Coronavirus: Tricking people into thinking it’s moral to be judgmental

Your pastime of socially shaming people is dangerous

It is 4:30 am and I can’t sleep. I opened up Facebook to bore myself back to sleep but instead got riled up reading comments from people judging other people about Doing Coronavirus Wrong. I’m so tired of reading and hearing people judge and shame each other for how they cope in a pandemic, competing in an imaginary competition for Best, Smartest, Goodest, Most Socially Acceptable Person.

People are not wearing masks everywhere in public.

People are having a hard time parenting during quarantine while working.

People are going to beaches.

People are not standing exactly six feet behind other people at the grocery store.

People are finding other people with whom to hook up on Tinder, but are otherwise quarantining.

People are not wielding hands covered in sanitizer everywhere they go.

People are breathing in public. They’re probably farting, too.

People are monsters.

The argument is that we should each be able to go outside and get groceries and go for a walk without being endangered by other people. If everyone is not doing their absolute best to be as low-risk as possible, they are an inferior person who should be socially shamed and cast out of the village.

That story might make sense if the overall social risks and best behaviours were clear, but they’re not. Do we get out and support businesses or not? Do we keep the economy and our social systems afloat or destroy them? Do we try to prevent all people from ever getting Covid-19 or do we just flatten the curve?

Nothing is clear. Everything is part of a system of complexity. One outcome affects many people and systems differently. We are looking through a glass darkly. We don’t know the way forward.

Take masks, for example. Surgical masks do not protect people from airborne agents, so fabric ones are even less effective. They keep fluids from falling from your face onto surfaces and they keep you from touching your mouth and nose. However, you're also more likely to touch your face when wearing a mask, they are only effective for 3–8 hours, they have to be taken off in a very particular way and they absolutely should not be moved up and down on your face. As soon as you move a mask off your face, the whole thing needs to come off from the back and you need another one. And even if everything is worn and done perfectly, air still gets around them and plenty of studies show that they’re just not effective but they might be a little effective. In short, the jury is still out.

Tell that to the folks who want an easy way to judge the Good People from the Bad People. The Good People wear masks. The Good People at least put in an effort. Every religion has a way to recognize at a distance the people who are of their tribe—the righteous people. Let’s not make this pandemic our religion. Let’s evolve to a higher spirituality.

If you want to wear a mask because you can wear it properly and you think it’s worth the inconvenience and you feel good about the percentage of increased safety it grants you, and you want to protect others, I’m not going to judge you. I am going to judge people using and talking about masks as a symbol of social obedience and moral superiority because this is objectively socially harmful, not subjectively maybe socially harmful. People might as well wear t-shirts emblazoned, “I’m a good person so please approve of me.” Bonnie Henry said on May 12 that wearing a mask is not the most effective measure, in most situations is not needed and that we should not stigmatize people for wearing them or not wearing them.

When information is unclear or disputed, people will have different conclusions based on their different values and priorities. That’s just a part of living in the world. Not everyone is as worried about dying as the next person. Some people were about to kill themselves anyway so they’re fine with taking their chances with Covid-19. Not everyone has as much time as the next person. Not everyone can manage to be happy and anxious at the same time. Some people have traumatic backgrounds that are triggered by situations of control and stress. There are countless reasons why people are behaving differently and we don’t know their stories and so when situations are as unclear and emergent as coronavirus, the only sensible response is to be non-judgmental, patient, compassionate, and respectful of other people’s interpretations and decisions.

You are not winning first place for Best, Smartest, Goodest, Most Socially Acceptable Person of the Year, so you don’t need to jockey for position, shame other people so they lose some points. No one is the judge of this competition. You are not the judge. The competition is not real and you wouldn’t win anyway because there is guaranteed to be some way that you suck. I know this because we all suck and the amount we suck is arbitrary based on different value systems. Embrace the suck and love anyway.

