Rhetorics of Reassurance during COVID-19

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

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Tracy Whalen

July 21, 2020

Image of a statue of Winnie the Bear and Lieutenant Colebourn (Photo Credit: Tracy Whalen).I never imagined my thinking about Winnie the Bear would carry over to the rhetoric of public health officials during a world-wide pandemic. But, strangely, it has. These discourses—specifically those around Dr. Bonnie Henry and Dr. Theresa Tam—have brought home for me yet again the power of family tropes to soothe real or potential feelings of public unrest or anxiety. Familial codes are reassuring. Consider the idioms at play in the statue of Lieutenant Harry Colebourn and Winnie the Bear, which stands in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park and the London Zoo. A uniformed Canadian soldier feeds a bear cub with a baby bottle while holding her paw. The relationship modelled between human and animal in the statue can translate across different exploitative power relations, but these are euphemized through frameworks of the family. These idioms—in concert with the language of adoption and polar bears in the Zoo nearby—perform rhetorics of reassurance in the face of environmental degradation, human encroachment on animal habitats, and white complicity in the continuing violence of settler colonialism.

By pretty much all accounts, Dr. Bonnie Henry has accomplished an ethos of reassurance as the public health official for British Columbia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opinion pieces across Canada agree that Henry’s is a “reassuring voice” (Mason) that speaks “reassuring words” (Baldrey). She is the “calming voice in a sea of coronavirus madness” (Picard). If anything, her accomplished résumé spanning thirty years should inspire confidence. Not only was she a medical officer for the Canadian navy, she also played an active role coordinating responses to SARS in Toronto, Ebola in West Africa, and H1N1 in Vancouver. She has served as Chief Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia since 2018.

An ethos of reassurance—any ethos, in fact—is a co-creation, a relational dynamic between an individual’s character demonstrated through any number of rhetorical codes and the collective that evaluates that ethos according to given standards. Henry’s ethos of reassurance is engendered, in part, through her personal delivery style. She is soft spoken, gestures carefully, and favours predictable isocolon—“Be kind, be calm, and be safe.” Hers are also feminized rhetorical markers of vulnerability, humility, tears, and empathy. For some publics, this ethos is comfortingly familial. The Georgia Strait praises Henry’s “reassuring and maternal way” (Smith). The Canadian Press, at a slight familial remove from Henry-as-mother, instead calls her “everybody’s favourite and trusted aunt. Auntie Bonnie, knowledgeable, compassionate and battle tested” (Meissner). The cultural response to “the good mother” is emotional: it calls for love, trust, and obedience. In their YouTube performance for Henry, Vancouver roommates Amy Shier and Vicki Ferguson sing “we’ll work from home for you . . . we’ll stay inside for you” (“Dear Dr. Bonnie”). Responsible public action for the good of the collective is redirected to familial motives grounded in personal devotion.

What does this response from some quarters tell us about the positions available for a woman public health official? At a time of fear and uncertainty, some publics are reassured by conservative narratives of the kind mother figure—those of self-sacrifice, protection, and trust. (Media stories talk a great deal about how little sleep Henry has been getting and how she needs a day off). The maternal trope makes her reassuringly non-confrontational, reassuringly nice. It softens her power as public spokesperson tasked with telling citizens how to act. That is why one male writer can say “we don’t always agree with our mothers, but we don’t doubt their motives” (Peters). Henry is an expert in epidemiology and public health, whose positions are a result of collective deliberation and research, not parental consideration. Such comments foreground motives of domestic caretaking and invite the imagining of publics as children or “rebellious teenagers” (Peters), neither of which suggests a mature, thoughtful citizenry.

It is also necessary to ask what maternal frames reveal about the affordances and limitations of what Lorraine Code calls the “embodied locatedness” of ethos (20). Henry is a white, cisgender, 54-year old public health official with a celebrated Fluevog shoe collection. Her gendered, raced, and classed identities afford her with powerful and culturally approved means to assume the mantle of mother and aunt—and the trust that goes with it. Dr. Theresa Tam, the nation’s Chief Public Health Officer, like Henry, has provided daily updates with the same reassuring structure. Like Henry, she has been praised for her calm leadership style. Both women are approximately the same age, have tremendous expertise, and might be read as introverted and private. Tam, however, does not enjoy the same ethotic affordances Henry does. The ethos of reassurance performed by Hong Kong-born Tam has been commended, but her situated, embodied leadership has not invited familial identifications of motherhood, aunthood, or sisterhood. In fact, some responses have been those of outright disaffiliation, of racism.

Conservative MP and leadership candidate Derek Sloan, for instance, questioned the top doctor’s loyalty to Canadians in a Twitter video, demanded that Tam be fired, and refused to apologize for his misogyny and racism. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer failed to denounce his caucus member’s racist remarks, despite several opportunities to do so, until criticized by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh on social media. Even then, Scheer’s reproof of Sloan (as “inappropriate”) was at best tepid. When in January Tam voiced concern over Twitter about growing racism in Canada towards people of Chinese and Asian descent, she immediately faced vituperative comments telling her to “do her job;” that is to say, to focus on the health of Canadians, to “forget the politically correct claptrap” (@WandS_Headlines), and to “[stop] the spread of viruses, not biases” (@lianimal3). Hateful responses like these deny the crucial relationship between racism and public health. More than that, they in effect tell a racialized public health officer to shut up on matters of racism. Given such toxic public attitudes, it may not be surprising that family tropes are virtually non-existent when it comes to characterizations of Tam. Tam is clearly not afforded the same access to these rhetorics of familial identification as Henry. Not that she’d necessarily want them anyway. As Tam sees it, “the population is [her] patient,” not her family (“Dr. Tam Responds”).

Thinking in general terms, then, about familial rhetorics of reassurance and public health communications, I am reminded of Lindal Buchanan’s insight that maternal rhetoric “tends to flatten what is individual, idiosyncratic, or distinct” about a rhetor (22, italics mine). The epidemic curve, it would appear, is not the only thing being “flattened” during COVID-19. I have also been reminded, yet again, how rhetorics of affiliation and disaffiliation reveal racist attitudes in our country that are anything but reassuring.

Buchanan, Lindal. Rhetorics of Motherhood. Southern Illinois UP, 2013.

Code, Lorraine. Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location. Oxford UP, 2006.

Smith, Marie-Danielle. “The Exceptional Province.”  MacLean’s, 13 April 2020, pp. 34-35.

Whalen, Tracy. [In press] “Taming Settler Colonialism: The Statue of Lieutenant Harry Colebourn and Winnie-the-Bear.” The British Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 32, no. 1-2, 2020.

Dr. Whalen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg. Her recent research examines the  delivery style of celebrated Canadian rhetors—political oratory, artistic performance, and literary works—as well as the material rhetoric of public statuary and signage. She is currently investigating transnational memory sites and public discourses around a 1985 plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, specifically how these illuminate the history and current-day instantiation of Newfoundland-American relations.

Essay image credit: Winnie the Bear and Lieutenant Colebourn (Photo Credit: Tracy Whalen)

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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