As one interested in language use and communication, I was pretty excited about the recent pronouncement of the Pope about condoms and the way newspapers, blogosphere, and even friends and acquaintances interpreted it.
When I recently asked a friend about what he thought about the Pope's comment, he said, "Oh, very embarrassing! For a Pope to say in public to hundreds of thousands of Africans that they shouldn't use condoms..."
I said, "But actually, he didn't make his comment in public to thousands of Africans! He was with some reporters on a flight, and while inside the plane, he tried to answer a few questions that the reporters posed. And that's how he happened to say what he said."
"But still, it doesn't seem sensible to say that people shouldn't be using condoms!"
"Well, maybe he personally thinks people shouldn't be using condoms... but in that response to a reporter he didn't exhort people not to use condoms... he was simply answering how he saw the problem of AIDS in Africa and what he thought was the solution."
"But didn't he quite explicitly say that using condoms increases AIDS rather than decreasing it?"
"No! The Pope was talking about condoms being widely distributed like ad leaflets, and said that mere distribution of condoms was not going to solve the AIDS problem, but might increase the problem! His comment was not about use but about distribution."
"Oh, well, whatever he said, he was wrong!"
Obviously, my friend is not the only one who got the impression or who made up in his mind after following the media reports that the Pope was blatantly preaching to the masses, "Don't use condoms! Using it will only increase cases of AIDS!" Readers and hearers got that impression since the media frequently omitted mentioning the context of the Pope's comment and the fact that the Pope was reacting to the distribution rather than to the use of condoms.
What's baffling is that even major newspapers like the Washington Post misinterpret the comment just like my friend. The Post wrote:
Pope Benedict XVI said, "You can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect -- and neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so.
Now if we examine this paragraph, we see that the Post explicitly states that the Pope reacted to "the distribution of condoms" and that the pronoun "it" in "it increases the problem" refers to the distribution [singular], not to condoms [plural]. And yet, the Post continues, "In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect...," implying the Pope spoke about "use" rather than "distribution."
What is the Post reacting to? That is the linguistic, rather the sociolinguistic, question. Whatever it is reacting to, it is definitely not to what the Pope said in this interview or to anything he has said previously, for according to reports this Pope has said so far little about condoms!
Now the next paragraph in the Post goes:
Are condoms foolproof protection against infection by HIV, which causes AIDS? No. Sometimes they break, and sometimes people put them on incorrectly. Still, doctors on the front lines of the fight against the AIDS epidemic established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV, the cause of a disease that has no cure.
Here the Post is trying to give the impression of being objective, by conceding that condoms are not foolproof since they are misued and break sometimes--addressing an issue which has nothing to do with what the Pope said. The Pope spoke of 'distribution,' but the Post completely ignores it and goes after what happens when condoms are 'used'. Improper use and breakage of condoms have nothing to do with the massive distribution of condoms, which is the target of the Pope's criticism. The Pope definitely doesn't state or imply that condoms are ineffective because they break or because people misuse them!
What is paradoxical is that the Washington Post tries to be so very commonsensical and enlightened by insinuating that it is not so unrealistic as the Pope, while failing to realize that in fact, it is even more unrealistic than the Pope in assuming that the mere distribution of condoms leads to reduction in AIDS, when not even in Washington, D.C. such a causal correlation has been established.
Moreover, as is well-known, condoms must be worn consistently and correctly in order to be effective; but "the world isn't perfect" as the Post wisely reminds us, and so the Post is as unrealistic as, if not even more unrealistic than, the Pope in presuming that most people wear the condom consistently and correctly and thus contribute to reducing HIV. "The evidence says so," says the Post confidently contradicting the Pope, but the evidence actually is against the Post! Surveys show that most people do not use the condom correctly or consistently--and hence the reduction of HIV due to condom use is negligible [See Dr. Green's interview below]!
The distinction between "use" and "distribution" is not mere semantic nit-picking! In the given context of Africa, the "distribution" that the Pope criticized has been identified as a major problem by even secular researchers. No one disputes that under laboratory conditions condoms help reduce HIV; but the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on buying and distributing condoms as if they are the panacea for AIDS has been questioned by many researchers, the most notable being Edward Green of Harvard University. As an academic, the Pope must have read Green's writings and those of others like him, and that was what prompted him to criticize the distribution. Benedict, a life-long academic, is too smart to say that condoms must not be used because they break sometimes!
Discourse-wise it seems obvious that the Post and many other newspapers like it are simply reacting to some stimulus that is not in the given discourse. There is clearly some misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or failure of communication. What triggered the failure can only be speculated.
Perhaps they see the Pope--the representative of a religion that is known to discourage extramarital liaisons and the use of prophylactics in marital unions-- saying something about condoms for the first time, and immediately react to what he might have said or intended. They ignore the immediate context and the actual sentence, because they have nothing to say about it, and jump to a related topic about which they have much to say.
It could be that they create a straw man in order to attack him and push their own pro-prophylactic values. As is obvious, it is the strawman, not the Pope, who said anything about the actual use of condoms.
Or it could be that they are not aware of the debate among African experts on the merits and demerits of distributing an excessive amount of condoms!
If even classy newspapers misinterpret the Pope, one can imagine what goes on in blogosphere! I read a few blogs, and they are hilarious. They offer lots of fodder for miscommunication research. Most critical bloggers simply give AIDS statistics as if the stats alone are enough to prove their point that the Pope is wrong (a strategy adopted by the Post too!). They conveniently ignore the statistics related to condom distribution and the fact that the Pope has no dispute with statisticians. Most tend to criticize the Church's anti-prophylactic stand, but that's an entirely different issue unrelated to what the Pope said about the African situation. The condom use policy is not the one under discussion. Blogosphere also reveals that there is no shortage of 'wise' men and women who enjoy giving the Pope derogatory titles wholly based on their own ignorance and subjective interpretation!
Setting the study of miscommunication aside, I shall leave the readers with this thought-provoking quotation from National Review Online:
“The pope is correct,” [Edward C.] Green [Director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies] told National Review Online Wednesday [3/18], “or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that “condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”Readers who may like to pursue this topic will find the following URLs of interest. Any Internet search on the topic will bring up many more links. I invite the readers, if they can, to keep track of anyone who has paid attention, especially in their criticism, to the fact that the Pope spoke of 'distribution' and not 'use' of condoms. My guess is the count will be zero!
“There is,” Green adds, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”
Green added: “I also noticed that the pope said ‘monogamy’ was the best single answer to African AIDS, rather than ‘abstinence.’ The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).”
NRO quoting Green on Pope
Wisom of Whores: Is the Pope a Scientist?
Washington Post: Condom Sense
UNAids and myth of condoms efficacy against Aids [Some behind the scene politics!]