We have been told for nearly a year now that we're "in this together" regarding the pandemic. We have been told that staying home, social distancing, and mask-wearing are a part of being a responsible, compassionate community member. But what if these practices endorsed by our media betters are weakening social ties rather than strengthening them?
While I can understand the fear and confusion some might be facing about COVID, especially if they have been wrenched around by the media's inconsistent, ever-changing narrative (Masks or no masks? Protesting or no protesting?), I’m worried about the long-lasting impact such behavior will have on social cohesion and how we interact with our neighbors.
The Normalization of Fearing Our Neighbors
How many of us have passed someone on the street (outdoors) and had them hastily put on their mask, only to remove it less than two seconds later after passing? I sure have, and nothing says "we're in this together" like medieval level superstition towards our neighbors and community members. It would be one thing if there were a medical rationale for such behavior, but there isn’t. I have personally experienced glares and averted glances from neighbors on more than one occasion for walking outside, more than six feet away, without a mask. We can’t say things like "we're all in this together" and expect it to mean anything when we treat our fellow humans like potential pariahs.
We can’t say "we’re all in this together" and then treat our fellow humans like potential pariahs.
I fear that this trepidatious view of our neighbors will continue on long after the pandemic has passed and persist as a normalized human interaction. The concern is that we will prioritize perceived safety over humanity for those we share our communities with. Will we cease to help the little old lady next door with her groceries out of concern for her safety? Will we stop chatting with our neighbors at the mailbox out of worry they might be carrying germs?
When Oregon Mayor Kate Brown encouraged Oregonians to turn their neighbors in for participating in holiday gatherings, she might have thought she was encouraging the practice of collectivism, but rather she encouraged division and weakened social ties. Such calls for betrayal encourage allegiance to the state and to political ideologies rather than allegiance to our communities, families, and neighbors.
The Media Cheers on the Antagonization of Those with Whom They Disagree
The media has spent nearly a year cheering on the antagonization of people whose view on COVID differs from theirs. I’m not merely referring to those the media deems science deniers or COVID deniers, but literally anyone whose take on the pandemic and its global repercussions might differ from the mainstream narrative. Doctors whose medical expertise didn't align with the narrative were banned from social media and experienced a type of ostracization in the name of "safety." Those who called for the economy to reopen were called “grandma killers.” I fear that censorship and the shutting down of conversations are being normalized and repackaged as "protecting the public.”
Whatever one's perspective on COVID or the government's response, we should all be able to agree that calling people murderers and "grandma killers" for holding differing perspectives or attitudes on COVID (or anything) makes our communities weaker, not stronger in the face of peril.
The general public is taking its cues from the media on how to deal with "dissidents."
As a result, the general public is taking its cues from the media on how to deal with "dissidents." How many of us have experienced, or seen videos circulating on social media, of people being screamed at and accosted for not wearing a mask in public? Wearing a mask might indeed be an act of solidarity, but the response to not wearing a mask reveals that weakening social trust and mob rule are at the crux of the "mask shaming" rather than a desire for solidarity.
While I encourage all of us to wear a mask and socially distance as needed, I fear that too many of us are doing so out of fear of the mob. It feels dishonest to promote mask-wearing as "brave" when the threat of not doing so looms so large in our public consciousness.
Moreover, the media's hysterical doomsday response to COVID (hello, CNN death ticker) has signaled to the American public that we’re entitled to panic and throw tantrums when we see any deviation from the supposed "norms." We’re being taught to, and applauded for, ratting out our neighbors, yelling at strangers in public, and insulting people on the internet. Worse still, we’re told this is "brave and stunning" behavior. Something tells me that screaming at members of our community won't bring about unity and healing, and it certainly won't prepare us to deal with the next emergency.
The Response to COVID Encourages Political Tribalism
The response to political adversaries testing positive for COVID, or even dying from COVID, has forced the public into political tribalism. Rather than looking out for members of our country and community, regardless of affiliation, the media encouraged a retribution narrative, suggesting that when people they didn't like caught COVID it was because they deserved it. Such language was a quick reminder that we were in fact not "all in this together."
In an emergency, our neighbors, friends, and families will be the ones to help, not the government.
In many ways lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and the canceling of holiday gatherings teach us to be suspicious and resentful of neighbors. The truth is that in an emergency, political figures aren't going to be the ones looking out for us; it’s going to be our neighbors, our friends, and our families. If we want to truly stand together in the face of an emergency, we’re going to need to invest in our community relationships. Regardless of who your neighbor voted for, or their political leanings, or whether they wore a mask or not to get the mail, social cohesion within our communities is going to be what we rely on, not our political parties.
Rather than turning our neighbors into walking pariahs and retreating in political tribalism, we need to reject this divisive rhetoric and instead focus on breeding social cohesion. In the end, your political figures aren't coming to save you, but your neighbor might.