We Have Reached Critical Mass

Humans learn best through narrative. A narrative gives context to an issue or situation, making it easier for humans to understand and relate to circumstances. That contextual fabric helps humans remember as well. This is probably because early social groups communicated exclusively through oral narrative, although I actually have no idea if that’s true. It sounds reasonable.

We now communicate largely through social media. From the beginning, social media connected far flung friends and relatives, made connecting with new acquaintances from far away a possibility, and allowed us to share the things we find interesting, heart warming, or funny. It still does. But it now has a darker side—the exploitation of narrative.

Narratives around every news report and social issue pop up like mushrooms after a summer storm. The sheer volume of information being hurled at us in real time is so overwhelming that we have a tendency to search for the narratives to connect the dots and make sense of the chaos. This in itself is not unreasonable.

It is dangerous, though, when you search only for the narratives that will support your entrenched opinion about things. I see a deep divide among conservatives and progressives, particularly regarding the social unrest surrounding racial issues. That’s not a new thing, of course. However, social media presents so many narratives that are designed to obscure facts and circumstances that conflict with the originator’s views. Case in point, a recent conversation with a conservative friend from way back brought up this little gem: “Seems the violence, riots, vandalism, street blocking are done by the liberals. I cannot support those actions. Not sure many liberals want their houses, businesses, roads destroyed.”

And there it is. The threadbare narrative that liberals are trying to destroy society altogether. The President has been pushing this narrative hard as a desperate attempt to shore up his base and frighten them into re-electing him this fall. And my conservative friend has fallen into the trap.

And so, my response to the trembling conservatives who fear liberals more than they fear COVID-19:

Many conservatives have accepted the narrative that it is “the liberals” who are rioting, blocking streets, or looting. However, these things are being done by people on every point in the political spectrum, and by a great many who consider themselves apolitical, because they find that they can’t create meaningful change through traditional channels. Our society has rules. Most of these rules were put into place to maintain the status quo, although they were sold to the public as a way to protect them. In fact, the segments of society that need the most protection are the ones who benefit the least from said rules. At some point the frustration reaches critical mass and … here we are.

For a conservative white male who has played by the rules, you will probably feel as things have worked out just fine. Find yourself in the shoes of a woman who makes only 81% of the salary of a man doing the same job (btw – it used to be 87%, it has gone DOWN. It is much lower yet for minority women), and you will feel differently. Or the shoes of the father of a young black man with no criminal record who was killed by police or vigilantes for walking down the street “looking suspicious”. Or the shoes of a native american who has tried legal avenues to block the construction of an oil pipeline across their land, only to lose the fight, followed by an oil spill from that very pipeline. Or have the government tell you that you can’t close roads in your reservation in order to protect your people from COVID-19. Or the shoes of a minority trying to get a mortgage for a home, only to be told that the home doesn’t appraise high enough (even though the appraiser values comparable homes in white neighborhoods at two or more times higher value). Or the shoes of a woman who reported a rape and finds out YEARS later that her rape kit was never even processed.

These problems are not your problems. They don’t touch your life directly (though they may touch family members or friends). You need to stretch on this and I know it makes many people uncomfortable. I’m not asking anyone to go along with destruction, but just try to imagine the hopelessness that lies behind the eyes of those out there on the streets protesting racial injustice, poverty wages, or marching for women’s rights. And yes, there are always opportunists who are taking advantage of situations like this. We should not in anyway excuse them, nor applaud violence by the disaffected. The point is that we need to understand the “why” and fix those problems.

We have reached critical mass.

Social Distancing for the Misanthrope

Here in this age of pandemic, misanthropes are struggling with the stay at home orders, working at home and social distancing.

Just kidding. We were made for this. We never want life to return to the soul-sucking daily grind of trying to please people we can’t stand because they hold sway over our livelihood. We never again want to accept a dinner party invitation for fear of offending the host whose idiotic prattle makes us want to gouge our eyeballs out with a spoon. We Never. Ever. want to enter another WalMart.

Misanthropes are always misunderstood by those who count themselves among the pleasanter types. But we are really not so complicated. It was best said by Keats: “I admire Human Nature, but I do not like Men. I should like to compose things honourable to Man—but not fingerable over by Men.” Misanthropes want to improve humanity and the society that serves them, they just don’t want to have to participate in it. And lately, we have even more reason to be wary.

The fact that wearing a mask has become a divisive issue is really astonishing. Why this might be requires a bit of unpacking, although that almost makes it sound as if logic might be involved in some way. It is not.

The tiresome “You’re not the boss of me” argument is trotted out on the news every evening by someone who thinks they might survive a COVID-19 infection with a mere tickle in his throat. Maybe, but that’s really not the point.

It’s inexplicable that with all the data that has been released since the beginning of the pandemic, anyone might still believe that they are the only ones in danger if they are infected—and that they can manage it just fine, thank you very much. Far too many people who seem otherwise healthy have not managed it just fine. (Think it’s only the aged that are hospitalized with it? Check out these charts here.) These same people get in their car to drive to work each morning and fasten their seat belt. Wearing it is mandated, and yet if you don’t, your life is the only one in danger in case of an accident. They snap in without a second thought. Similarly, a round of Russian Roulette or climbing a tall building clinging to the lightning rod in an electrical storm would endanger none but yourself. You might survive the experience unscathed, but only the unhinged will take the chance. So if logic prevailed, even presuming that no one but you is endangered by running about unmasked, you would put the mask on.

But others are endangered. To know that it’s possible to spread the disease to others before you know that you yourself are sick makes it the height of irresponsibility to mill about in public without precautionary measures. And we do know that others are endangered.

Dr. Bradley Dreifuss is director of rural and global emergency medicine programs at the University of Arizona College of Medicine at Tucson. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times on June 26, 2020 (you can read the entire article here), he makes a startlingly clear argument for taking responsibility for the safety of others as well as yourself:

If you do not wear a mask and physically distance, you are putting yourself and others in harm’s way. You are putting us in harm’s way. Then you will expect us to risk our lives to save you. And it’s not just we whom you ask to risk our lives, but our families as well. What you are saying to people like me and my team is, “Your life and the lives of your loved ones do not matter to us; you are disposable.”

Why do this? How can you live with yourself if you discover you have the virus, and had had unknowingly passed it to your mother, the doctor who cares for you, your sweet neighbor who always has cookies for the neighborhood kids, the friend who takes you fishing on his boat, your favorite drinking buddy? Maybe you think they are all healthy, but as referenced above, that it no guarantee they won’t need hospitalization, or that they even can survive the virus. Will it be worth it? Aren’t the stakes a little too high for you to take the chance? What will be your consolation when your spouse is dead because you refused to be cautious?

You may feel that you have been rickrolled, reading an essay about misanthropes and social distancing that somehow morphed into a plea for masking your face in public. Tough. These are arguments that need to be heard.

I, for one, will stay at home and snuggle up with my cat while re-reading A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Dafoe and making plans for the coming apocalypse.