An epidemiologist agrees with me

I just found this excellent Atlantic article, written by an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School comparing this pandemic to the AIDS crisis. Broad shaming and an all-or-nothing approach simply drove more gay sex underground and increased transmission rates in the 1980s.

Shaming is dangerous in multiple ways:

  • It increases miseducation as people are afraid to ask questions or make mistakes.
  • It incites people who are naturally rebellious and people prone to rebellion when control factors trigger childhood trauma, PTSD or complex PTSD.
  • It creates a cycle of increasingly amplifying hostilities. (We don’t have that enough with political disputes online and marginalization? Now we have to fight about how to pandemic right?)
  • It causes people who are already vulnerable to low self-esteem to feel unworthy of love, forgiveness, communion, and compassion.

The shrill indignation and smug superiority I hear about things like people running outside or laying at the beach around other people can hopefully be silenced with this information about transmission risks.

Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside.

When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers — all day; customers — an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low.

The risk is low.

If you want to reduce your risk to zero, you stay home. If you’re that afraid, you control your environment. Asking everyone else to be perfect for you or shaming them otherwise is not a winning strategy for how to win friends and influence people. People will make mistakes accidentally or they will just get tired and feel defeatist and make bad choices. But shaming other people is being a jerk on purpose. I don’t think that gets you into The Good Place either.

You cannot judge and love people at the same time

I am at a saturation point in my life of being able to handle listening to people judge others. It bores me at best. It hurts my heart and depresses me at worst. I don’t want to do it myself and I don’t want to listen to other people doing it.

Judging people is not love. It is fear that we are not “good enough,” requiring us to find other people with whom to compare ourselves and judge against so that we feel superior and worthy. Some people cannot feel grounded in their own unchanging worthiness. Their worthiness comes from a constantly evolving calculation based on everything they do and how it compares to everything everyone else does. Exhausting.

I want my life to be full of feelings of love, not fear. I would rather be alone and full of love than be in communion with other people who are communicating fear and insecurity via judgment. I would rather be friends with an imaginary volleyball person who is nice to me than have friends from whom I have to protect myself and with whom I can’t be a full, complicated, flawed person.

From now on, when someone around me harps judgmentally about other people bad at pandemic-ing, or anything at all, I hope I’ll be brave enough to tell them the truth: I don’t care. I get that some people are making choices that could potentially mean that they infect someone who then infects someone who dies. I still don’t care. It is not straightforward. No one is deliberately trying to kill anyone else and I’m not going to treat them as if they are. If this is your family member directly putting you at risk or you’re afraid for someone you love, that’s one thing. I’ll listen sympathetically. But if you want to talk to me about strangers in public and judge them, or people in general, I cannot show up for that. I don’t care what strangers do. I am not going to stroke your ego, reassuring you that you’re better and smarter than those people. I’ll think you should let everyone make their own decisions and extend them as much grace and positive assumptions as you can.

Is it so wild and unreasonable to think that we could build an entire society where people can be flawed, inconsistent, complicated, and still be treated with kindness, patience and respect? I don’t think so. All that needs to happen is that we each adopt and spread this message. Instead of trying to control each other through social shaming, we can try to persuade each other and inspire each other. We can get vulnerable, talk about our feelings about being impacted by each other, and share our opinions as opinions instead of as facts that immediately position us as argumentative. We can make ourselves open to being influenced, and we build a functional society of intelligent adults instead of mean playground brats. We can value gentleness, grace, and generosity more than being smart or correct.

This pandemic will eventually go away. But if we’re still here, we will be left with ourselves and what we did with our hearts and minds during this time. If being solitary and quiet during a time that is crushing for everyone can’t inspire the best in us, can’t draw us closer to humanity in love and forgiveness, what can? Who do you want to be when this is all done? The most correct, righteous person you know? Or the happiest, most loving person you know?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Ex-Mormon queer feminist trauma-informed writer. Embracing complexity, nuance, slow conflict, unknowing, non-judgment, love. natashacoulis@gmail.com