The intermingled beauty and horror of social media is the empowerment of anyone, in human or bot form, to freely express (in countries without filtering) any opinion, on any topic, to any number of people. In this time of pandemic, well-meaning people the world over have sought to reinforce and lift up information considered vital and correct, to the best of one’s current knowledge, and in an ever-changing situation. In the initial weeks, strident messaging around this slow-growing crisis has variously included:
“panic is the enemy, this is no worse than the flu”
“if you’re healthy go to and support your local businesses in this time of crisis”
“masks don’t do any good, they’re too hard to learn how to wear properly”
“how dare all those insecure people go overboard buying too much food”
Each of these statements, not so long ago, seemed a correct and constructive idea to promote. Each mirrored a praiseworthy sentiment. And in my view, each is out of date.
As this crisis worsens, with more people filling increasingly overwhelmed hospitals, there’s going to be a very strong temptation to assign blame. Why didn’t more people wash their hands?! Why didn’t those people at whatever event keep their distance?! Why does that person down the street have a mask when my aunt who’s a nurse doesn’t have one?! These sentiments aren’t necessarily wrong, but it’s easy to blame the person rather than the situation. Blame gives way to anger, anger gives way to rage, and to emotional or physical expression. This could be arguing on the internet, this could be casual racism, this could be crimes of domestic or public violence. We know this, because this cycle has emerged in other places that have been hit harder and faster than us in the USA. And we’re starting to see it here as well.
It’s a wonderful thing to spread the word of best practices for isolation, sanitation, and preparedness among your network of friends and colleagues. Peer pressure is a reasonable strategy for promoting social distancing and hygiene, two things that are indisputably necessary to pause the spread of COVID-19.
On the other hand, it’s awfully tempting to frame this information in an inflammatory way. “How dare…” “Stay the hell away…” “What were they thinking…” “I can’t believe…” “Look at those people…” “Why did they…” are all preambles to a moralizing online discourse that, lacking specificity and context, can lead to an eventual atmosphere of blame and accusation among readers who lack nuance.
Look, I’m no different. I’ve allowed myself to yell online about issues I’m passionate about, and while it felt good and earned me some likes among my particular circle of peers, it also likely diffused my message among the people that I’d really intended to reach. I try not to do it often, but when I submit to the temptation, these exchanges nearly always remind me that this way of communicating doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t give me the results I want, it just creates a swirl of accusation and anger. If not now, later. And I don’t think this sort of exchange is going to be helpful as this particular event, with its accompanying cocktail of fear and despair, progresses.
With the exception of the survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Boston Marathon Bombings, New York during 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, and select other horrific events and eras, the vast majority of Americans who haven’t served in the armed forces have not known the kind of death and despair that has rained down on other parts of the world. We’re not used to it, and when bad things happen it’s natural and easy to look for individuals to which to attach blame.
I’m not talking about people with actual administrative power, or governments or administrations writ large, whose actual job it is to deal with these things in a constructive way, and who should be correctly held to account for their actions, bad and good, by informed investigative journalism. I’m specifically talking about individuals, people we see and people we know, people with whom we interact or observe or describe as we live our lives in uncertainty and message one another online.
What I don’t want to read is, “why didn’t so and so just wash their hands before spreading the virus to those people” when regularly maintaining a medical level of sanitation is in fact not an easy task. I don’t want to read “why didn’t those people in that situation wear masks!” when for weeks people have reinforced the “masks don’t help” message which has covered for a dire shortage of masks which must correctly be prioritized for medical centers, while every country with a tradition and history of mask usage is encouraging masks in public as part of their containment strategy, and medical personnel are being instructed to use bandannas as a last resort. I scroll right past people tut-tutting about whomever is stocking up on food; screenwriter Javier Grillo-Marxuach tweeted it best:
i’ve read a lot of contemptuous twaddle about how people are “panicking” in the current crisis. i counter that stocking up is a rational response from anyone who has been alive to witness the federal government’s ability to provide disaster relief over the last twenty years.
— javier grillo-marxuach (@OKBJGM) March 18, 2020
(And no, I’m not suggesting that hoarding a storage-locker full of sanitizer or baked beans to sell on the black market is morally praiseworthy, but I’m not about to throw stones at a family of four that feels it necessary to buy four weeks worth of food because they can’t afford delivery and they’re not sure how self isolation or unemployment will work in this unprecedented situation.)
Our best information is changing on a daily basis. What’s obvious today may be obviously wrong tomorrow. People are trying to promote the right thing, but information is coming from a cacophony of sources, and unfortunately factual information isn’t always the winner in the marketplace of ideas. People will get things wrong, they’ll do the wrong thing or believe the wrong information, and the virus will spread, and people will be affected. These instances will be tragic, and should provide us with an object lesson, but the temptation will be strong to pillory others in online discourse.
What I’m truly afraid of is that, once people we know start dying, chiding turns into blaming, and blame stokes the fires of anger to increase ugly exchanges. I fully realize that you know what you mean when you make your impassioned case for what someone did wrong. Give a thought to what someone else, someone with preconceived ideas not aligned with your own, might think when you say that thing.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out when bad things happen. I’m observing that the way we phrase our observations matters. I don’t believe I’m abridging anyone’s right to free speech by suggesting, in this time of fear and crisis, that we all consider the wording of the messages we put into the world as carefully as screenwriters evaluate each line of dialog in a script. For nearly any message worth expressing, the miracle of language provides a wide variety of emotional contexts we can use. How we employ that is the art of communication. I’ll try harder. I invite you to join me.
It’s not self-censorship. It’s editing.
The (currently closed) movie theater marquis at the top of this post is up the street from me, and I love their parting message. Be kind. Stay safe. In the end, if you need to assign blame, blame the virus.