As is now customary with the passing of public figures, social media exploded with condolences
for the family of the late Mayor Rob Ford
on Tuesday, making it clear that a man once the subject of merciless ridicule
was now being afforded a level of sympathy and kindness unfathomable just a few short years ago.
Across the Internet and media, punchlines have largely been replaced by dignified tributes, and crude caricatures by staid, objective reporting. Why? Because Rob Ford, alive as an alcoholic, was apparently less deserving of compassion and understanding than Rob Ford, now dead from cancer.
True, the fond remembrances and generous consolations are heartening, refreshing expressions of decency towards a family in grieving, and yes, they should be acknowledged and welcomed as such. To be clear, however, they are also the indisputable byproduct of the type of image makeover nobody wants — a cancer diagnosis.
Fueling Ford's trajectory from viciously mocked to politely mourned, his cancer demonstrated how malleable our emotional responses are in light of our moralizations. Rob Ford was, after all, a man who suffered from two life-threatening diseases but garnered sympathy for only one. Perhaps that dichotomy is worth us, as a society, examining.
When I first wrote about Ford for CNN in 2013
, I hoped to make the point that he wasn't that different from many people all around you — outwardly successful while secretly buckling under the weight of alcohol or drugs — and that addiction is a nondiscriminatory predator that strikes everywhere. But despite addiction's widespread presence and nonbiased grasp, a significant majority of society still doesn't view it — or react to it — the way we do other, less stigmatized diseases that makes us want to reach out and support the sufferer.
In fact, it wasn't until Ford was diagnosed with what is unequivocally accepted as a "real" disease that many were able to accept, forgive and even admire him for his fight to survive. Sadly for the hundreds of thousands of people who die from the disease of addiction every year, such acceptance and forgiveness never comes.
In a study
published the year after Rob Ford first made international headlines for his struggles with drugs and alcohol, researchers from Johns Hopkins found that 90% of people would not want someone with addiction to marry into their family, and 78% did not want to work alongside addicted people.
Furthermore, survey respondents were more willing to accept discriminatory practices against persons with drug addiction, more skeptical about the effectiveness of treatments, and more likely to oppose policies aimed at helping them. It is impossible to even conceive of similar statistics for cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, and you won't see "Saturday Night Live" doing a sendup
of a politician's COPD or epilepsy symptoms anytime soon.
Why is it that we continue to deride sufferers of one disease and openly project benevolence and humanity towards victims of another? Is emotional parity for diseases truly beyond our capacity, even between two that are felling ourselves and neighbors at a frequency and volume that leaves no life untouched?
Despite the fact that excessive drinking is responsible
for one in 10 deaths among working-aged Americans, or that drug overdose is the leading cause
of accidental death in the United States, we rarely see the type of outward support for, and rallying around, people struggling with addiction as we do other illnesses.
Families are often times left to shoulder their emotional burden alone in shame and silence, an injustice made final when underlying causes of death are cloaked behind less scrutiny-inviting terms like "liver failure," or "heart disease."
Although even many forms of cancer itself are caused
by heavy drinking, you're unlikely to see blameworthy "alcoholism" listed in the obituary of a throat cancer victim. After all, few families left behind would choose to diminish sympathy and invite judgment for their deceased loved one. But is a forced choice between honesty and sympathy really the best we can do?
In the absence of available proof to the contrary, I'll make the assumption that Rob Ford would have been extended at least some level of eulogistic courtesy had his other disease taken his life. At least that's what I'll hope. But what we can't overlook is how compassion and empathy were scarce commodities during his high-profile battle with addiction, and how they shouldn't have been.
Addiction is a sadly pervasive struggle in our world, present in your neighborhood and mine. The Rob Fords of the world are all around us, and they shouldn't have to die of cancer before we can view them humanely, on social media or otherwise.