Why is it so hard to believe in other people’s pain?

Hostile suspicion others, encompassing everything from their mask position to their stance on mandates, have marked this miserable pandemic from the start. Now, in perhaps the most unfriendly section, the suspicion is directed at people with long-term Covid – the symptoms that can affect as many as a third of those who survive a first hit of the virus. One theory is that Covid infection raises the body’s defenses and can leave the immune system in a frenzy, causing shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and brain fog. IN The invisible realm, her forthcoming book on chronic illness, Meghan O’Rourke reports that doctors often dismiss these symptoms as meaningless. When medical tests for these patients turn out to be negative, “Western medicine would like to say, ‘You’re fine,'” says Dayna McCarthy, a physician focusing on long-term Covid.

This is not surprising. Skepticism about chronic conditions, including post-polio syndrome and fibromyalgia, is extremely common – and it almost always alienates patients, deepens their suffering and inhibits treatment. Until researchers can find the biomarkers that can certify long Covid as a “real” disease, the best clinicians can do is listen to testimony and treat symptoms. But the project of addressing long Covid may also be served by a more rigorous epistemology of pain – that is, a theory of how we come to believe or doubt other people’s suffering.

In her 1985 book The Body in Pain: The Creation and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry makes a profound statement: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear of pain is to be in doubt.” Because the claim illuminates both pain and knowledge, and because women rarely associate their names with philosophical claims, I would like, too late, to christen this elegant phrase “Scarry’s axiom.”

The axiom came to mind this fall for two reasons: I was trying to support a friend with long Covid, and I was attending a forum on how the media is fighting racism. It was the second experience that illuminated the first and suggested Scarry’s axiom as a way of understanding the acute mistrust that now pervades our pluralistic country.

At the forum, a socialist and a libertarian each lodged a complaint. The socialist accused that the media’s focus on racism omits a more significant struggle – the endless class struggle. The libertarian claimed that the media’s focus on race does not understand the individual with his or her urgent fear of death and hopes for art, money, and transcendence. The libertarian then took shots at easily offended students who put emotions before reason and forever become “offended” and need “security,” which he said were positions that were incompatible with education.

This well-known debate was based on. As far as I can see, no one on any side – and I disagreed with both the socialist and the libertarian – has ever shaken. But it may be because we kept missing a truth in front of our faces: that we all rejected the pain of others as somehow less than real, while exalting our own and our fellow brothers’s as a harsh fact.


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