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Political Correctness in HIV: Ain't Nobody Got Time for That!

February 19, 2016

Free speech is a fundamental right for all Americans. It's right there in the first amendment of the Constitution. But, over time there has been a push by politicians and activists to avoid speech that insults, marginalizes or excludes certain groups. This shift in the way we can talk has led to a debate whether the fires of free speech are being squelched by a rising tide of political correctness.

The argument against political correctness is clear. As Presidential hopeful Donald Trump said during a debate in 2015, "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either."

Many Americans agree with those sentiments. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found 68 percent of all Americans think being politically correct is a big problem in this country.

Following an article I wrote about using less stigmatizing language, I received an email from a reader that touched on whether using what the reader may consider politically correct language is actually helpful to those who are dying from AIDS-related complications or dealing with many of the adverse side effects of medication.

The letter read in part, "Some terms currently used to describe HIV, virus transmission, persons living with the virus, and deaths resulting from HIV can and may hurt some people's feelings, however, in the 'real world,' HIV is still a death sentence for those who, for whatever reasons, are not managing and maintaining their health care."

"Despite what your mother taught you about sticks and stones -- in the real world, sticks and stones can break your bones, but, the human casualties of HIV are still real."

This comment got me thinking, with 50,000 new cases of HIV in the United States each year, a recent rise in drug-related HIV infection and issues with accessing care, do we have time to worry about language?

There is no simple answer to this question. I believe the reason HIVE, PWN-USA, and many other advocacy groups probably push hard for preferred language is tied to the real-life human casualties of HIV.

Language is powerful -- it can affect our thought processes and actions. When we are more careful with our choice of words, we can change the way a person or group is perceived. For example:

  • The new medication his doctor prescribed made his leg move in a peculiar way.
  • The new medication his doctor prescribed made his leg move in an erratic fashion.

Peculiar and erratic are both adjectives that both mean unusual or strange. But peculiar and erratic conjure up different images. That peculiar leg motion could just be the Jimmy legs. That erratic walk seems like someone who is having an out-of-body experience that's potentially harmful to anyone walking nearby.

Word choice plays a huge role in HIV. Unfortunately, many people who are not personally affected by HIV do not know about HIV. Even when they mean well, the words they say can have a chilling effect on how HIV is perceived. Since 62 percent of Americans get their news and information about HIV from the media, it's not surprising that advocacy groups target media outlets to address the issues of using preferred language in broadcast and print.

You don't have to go far to see the use of incorrect, outdated or stigmatizing language in the news. For example, this Buzzfeed article about a criminal investigation into the sex lives of 30 HIV-positive men refers to the men allegedly having "unprotected sex." The concept of what is "safe" sex has evolved beyond the condom.

Though PrEP is not available in the Czech Republic, there are other ways to have safer sex. HIV-positive men and women who take their medication as prescribed have reduced chances of transmitting HIV to their partner. This applies to heterosexual and gay couples. People with undetectable viral loads have a transmission rate close to zero. While it is recommended to use condoms to protect against pregnancy and some sexually transmitted infections, condoms aren't the only game in town.

This Daily Mail article includes "HIV Virus" in its headline. That's not stigmatizing but it's redundant and dumb, and as a journalist, I want to make sure no other journalist is out here looking redundant and dumb.

Or the use of "full-blown AIDS" in this New York Daily News article about the death of infamous mobsters or the Anderson Cooper/Donald Sterling interview. There's no such thing as "full-blown AIDS," you either have AIDS, or you don't. It just doesn't make sense to say it even if "full-blown AIDS" was a thing. Once you have "full-blown AIDS," then we have to start breaking down the level of AIDS into quarter-blown or sixteenths-blown. It'll be a mathematical mess. But I digress.

Sure, someone living with HIV is probably more focused on having nutritious food to eat every day than whether or not Anderson Cooper knows there's no such thing as "full-blown AIDS." But making sure that Anderson Cooper is right in his terminology might help change the way society talks about HIV/AIDS.

When we change the way we talk, we have the opportunity to change what we talk about. Maybe by using preferred language, we can shift the conversation from a discussion of HIV-negative people talking about HIV-positive people to a discussion of people talking about what is necessary to make sure everyone is getting access to care. We can shift the conversation from privileged HIV-positive and HIV-negative people talking about underprivileged HIV-positive people to a conversation with people of all socio-economic levels discussing how to ensure that those with less money aren't doomed to a death sentence because they don't have the means or stability to manage their treatable disease.

So, when it comes to political correctness in HIV, ain't nobody got time for politics because everyone has time to change the conversation about HIV.

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