Paradoxes of Vulnerability

Issue 1809

23 August 2018

In his message for the First World Day of the Poor, celebrated November 19, 2017, Pope Francis stressed “how hard it is for our contemporary world to see poverty clearly for what it is.” And yet, “in myriad ways poverty challenges us daily, in faces marked by suffering.”[1]

Completing the otherwise abstract evaluation based on indices of vulnerability, poverty and human development – necessary but insufficient, as recognized by the United Nations Development Programme[2] – the pope invites us to consider the faces of the poor.

In order to see faces, and not just numbers, it is necessary to become personally involved in the life of the poor and to learn from them, walking together with them: “Promoting integral human development demands dialogue and engagement with people’s needs and aspirations, listening to the poor … initiating processes in which the poor are the principal actors and beneficiaries.”[3]

One of the trendy words for identifying poverty is “vulnerability.” The fact that this term is used in different academic disciplines is both an advantage and a risk. The positive side is that it allows for dialogue on common ground. The common usage makes it possible to bring together the riches of different points of view, a necessity given the complexity of the topic.

The risk lies in transposing indiscriminately the characteristics of a technical or physical vulnerability into the sphere of human vulnerability. This could lead to “vulnerability” becoming an abstract concept, obscuring the problem rather than making manifest the “invisible thread that links together all exclusions” that are suffered by the vulnerable.[4]

First of all, we will try to give structure and precision to the various meanings of the word “vulnerability” by examining its etymology and its various uses in different disciplines. Next, we will consider the paradoxes to which the term gives rise. Finally, we will propose a few thoughts that help us to become aware of how – by working to prevent various types of vulnerability – to heal those already afflicted and to care for the most vulnerable. This will show what is really at stake: the very fabric of society and its dignity.

 

Vulnerability as wound and blow

From an etymological point of view, vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnus, which means wound, sore, cut, blow, harm. It was used with both a passive and an active meaning: Una manus vobis vulnus opemque ferret,[5] “the same hand that wounds you, heals you.” In the High Court of the Balaeric Islands, Ovid’s expression is transformed into Vulnus opem ferret, “the wound points to the one who inflicted it” (to the action and to the author). In forensic medicine, it is said in an autopsy that “the body talks.”

When the wound is not visible in the flesh, when it is not possible to quantify it, when it is inflicted by an impersonal subject, it is harder to determine “what caused it” and the impact this has on other aspects of life.

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