As the COVID-19 pandemic has burned across the world, and country after country has locked down in an attempt to curb the fire, some of the behaviors and reactions of commentators, as well as the American public more broadly, have highlighted several important ideas about information and discourse.
Here are four observations from the pandemic reaction.
It’s Okay To Not Know What You Don’t Know
Throughout this pandemic, you may have found yourself muting, unfollowing, or even unfriending multiple people on social media. COVID-19, as well as all that’s come with it, has cast a spotlight on a pernicious tendency among human beings, which is to project authority even when none exists.
People you know – friends, family, and acquaintances – have likely posted links to sternly-worded opinion pieces about the pandemic or the governmental responses to it. They might have also posted status updates in which they framed their personal opinions as authoritative or factual when they are neither.
Maybe you offered a critique or an opposing view only to be condescended to or called a name like “sheep” or “shill.”
In these situations, it’s important to recognize that you know what they do not – that it’s okay to not know. We have been bombarded with evolving opinions, statistics, projections, and plans since this pandemic began. While we know so much more than we did at the beginning, we also know a whole lot less than we will know a year from now, and even a year after that.
While it’s certainly prudent to have an opinion, it’s important to understand the limits of your opinion, and to let it change shape with the integration of new ideas and information. In other words, it’s vital to accept that there are things you simply do not know, as well as the fact that what you do know could change if circumstance dictates.
Some people understand that, while others don’t.
We Can’t Go Back In Time
There’s a lot of blame being assigned to various politicians and thought leaders over their reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic over time. There are opinion pieces popping up like flowers in spring about how lockdowns were ultimately more harmful than helpful. While we still don’t know for sure the nature of the trade-offs between public health and the economy, as this is an evolving issue, there are those who are acting as though political leaders should have known what they know today two months ago.
President Trump has been confronted for moving “too slowly,” governors have been lambasted for strict lockdown measures, but the varying reactions from officials came at a time when much less information was available than is known today.
While it’s certainly fair to render judgment on a new policy, or assess the effectiveness of ongoing policy (or lack thereof) in light of the most up-to-date understanding of the issues, it’s unfair to render judgement on actions taken months ago by that same standard.
We didn’t know what we know now two months ago, and what we know now might change. In a rapidly-developing situation, Monday morning quarterbacking is disingenuous and serves no purpose.
Disrespect Is A Disease
While it’s obviously reasonable to have opinions, we have to make sure that in sharing our opinions, we are respectful of those around us. Crisis has a tendency to give us cataracts, which can lead us to behave in uncharacteristically obtuse ways.
When agitated, we tend to use more barbed rhetoric, and our crisis cataracts blind us to the pain we may be inflicting on those around us, including those close to us. Dismissive or aggressive terminology may come more naturally when the heat is on, but it doesn’t make it any less boorish or insulting.
Those who lean toward mitigation are “cowering” or “hiding,” and those who advocate a careful restart to the economy are “greedy” or “indifferent.”
These kinds of terms – often seen on social media and even in online commentary – indicate a lack of respect for the person about whom or to whom you’re speaking. This subtle-as-a-sledgehammer language is demeaning, and it can reflect poorly on the character of the person using it.
Everything Is Tied To Politics
As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on, social media has provided a vent to people who want to say things that they wouldn’t ever (hopefully) say in person.
Much of what’s being said is rooted in a semi-political construct, and it’s revealed the nastier side of Americans on both sides of the aisle. It’s become clear that if you support a certain politician or political party, your views on the pandemic and the mitigation efforts put into place will be bent through the lens of whomever you support.
Rather than assessing the data with as much of an objective eye as possible, many are simply repeating the talking points from their “side.” As a result, an incomplete understanding of the situation is almost inevitable, which often leads to ineffective communication, which itself leads to unsolved problems.
This tribal warfare has another unintended consequence, which is that more moderate individuals, those who take the virus seriously while also taking seriously the economic calamity that has come about as a result of mitigation efforts, have been alienated, and thus less amenable to persuasion on other matters political or cultural.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served to intensify many pre-existing issues in our socio-political lives, and it could do us well to use this time to dig deep, dissect, and utilize what we find to better ourselves and the broader discourse. Otherwise, when we emerge on the other side of this once-in-a-lifetime event, we may find that despite a social and medical “new normal,” there will be nothing new or different about the toxic ways in which we interact politically.
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