Julia Marcus: Quarantine fatigue is real
What these scenes suggest to me is that our shaming skills need sharpening. If you are conducting your shaming in the frozen-food aisle, you’re already too late. Effective shaming precedes any confrontation—and would have kept a woman without a face covering from showing up to the grocery store in the first place. The one who is shamed is shamed by her own conscience and never needs to be screamed at. The mob lives in her head. This is why you never see NAMBLA or ISIS shirts at the supermarket, even though child molesters and supporters of jihad may very well live near you. In these circumstances, the mob knows its work is already done, and anyone breaking the mob’s rule has already committed social suicide. In other contexts, we can imagine this kind of calm scorn. If someone wore a Confederate-flag shirt at my local grocery store—an outrageous act anywhere, but especially in my majority-black neighborhood in New England—I suspect that the reaction of fellow shoppers would be silent, pitying disgust, rather than to hurl insults or frozen chicken at the person until she left.
Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.
Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century.
Feeling silent disgust marks the turn toward viewing a practice as a dishonor. It is a much more visceral reaction than merely to recognize that something is wrong, and to say so loudly. To be dishonorable is to provoke an almost frantic reaction, not fear of the offender but fear of being seen with the offender—in other words, fear of one’s social peers. If your daughter planned to marry someone who sauntered proudly around the supermarket, spraying micro-droplets of saliva all over other shoppers, would you share the good news of the betrothal, or hope that none of your friends found out and that she found a more suitable partner? If your neighbor, fresh from his holiday to a packed swim-up bar in the Ozarks, invited you over for dinner, would you decline out of fear of the virus, or fear that someone might find out you were hanging out with him?