The Morality Play of Pandemic Shaming

The Morality Play of Pandemic Shaming

Photographs of crowded parks started to appear across my social media feeds sometime in May. The weather was beginning to warm, and public health experts had deemed the outdoors an acceptable place to gather if proper social distancing was maintained. Quickly, though, these photos became a flashpoint in discussions about appropriate pandemic behavior.

The cycle usually went like this: Someone would tweet a photo—usually out of anger or frustrationthe tweet would go viral, and for the next 24 hours or so, Twitter users would viciously debate the image. Some would argue that the people in the photo were reckless and irresponsible, putting themselves and others in danger, while others would maintain that what they were doing was essentially safe, or point out that the photo distorted reality. This cycle repeated itself with debates about joggers, masks, take-out, ordering things online, beaches, outdoor dining, indoor dining, and, most recently, holiday travel.

Twitter rarely allows for consideration of the nuances of human behavior, and, like most forms of social media, encourages users to make swift, uncomplicated judgments. This baseline dynamic has been exacerbated by the pandemic, an “uncertain time,” as we’re endlessly reminded, that some have responded to by reaching for absolute certainty. But definitive pronouncements of good pandemic behavior were just one kind of message people have received over the last several months: At the same time as Twitter users lectured people for dining inside, sharing images of masked wait staff serving unmasked patrons, restaurant owners begged people to dine out. And after all, it was allowed—though not necessarily because it was safe, but because state governments would not provide adequate assistance to restaurants to keep them open. People rendered hasty verdicts against those who had gone home to be with family and couples who visited each other during lockdown, in many instances without considering the particular circumstances that might inform these decisions.

And this is the central problem of these judgments: During a time that should demand more empathy, more awareness of privilege, where it’s both present and absent, many have opted instead to paper over nuance with self-satisfied universal declarations. Pandemic scolding surely comes from a place of fear and frustration. The pandemic fucking sucks; thousands of people have and are dying and everyone would all like it to be over as soon as possible. The absence of clear guidelines from federal and state governments has created the feeling that citizens have been left to take matters into their hands. Social media seemed to respond by creating a manual of good behavior and subsequent punishment when the unwritten code was violated. It’s telling who exactly was allowed to write the rules.

During a time that should demand more empathy, more awareness of privilege, where it’s both present and absent, many have opted instead to paper over nuance with self-satisfied universal declarations

Pronouncements about how strictly one has been quarantining (“Second lockdown?” one popular tweet read, “I never left the first”) are usually made without any acknowledgment of the privilege that affords such rigid confinement. The majority of Americans are still commuting to work some or all of the time, and economic class is perhaps the greatest determinant of whether one is able to work remotely. According to Pew research, low-income workers are far less likely to have the option to work from home.

Regardless, self-appointed experts on public health and safety abound, and the tone of their mandates is usually not kind. Recently, I bookmarked a tweet from a television writer with hundreds of thousands of followers, reminding anyone reading that if they went home for Thanksgiving they would be “facilitating a tidal wave of [the] virus coming to kill vulnerable people.” Another person with a large platform retweeted an opinion piece calling on people to stop shaming those who were considering Thanksgiving travel, writing, “Opinion: No.” These messages seemed to assume that most other people share their lifestyle and enjoy the same relative comforts that come with it. They made their focus the individuals making the decision to travel, rather than the government officials who had made that choice unsafe.

These judgments aren’t exclusive to social media. Major media outlets have shared their own photos of crowds in parks or on city streets to argue that people have given up on the pandemic. In some cases, these photos were shot using lenses that make people and objects appear closer together than they are in real life. The lede of an August New York Times piece used the example of “three sisters from three different boroughs” sharing a bench on the Coney Island boardwalk to illustrate people’s disregard for the virus—the sort of behavior that public health experts deemed relatively safe then, as we know it to be now.

