jews were "the germ that has thrown the world into a disease which irrevocably leads to death unless humanity rises at the last moment."

Just as individuals needed to protect themselves against disease, this article continued, "the world will be restored to health only when the most terrible germ of all times, the Jew, has been removed." The International Jew (1920), an American anti-Semitic publication underwritten by Henry Ford, likewise held that "the main source of the sickness of the German national body is charged to be the influence of the Jews." Because the sickness had gone on for so long, the book continued, an "eruption has broken out on the surface of the body politic".

When the disease had gained a foothold in society and quarantine was no longer an option, extermination of the 'infected' components of the population is presented as the only way of ensuring the survival of the community. Certainly the clearest example of this application of the organism metaphor was Nazi Germany's race hygiene programs.

A number of scholars have noted that, in keeping with their focus on race purity, Nazi medicine was much more concerned with the health of the social body than with the physical well-being of individuals. Within this context, the physician, or 'genetic doctor,' was not a healer of individuals, but of the state, and, just as an inflamed appendix would be removed from a diseased body, a diseased individual was viewed as inimical to the future health of the Volk.

Hitler himself described the necessity of protecting the health of the German nation from invasive foreign entities in the pages of Mein Kampf. Because the German states did not adequately police the quality of its new citizens, they were taking into their borders "poison elements which they can scarcely ever overcome”.

America, he noted, had shown by its recent immigration restriction laws that it too understood the harm that was posed by such groups. The Nazis not only continually compared Jews and other marginalized groups to a plague, bacteria, tumors, parasites, lice, and other specters of disease, but contended that race hygiene was, in most respects, analogous to individual hygiene.

A Nazi professor, for example, held that "any people that still keeps and protects Jews is just as guilty of an offense against public safety as someone who cultivates cholera-germs without observing the proper precautions".

This form of employing the metaphor did not originate with the Nazis. In his 1909 book The Expansion of Races, Charles Woodruff wrote as follows of Jewish immigration into the United States:

The same law applies to the Jew as applies to a bacillus or any other organism which may be beneficial if few and in place, but deadly if numerous and out of place. Just as soon as he becomes so numerous as to be an economic disease he is eradicated. The persecution of the Jew, then, is and always has been a natural law, because it is necessary for survival of the supporting organism.

Conclusion: Human beings have very strong subconscious reactions to the specter of bodily invasion and the subsequent corruption of our bodies from within, and propagandists are quick to exploit these fears for socio-political purposes.