THE BLOG
11/17/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Bullshitting Ebola

In high school in Kenya, I barely ever studied for my history exams. I learnt that even when I did not know the answer, I just needed to explain my statements well enough and I would score the points. We called it dotting. I imagined it was because when you are about to say something you are not sure of, you hesitate. So your pencil hesitates, dots, and the dots eventually join to say something. In the U.S., I was told to do the same thing. They call it "bullshitting" here. Even when you do not know, you should not admit it. You should give your opinion and sound confident.

I used to admire it -- the ability to pretend that you know. But with this Ebola crisis, I have realized that this is not a skill that schools and universities should be encouraging.

As a student at Yale, the administration has been deliberate about educating the community on Ebola. Even before the first case in the U.S. was reported, discussions about the disease were held on campus. I liked Yale for that. Ebola was not a Liberian, or Sierra Leonean or Guinean issue, but a global health issue that everyone should be concerned about.

Yet the administration's attitude is not always mirrored in the students' conversations. Sometimes when I listen to people commenting on Ebola, I can't help thinking that we are doing just what we were taught to do on tests. We are bullshitting on Ebola. It is impossible to know everything. But I am concerned that we are using only news headlines and not informative content to shape our discussions about Ebola, and the actions we are taking to help combat it. Throw the words "Obama", and "Africa", and "Ebola" in your remarks, and you can sound knowledgeable as you make conversation with fellow students the first few minutes before class starts, or at brunch with friends.

When I see the word Ebola on social media, my brain prepares for protest. Although I am aware that jokes can often be used to cope and to educate, the jokes on my timeline, from Facebook friends at Yale and from around the world, are instead stigmatizing and ill-informed. My memory has erased the dirt that these jokes were, leaving behind only the diamonds that were the responses some of my friends made to them. One joke was deleted after a Gambian friend commented: "There are people at Yale whose families have been affected by this thing that you joke about." And when another joke made me cringe, a Sudanese friend commented, "These Ebola jokes are going too far now."

Comments like these gave me comfort that more of the community than just those students with families affected by Ebola found the trivialization of Ebola offensive. Yet I wonder why more people at Yale do not think jokes and comments that dehumanize people from the countries affected are offensive.

In a Yale Daily News op-ed titled "Stemming the Tide of Ebola", the author makes statements that are misleading when commenting on travel bans against West Africans. Thanks to the information sessions at Yale, I knew as I read the article that even if the high profile Yale student with Ebola-like symptoms had tested positive for Ebola (he didn't), the author could not have been infected by an asymptomatic friend who had escorted another asymptomatic friend from the ER of that hospital. Moreover, travel bans can be discussed without alienating, and dehumanizing members of our community. But instead the author, while applauding the stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS in the past, says this about Ebola: "It's rampant in the population, and much of the spread comes from West Africans' skepticism about governments and health care." As some of my West African friends read this article, they were not only shocked by how much the author was misleading her audience, but also that it was not obvious to her that the West African members of the Yale community would find her article heartbreaking.

A Zimbabwean friend commented that it was a shame that the colonial language used in these discussions of Ebola still existed. She was right. In my history classes I learnt that to justify colonization, stories about Africans excluded experiences that showed their emotions and the reasons they did things a certain way, and tried to portray them as ignorant. It is unfair, for instance, to discuss skepticism about going to hospital without considering the emotions of letting your family members go away to these medical facilities with no assurance that they will come back, or while excluding the politics of Western medicine trials in low-income countries. Looking through a colonial lens made me understand why a professor would single me out in a room when speaking about Ebola, because I am from Kenya, nearly as far away from the countries affected in this outbreak as certain states in the U.S. are (although even if I was from Liberia, for example, I should not be stigmatized). "Maybe because Africa is this piece of land on which colonialists drew borders, it is impossible for many people to imagine that two Africans' experiences are so different," a friend said.

As I listened to stories about the stigmatization fellow African students were facing in various U.S. schools, I understood why I was reluctant every time someone tried to reach me to "give my comment on Ebola." Like the people who are choosing to stigmatize a community because of an uneducated fear, I would be promoting ignorance by bullshitting interviews where my only "qualification" to comment on Ebola was that I am from Kenya, a country that does not yet have any Ebola cases.

The reason this debate on bullshitting matters is that we students are likely to have authority in the media, in public health fields, and in foreign policy in our future careers. If we keep bullshitting, and ignoring scientific facts, and telling only half of the story, and believing stories that portray Africans as less human, then we are contributing to an unjust world. An email from Master Bradley, the master of my residential college, who has been at the forefront on educating the Yale community on Ebola, reads, "Many of the top people in DC on this issue -- the head of the CDC, the head of the FDA, and the special assistant to the Secretary of Health and Human Services are Yale graduates." It goes on to say, "Imagine -- many of you will be in professional roles with national and international responsibilities of sizable impact."

Although because of these efforts to educate Yale, and college students everywhere, on Ebola, this information should make me happy, it scares me too. If the same people who are going to ask my Rwandese friend if he has Ebola are going to be in charge of foreign policy, I feel scared. I am fearful that we will be in charge of directing public health policies when a friend tells me a scholar he was talking to at an event seemed afraid of him. When he said he was from Kenya, not the countries affected by the epidemic, she said, "Thank God." I feel anxious when more than 21 days after a friend's two-week visit to Ghana, a country that has had no Ebola cases so far, she was taken away in an ambulance, and a nose mask put on her, after running a fever. Yet while this stigmatization is awful, what concerns me more is that the energy we are focusing on making "Africans" and "Ebola" synonyms would be much better spent coming up with well-informed ways of helping those affected by the disease.

Graduates from Yale and other colleges are one day going to be in charge of telling the stories of people going through various crises, and shaping the kindness with which the world looks at them. We cannot continue to consider bullshitting harmless. The media is telling us stories but the only one that is true for sure is this: that people are suffering from Ebola, and Guinea, and Liberia, and Mali, and Nigeria, and Senegal, and Sierra Leone, and Spain, and the U.S., and the Congo (with a different strain) have been affected. As I write this I will glance at my Facebook timeline and a Kenyan friend who goes to Cornell will share, "CNN moves Monrovia, a coastal city, to somewhere in the middle of Liberia, and labels Cote D'Ivoire as Cute D'Ivoire." How do you bullshit a map, I wonder.

Like this student who writes an article in the Yale Daily News, several news reporters misrepresent the truth, and the local people in the countries affected by Ebola call them out. Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, says the Washington Post avoids crediting Nigerians for the success of wiping out Ebola, and reports instead that it was because of "ample funding, quick assistance from the WHO, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, and the non-profit Doctors Without Borders." Yet the direct quote from WHO credits, rather than external factors, the country's "strong leadership and effective coordination of the response."

Many times my friends and I message privately anyone who says something incorrect or offensive about Ebola. My message is now like a spoken word poem in my head: "empathy" and "these facts are wrong" and "I do not mean to attack you but..." Many people respond to the messages saying they had not thought about it that way before. I am glad they are willing to listen, but I wonder why it takes these messages for us to feel that we are talking about human beings who deserve empathy.

There is a lot of pressure when we are in college to know everything. As I take my food in dining halls at Yale, deciding between the chicken tenders and the pork, words such as "Gaza" and "the elections in Scotland" and "Ebola" float to my ears. And I shrink a little because of how much I do not know, but maybe this is better than bullshitting.