Paradoxically, the victim can have the most powerful position, namely, as a “rhetorical figure.”

I sense this rhetorical power in Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I think less freely under the spell of this rhetoric. My thoughts are not allowed to discover new aspects of things. Questions are being silenced and the direction of my “reasoning” is predestined.

Who dares to be scrutinizing in the confrontation with the tear-jerking language that occurs on the author’s website for the book? This could be the lyrics of a whole genre of sad songs.

We read and write about Henrietta Lacks as if we were spellbound.

The most spellbound of all seem to be the reviewers of the book. Many excel in morbid presentations of a both dead and living body abducted by science; of a poor black woman who anonymously “paid the price” for a whole series of profitable medical discoveries and innovations.

Who wouldn’t yield to the temptation?

As a result, however, obvious questions are silenced. For example: Is it not wonderful that she was anonymous (until the publication of the bestseller)? Is it not splendid that scientists speak of “HeLa cells” and not about “Henrietta Lacks’ cells”? Wasn’t her integrity protected that way (until the publication of the bestseller)?

We don’t know how Henrietta Lacks would have described her destiny. Would she describe herself as a victim of science (rather than as a victim of cancer, for example)? Or has she become one of the most recent victims of the enchanting rhetoric of the victim?

(I wish to thank Joanna Forsberg for inspiration. A comment of hers on our Swedish Etikbloggen helped break the spell for me and gave birth to this post.)

Pär Segerdahl

The temptation of rhetoric - the ethics blog