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The Perils of Distance-Shaming in the Coronavirus Outbreak

We stand to gain little by getting mad at photos of crowds

The impulse to call other people stupid is terribly powerful. It’s a pleasure to say, in effect: I have a better brain than you do. The mind reassures itself this way, and in the age of COVID-19, when we’re feeling starved for comfort and a sense of control, the dummies who flout pandemic protocol are targets of that intellectualized contempt. Cruising the subreddit r/InsanePeopleFacebook the other day — a vast archive of screencapped posts by users totally untethered from reality — I saw photos of a sizable gathering, with a caption that explained this event was in defiance of “unconstitutional” anti-contagion measures. “Dining in public at the restaurant of our choice. Freedom is never negotiable. #FakePandemic,” read the rest.

I couldn’t resist sharing the image on Twitter, commenting “it was worth it to eat in a parking lot.” The implication being that these skeptics had put their lives at hazard for a rather drab occasion.

I had succumbed, in semi-quarantine, to the need to be superior: I’m doing whatever I can to avoid personal contact, based on my understanding of how this virus is transmitted and what mass infection could look like, but this group deliberately created the conditions for the disease to spread, believing it to be a somehow partisan issue. I was “distance-shaming” them, you might say — taking part in a trend of griping about any image of crowds in a public space.

This practice began in earnest around mid-March, before any stay-at-home order, and has often pertained to New Yorkers, who are stuck in a dense urban area hard hit by coronavirus. First, they were congregating in cramped bars; then it was a free-for-all in the parks; most recently, city-dwellers were shamed for amassing at the Hudson River to see a Navy hospital ship.

These photos don’t all tell the same story, however. You can’t assume from a candid snapshot that a cluster of persons is violating our new norms — maybe they’re a family, or roommates, quarantined and isolating together regardless — and you can’t conclude that everyone pictured is fully aware of the current danger but choosing to act immune. Ignorance would be, perhaps, more forgivable than arrogance (see: the Corona Chad).

The distressing images were also captured at different stages of the crisis, with varying guidance in effect. Throughout this ordeal, information has been spotty and unevenly distributed; what we’re seeing here is, at least in part, a failure of local, state and federal leadership to sync up their messaging and set clear expectations.

Isn’t something similar shown in the parking lot feast I ridiculed as well? Yes, I fault those specific people for rejecting medical science, for their commitment to political fiction — but I also have to account for a culture that encourages and amplifies this denialism.

I have to admit, though, I was taken aback by some replies to my post; a few sounded enthusiastic at the prospect of these demonstrators dying for their little stunt. That’s when it struck me: More than being angry at these folks, I was sorry for them, as victims of an ideological sickness. Maybe this is just the higher-empathy version of calling others dumb, but at least it doesn’t suggest they deserve a future of pain and grief.

Once I was over the shock of seeing photos from a bustling farmers market in Brentwood, an upscale L.A. neighborhood not far down the road from where I live, I registered the same attitude toward those being shamed for shopping there. Of course they shouldn’t have gone, though was the situation markedly worse than at regular grocery stores? How much had to go wrong for the city to allow the market to go on, and didn’t that decision lead locals to follow their ordinary routines, unbothered? How can we rely on individual responsibility when institutional errors are normalizing business as usual?

Online, we’re used to calling out one another. In fact, the callouts often beget callouts, as the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro found when he tweeted a context-free data map to imply the entire south was a herd of idiots blithely traveling where they pleased, thereby spreading COVID-19 throughout the region. If the benefit of all this sniping among internet addicts is minimal, it’s even less effective when applied to the outside behavior of multitudes who will never know that we condemned them, since they aren’t engaged in these virtual networks. This breaks the evolutionary advantage of social shaming — an awareness that to cohere as a community, we have to follow its rules — by making it a self-serving indication of “our own trustworthiness.”

The knock-on effect is increased paranoia for anyone trying their best to minimize a risk that can’t be fully eliminated; at any moment, a stranger could catch us wearing a mask incorrectly, touching an unclean surface or simply standing next to a live-in romantic partner, then upload us to the web for summary judgment. None of it helps as long as we have a clown-run government that sits on its hands and spins mass casualties as a win. At a certain point, you have to accept that the broader outcomes of a plague are not within your scope of influence.

None of it means you should stop being vigilant, sharing good practices or distancing appropriately. All I’d say is that when you want to remotely unload on random folks who aren’t — who are, by the way, navigating the same panic, uncertainty, irrational instincts, misleading rumors and dysfunctional health care system as you — it’s worth thinking about how a mess like this takes shape.

There is a lot of blame to apportion. But almost all of it should roll uphill.