For the purposes of online scolding, these basic facts are almost beside the point. The pandemic is treated as the backdrop of a morality play in which each person embodies an absolute moral value: People who stay inside and abide by the rules are good and responsible; those who don’t are selfish, negligent at best and criminal at worst. But illness isn’t a moral lesson, especially as governments, both state and local, have failed their citizens in every way imaginable. The federal government has left Americans without additional covid relief for the last five months, leaving millions of people with thousands of dollars in outstanding bills. The little financial assistance Americans have received has paled in comparison to the kind of assistance residents in many other countries benefit from, which has helped people keep their jobs and feed their families. Donald Trump undermined nearly every recommendation coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and left it up to individual states as to what restrictions they want to impose if they wish to do so at all. Though the Biden administration has rolled out a new plan, some states remain resistant to federal assistance. (The governor of Florida, for example, said that Biden “going to create these FEMA camps, I can tell you, that’s not necessary in Florida.”)

Even as social media appeals to the importance of following the “rules,” epidemiologist Ellie Murray said that the rules can be inconsistent, confusing, and contradictory. Often there are no rules, only socially enforced ideas of how one should act. In states like Florida, there are virtually no government-enforced protocols, and restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters remain open; a dozen states have no mask requirement in effect. And even in states where there are relatively stringent mandates, it can be difficult to determine what the “right” thing to do is or to figure out whether the “right” thing and the safe thing are the same.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, for example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 10 people at private residences, but allowed indoor dining to remain open over the holiday, which meant those same 10 people could choose instead to go sit inside at a restaurant and dine alongside people they don’t know. (But only until the 10 p.m. curfew—another covid protocol Murray said doesn’t reflect scientific consensus or common sense.)

“Unless the government is putting forward a plan that is actually sufficient to control the spread of the virus, it’s actually extremely damaging to say that people aren’t following the rules because the rules just are not good enough,” Murray said. “Even if everyone followed the rules there would still be a pandemic.”

A love of rules and a desire to publicly admonish those who don’t abide by them has the flavor of a distinctly white, middle-class phenomenon. I know I’m not alone in observing that those who feel they have the most authority to comment on others’ behavior are often those able to keep themselves safe. In an April New Yorker piece, a Queens doctor named Hashem Zikry told Rivka Galchen about the moment this thought occurred to him: “After my shift, I went for a run in Central Park, and I see these two women out in, like, full hazmat suits, basically, and gloves, screaming at people to keep six feet away while they’re power walking,” he recalled. “And I’m thinking, You know what, you’re not the ones who are at risk.”

Even if everyone followed the rules there would still be a pandemic

A friend of mine, Becca Schuh, a freelance writer and bartender, told me this was partly the source of her frustration when, soon after outdoor dining opened, she saw people using Twitter as a soapbox to argue that it was unethical to patronize restaurants because of the risks to service workers.

“For people who never have worked in restaurants to decide they have this ability to not just comment on [dining during the pandemic] but to decide for others what is safe and moral is so self-centered and ridiculous,” Schuh said.

The people who were making these authoritative statements, she said, seemed to largely belong to the “bougie professional class” of people who had the ability to work from home. In this context, Schuh couldn’t help but see it as blatant virtue signaling. “People are so desperate to virtue signal that they’ll just come up with an opinion on restaurants out of their ass,” she said. “They want to be like, ‘I’m on the right side of everything!’”

Virtue signaling and performativity are both endemic to social media. Though neither discounts the existence of genuine feeling—concern, shock, outrage—this way of expressing it can be a tool for elevating oneself and putting others down. In my experience, it’s also usually a reaction against the guilt someone has about their privilege, a way of reassuring people that they’re aware of it, and that they’re an ally to others who don’t occupy the same position.

Citing a 2019 study on virtue signaling, the New York Times reported that evolutionary scientists have hypothesized that the concept of morality itself “arose precisely as a way of signaling one’s trustworthiness in cooperative endeavors” (like, say, controlling the spread of a deadly virus). But that doesn’t mean that this rhetorical mode is helpful. Mantras like “wear a fucking mask” aren’t changing anyone’s minds, and people are unlikely to listen to those who seem to be speaking of a place of moral superiority.

