The Social Media Shame Machine Is In Overdrive Right Now

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Someone on Twitter admitted they’d found themselves giving the side-eye to someone who was clearly under 60 and shopping at the grocery store during senior hours — before watching the person sheepishly apologizing to everyone she saw. She was caring for and living with her parents, both of whom were severely immunocompromised. A friend filled with COVID-related anxiety decided to drive around LA and look at famous houses from Nancy Meyers movies. She never got out of her car, never came in contact with other people. People in the comments chided her for putting others in danger. A coworker was on a bike ride, away from crowds, with his children in tow. A man in a car slowed down to a crawl beside him and yelled at him to put on a mask.

If you’ve spent time online or in public spaces lately, you’ve probably experienced, witnessed, or participated in a similar behavior. But here’s the thing: As most of the country reaches its fifth week of self-isolation and social distancing, the vast majority of people are doing their damn best. Of course, there are people holding church services and a small handful of others are meeting in secret at underground clubs. But these people are outliers, their behaviors far from the norm. Even the people who think the government is overreacting are still largely behaving in ways that would protect themselves and others from infection.

Those who still have to go to work are desperate to keep themselves and their communities safe, even when their employers don’t provide adequate protection. People who are able to work from home are, in the vast majority of cases, being incredibly careful. When we were told not to wear masks — and to save them for essential workers — we didn’t; when that advice changed and we were instructed to wear masks, we scavenged and scrounged for and jury-rigged our own. We’re donating to others if we’re able, we’re reading and sharing news stories of tremendous grief and sacrifice, we’re reaching out to elderly neighbors, and we’re checking in with friends from the far corners of our lives.

But some of us, amid all of that, are also being real and total assholes. We’re giving no one the benefit of the doubt. We’re skeptical and untrusting, quick to judge and slow to apologize. Some of these behaviors, especially implicitly and explicitly racist ones, are straight-up inexcusable. But some of them, maybe even most of them, are misguided manifestations of fear and confusion in the face of a very real vacuum of authority. Because we know so little — and have so little faith in so many of our leaders — we are scrambling to assemble some sense of order in our lives. And a lot of times, that means leveling judgment on others as we desperately try to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing, even as the “right” thing often remains unclear.

Is it okay to see your parents after two weeks of strict isolation? If you don’t have underlying health conditions, should you Instacart and tip heavily or just go to the store? Should you wash your dog thoroughly after going outside? If you were sick and have recovered, how many days or weeks should you remain in total isolation? Is it okay to order nonessential items that need to be delivered through the mail? To eat takeout? But only if it’s been reheated?? But what if you don’t have a microwave??? It’s okay to go running, right? Oh wait, there’s a Medium post that says it’s not! Oh wait, that post is actually junk science!

There are dozens of new advice columns attempting to address these questions. But as Katie Notopoulos, author of our own column, How to Plague, reminds us, most of the columnists are just doing their best to consolidate accepted wisdom from experts — and that accepted wisdom can and continues to change quickly. We’re confronted with new information every day about the virus and how it works, about the economy and how it’s tanking, about our government and how it’s failing to get help to those who need it most. There’s still so much we don’t know, from the actual number of infections to when and how we’ll be able to stop wide-scale social distancing. We can’t plan more than a few days in the future. It seems ill-advised to make any sort of decision larger than “what should I have for dinner?” We don’t know what’s going to happen with our jobs, our schools, or life as we know it, other than none of it will ever really be the same.

All of it is so much for any one person, let alone someone who’s also simultaneously scared for themselves and their loved ones, to process. And it’s unsurprising that the places where we’re confronted with that information, again and again, would also become the places where we become our worst selves.