“People Who Lead Good Lives” Is Sympathetic Magic

“People Who Lead Good Lives” Is Sympathetic Magic May 5, 2017

If you wanted to know what symbolic thinking looks like, this is it. And it’s coming from the mouths of politicians responsible for health care policy.

Sir James George Frazer, who coined the concept sympathetic magic. Photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Sir James George Frazer, who coined the concept sympathetic magic. Photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

By now we’ve all seen the quote: “People who lead good lives” don’t have preexisting conditions. Obviously this is untrue as well as unverifiable. But what it also does is show the grip sympathetic magic continues to have on our imaginations.

Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama uttered this phrase in a CNN interview, according to Salon. An extended quote is:

My understanding is that (the new proposal) will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.

Others have already described why this is a pretty terrible approach to take to health care, such as my fellow Patheos blogger Ed Brayton.

What I want to focus on here is how this representation of health and health care needs is a form of sympathetic magic. First defined by armchair anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in his 1890s work The Golden Bough, sympathetic magic is a system of symbolic belief association found worldwide.

The two main principles of sympathetic magic – that like attracts like, and that touch contaminates – are both found in Brooks’s claims. Asserting that people deserve their health outcomes, like on a moral level, is essentially stating that:

  1. Their lifestyle has attracted a specific outcome. Act healthy = be healthy. And let’s not miss the subtle moralizing dialogue, either, implying that people who haven’t done things the “right way,” who step outside the box in terms of gender or sexual identity, need more help and thus burden the “good” healthy taxpayers (I won’t even get into how frustrating and inaccurate it is to call this stuff a lifestyle or choice).
  2. People are contaminated by coming into contact with unhealthy lifestyles AND with unhealthy people. I mean, sure, coming into contact repeatedly with cigarette smoke isn’t gonna be good for you, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to be left to die. And on the second point, gosh, it’s too bad that those bad unhealthy people are rubbing off on the insurance costs of those good healthy people, right?

Obviously the way insurance addresses risk is more complicated than that, as this video explains. But hopefully these policies are based more on research than on a contamination model. A lot of U.S. health woes are entirely preventable – such as high maternal mortality rates – and yet this doesn’t seem to impact our policy-making at all. This is probably based in part on the grip that symbolic systems hold on us.

I hesitate to say this, but it seems like this pernicious and prevalent form of sympathetic magic is most at work in the belief systems of people who’ve ingested certain kinds of institutional religion (as opposed to folk religion). These religions tell people that there’s an all-knowing, judgmental deity watching over us and getting ready to sort us into behavior-appropriate afterlives; that things happen to us for a reason; and that there’s a definite link between how moral/faithful you are and what you deserve. And let’s not forget the persistent sex-negativity found in such religions, either.

Not all manifestations of sympathetic magic immediately draw my ire. Learning about cultural ways of linking causation and correlation is just a shape that folk belief takes, which is damn near universal, even among “civilized” people. The problem is when you’re not self-aware about the nature of these beliefs, or when you seem intent on imposing them on others.

I believe that, when consciously harnessed, people can and do use the principles of sympathetic magic to improve their lives (whether through placebo effect or the power of positive thinking or whatever you want to call it). If you’re thinking “like attracts like” and you hang out with more authors wanting to become an author yourself, well, I can’t really fault you for that. My pagan friends who use sympathetic magic in their rituals are participating in a time-honored tradition that has significance and impact for them. And the followers of above-mentioned institutional religions who associate themselves with a benevolent manifestation of deity and try to emulate it through good deeds that concretely help people are hopefully doing more good than harm in the world.

So why am I riled up about sympathetic magic showing up in the statements made by politicians?

Because at the end of the day, this is about consent. People basing their own actions and behaviors on these symbolic associations are doing it in their own lives. Politicians subjecting us to it through policy-making are forcing it on the rest of us.

I’m worried about getting health care once my Berkeley gig is over, since as an adjunct professor and freelance writer I kinda fall through the system’s cracks even though I work all the damn time. Having a uterus is practically a preexisting condition in this country. So of course I fret about these policies and how they might impact me, as well as millions of other Americans.

Bringing my scholarly toolkit to bear on social and political problems is one way I can add to the dialogue, and hopefully help. Because again, sympathetic magic isn’t inherently a bad thing, but people imposing their unexamined belief systems on others is. And that’s one thing I can do: contribute to better understanding of how culture and tradition impact us!

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