Shaming simply doesn’t work as a means of persuasion, a lesson we might have learned from past public health crises. Instead of reminding people of their obligation to each other, harsh admonishments end up layering stigma onto the virus, and make people less likely to seek out help if they begin presenting symptoms or cooperate with contact tracing if they do contract the virus. People’s instinct is usually to hide the behavior people are angry about—like attending a party, or having a large Christmas celebration—rather than stop it. Isn’t that what the Instagram “close friends” feature is for lately?

“You want to try to recognize why someone might be doing behaviors you’re recommending against,” Glen Nowak, the former communications director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Immunization Program, told me. “It may either be because it’s a habit and they do it mindlessly, or because they have some value [attached to it]—they need to go to work, they need the money; maybe they have family members who are old and sick, and they value the connection with those family members.”

In a recent piece for Hazlitt, Rachel Connolly put pandemic shaming in the context of gossip. Over the last several months, she’d been following a friend of a friend’s soap opera-like saga, which involved two brothers who were interested in the same woman. Between installments, other friends told her stories that were thematically similar to ones I’ve heard too: People had violated lockdown mandates, someone had thrown a secret wedding; another person discovered that they had been charged more than their fair share in rent when they moved into a new apartment.

The piece made me think about the uses of gossip, and how it works when it’s exchanged person to person rather than in public, on a social media platform. Discussing how other people are behaving during such an extraordinary event can be a way of imagining what it might be like to be another person, someone with different needs, priorities, and moral principles. Perhaps there is a way to do it more generously, to accept that we may be judged the same way we judge others, and that in most cases, none of us has the right to claim the moral high ground.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me that he was thinking of flying over the Christmas holiday to visit his grandmother, whose memory was quickly deteriorating; he wasn’t sure for how much longer she would remember him. I considered what I would do if I was in his situation, which was so different from mine—my grandparents are all dead, and my parents live just a little more than an hour away (much like the average American’s parents, it’s worth noting). Could the maxim “stay home” apply so neatly to him?

For the holidays, the CDC advised abstaining from travel completely, but recommended ways to mitigate risk if one traveled anyway. If one were attending a gathering, have it be a small one. If you can, have it outside. If you can’t, wear masks; open a window if possible. If it’s not possible to open a window, crank the AC or circulate the heat. The government’s recommendations seemed to acknowledge shades of complexity, but such a decision—to go visit an elderly grandparent, for example—would be excoriated on Twitter, this I was sure of.

Over dinner with a different friend not long after, I learned that someone had termed a picnic gathering I attended the Saturday news outlets called the presidential race for Biden—which did not seem unsafe to me—a “superspreader” event. It had been a warm and lively day in the park, the kind I’d seen in viral photos in May.

I thought about those most human desires: to be liked, to be right, to be safe. I thought about the illusion of safety—the belief that if we do everything right nothing bad will happen to us. This is never the case of course, but it is especially untrue during the pandemic. The instinct to suggest otherwise, to moralize illness, isn’t unique to coronavirus. As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Disease as Political Metaphor,” when diseases take on meaning it is “invariably a moralistic one.” While the disease itself may be the ultimate culprit, so are the people infected with that disease.

The notion that avoiding contracting a potentially fatal virus is not simply a matter of following the rules and doing the right thing is difficult to face, but fully appreciating it may be the beginning of empathy and understanding. That doesn’t mean completely relinquishing any sense of responsibility to other people; it’s to acknowledge that in most situations we cannot be so certain we are behaving more correctly than someone else. It may not matter in the end anyway: People who are extra careful can get sick, just as those who are (or appear to be) careless might.

“Unless you can completely enclose yourself in a bubble from the world everything you do has some risk; you can try to lower that but you can’t make it go to zero,” Murray said. “People who get the virus don’t necessarily get it because they’ve gone something wrong. There’s no magic formula to who gets sick and who doesn’t.”

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