Of all the pandemic-fighting tools at the country’s disposal, civility sits in a dusty corner.
Other pursuits include the federal government preordering a COVID-19 vaccine, announcing on Wednesday it will purchase 100 million doses of Pfizer’s forthcoming drug should it prove effective in human trials. President Donald Trump thankfully urged Americans to wear masks on Tuesday, and 75% of the population say they are more likely to wear a mask and social distance now than they were last month.
Hand-washing remains a constant, as do frantic efforts to contact trace and increase testing capacity. Strongman tactics have infiltrated neighborly interactions.
Decorum, meanwhile, is given short shrift. As disturbing as it is to watch the steady climb of case counts across the country, it’s equally disturbing to witness Americans dissolve into frenzied tribes as they shout about how to interpret the trend.
Examples are plentiful. In March, spring breakers defied logic and authority to party in Miami, which incited commentary ranging from contemptuous to threatening. Anti-mask activists draw condescension from neighborhood Facebook groups. Proponents of the face covering meet the same fate. Store owners hoping to build a safe environment are either boycotted for requiring social distancing protocols or publicly accused of robbing patrons of personal freedom.
“Pandemic shaming,” as scholars at the American Enterprise Institute put it, isn’t likely to change anyone’s behavior. In truth, psychology says the opposite will occur. “When people feel shame, they get angry,” says June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University. “Someone who feels like they are under attack as a bad person will get defensive. What that person won’t do is change their behavior in a positive direction.”
What scholars at AEI propose, instead, is to adopt a “presumption of decency” — the notion that all people are flawed human beings simply trying to do their best.
Assuming that posture changes the conversation. It means seeking to understand before being understood. That awareness will uncover two truths: First, the pandemic has left no life untouched. Second, everyone is grieving in their own way.
From those who have lost a family member to the coronavirus to the business owners who watched their dreams disappear to the parents who hang their head in despair at the prospect of homeschooling their kids in the fall, pandemic life is painful. Even stops at the grocery store are irritatingly more cumbersome than they were four months ago. No one is exempt.
That’s worth remembering before judging someone else’s action. Psychological studies show people tend to assume the worst in others while giving themselves unrealistically high marks. A presumption of decency, on the other hand, would reveal that anti-mask activists aren’t “idiots” — as at least one headline put it — they’re humans who are grieving for a life lost to a virus.
None of this should undercut the severity of the situation. In fact, it enhances the urgency for civility in public discourse. The U.S. has lost more than 144,000 lives to the virus, far more than the even worst flu seasons, as AEI notes. Public health experts are clear on the individual actions that will reduce the spread — hand-washing, wearing a cloth mask and social distancing.
Getting everyone to follow those experts won’t happen by shaming and shouting. Practicing civility will create the best environment for persuasion. Studies show story-telling and open-minded conversations are powerful tools that connect two parties on a neurological level. A presumption of decency is as useful as anything in the pandemic arsenal.
While a global crisis has upended life for now, it shouldn’t be an excuse to forget the humanity in others. Civility is the way toward more productive conversations and, ultimately, a changed heart.