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The scolding is not working

I asked an ethicist whether public shaming serves a social good during the pandemic. She (basically) said no.

Groups of people gather in Madison Square Park in New York City on May 10, 2020.
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

There is an anecdote from a 29-year-old doctor at Elmhurst Hospital — one of the worst-hit health care facilities in New York City, where the coronavirus has killed more people than anywhere else in the country — that I’ve thought about a lot lately. In April, emergency room doctor Hashem Zikry told the New Yorker about how one day, after a particularly grueling work shift, he went for a run in Central Park.

“I see these two women out in, like, full hazmat suits, basically, and gloves, screaming at people to keep six feet away while they’re power walking,” he said. “And I’m thinking, You know what, you’re not the ones who are at risk.”

What Zikry likely meant is that the people who are sick and dying in his hospital aren’t necessarily the people who are power walking in Central Park. They’re the essential workers, cooks, cleaners, and security staff on whom the power walkers likely rely. They’re people who have a higher chance of coming into contact with the virus with or without someone yelling at them, people whose exposure to the illness is indifferent to public shaming.

Yet there has never been a better time to be a scold. Think of the possibilities! There are so many new rules for people to break, rules coming from every possible direction, rules that often contradict each other. The CDC has rules; the White House has different ones. Your mayor might have rules that your governor doesn’t agree with. Your neighbor has his own rules, your other neighbor has hers. You might even have different rules from the partner with whom you’re supposed to be following all the rules.

Plus, the rules change all the time. At one point you could be publicly shamed for wearing a mask because you were supposed to be saving them for nurses. A few weeks later you could be publicly shamed for not wearing one. If you’re in Missouri right now, you’re technically allowed to go to a concert. In New York, if you decide to sunbathe in a public park, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a viral tweet about being a selfish rule-breaker.

The images of the selfish rule-breakers are everywhere: photos and videos acting as evidence that people are not taking the pandemic seriously, showing picnic blankets in the park nearly stacked on top of one another, crowded bike paths, beaches, and lines of people who look far less than six feet apart, despite the fact that these photos are often taken with misleading camera lenses.

Maybe, though, you’re not someone who is picnicking with a dozen of your closest friends right now, nor are you patrolling parks in order to yell at those people. Maybe you’re like me, and you dislike being scolded because you’re already the sort of person who moves through the world assuming everyone is mad at you and acting as though it’s your job to change their minds.

Maybe you can also empathize with the desire to scold others because you saw your friend’s little sister posting about taking a 10-person ski trip on her Instagram Story and that seems terribly irresponsible. Maybe you dislike this part of yourself because you’d rather people mind their business, because when you want to pull your mask down on an empty sidewalk to take in the scent of flowers and new leaves and air that has not been stagnant inside your apartment for weeks, you can never quite shake the worry that someone might scream at you to “GO HOME!”

Being yelled at, obviously, is nowhere near the top of my (or anyone’s) list of things to fear right now. We already view other human bodies as threats, willingly alienating ourselves from family and friends in an effort to keep everyone safe. Still, in an awful time, a culture of mutual mistrust of everyone we pass on the street or see online feels like a highly unpleasant and unnecessary addition to the horribleness of it all.

Scolding has always been one of people’s favorite ways to communicate, particularly online — last year people were scolded for not owning the proper number of towels; every now and then, people are scolded for either washing or not washing their legs, or for talking about Harry Potter too much. But now that the tiny personal decisions we make with our bodies are quite literally matters of life and death, scolds can no longer be written off as simply annoying. Scolding, it can be argued, is now a public good.

That’s not an argument I’m qualified to make, however. So I asked Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at UCLA who studies ethics and moral responsibility (and who served as a consultant on The Good Place), whether the Central Park scolds were providing some form of value by yelling at everyone they deemed to be acting dangerously. “It’s very unlikely,” Hieronymi says.

Beyond the fact that public shaming doesn’t often work as intended, Hieronymi cites an unusual source: Judith Martin, the etiquette expert better known as Miss Manners. “One of her basic maxims is to presume the best of the other person,” she says. “Presume they don’t have the right information, presume that they didn’t mean any harm, and then interact on that basis — even if you don’t necessarily have great evidence to the effect that they don’t have the right information. Following that advice, it would be, ‘Hey, did you know that masks can protect people and not wearing them will put me and others at risk?’ and personalizing it that way.”

The bigger problem here, though, is the very American inclination to blame individuals for systemic failures. “I don’t know if it’s because of our culture of both rugged individualism and religious seriousness, but there’s a real temptation to think that personal piety is the solution to our problems,” Hieronymi says. “It can make people feel they have some control over the issue, and relieve them of what I think is a real duty to advocate for broader social solutions. And quite frankly, the people and industries who that broader solution would cost absolutely want to put the focus on the individual responsibility because that’s taking the focus off of them.”

In short, you are allowed to be angry. I’m angry at the people who are angry at each other instead of angry at how we ended up here. Individual Americans, for the most part, have held up our end of the bargain by staying home whenever possible in order to lessen the burden on our health care system, drastically redesigning our lives to fit around a scary and constantly evolving crisis, canceling an entire year’s worth of weddings, holidays, funerals.

Our government hasn’t. The president has consistently prioritized ideological concerns over material ones like testing, lifesaving protective personal equipment, and funding for health initiatives. Whereas Canada, South Korea, and Germany took the threat of the coronavirus seriously early on and expanded their health care infrastructures and invested in contact tracing, the US is coming off of another “wasted month,” without making any demonstrable progress toward safely easing social distancing. People are understandably angry at the government, but some are deeply misunderstanding the problem, instead expressing that frustration with dangerous anti-lockdown protests, as though saving lives or saving the economy is a binary choice.

Meanwhile, police officers are systematically and violently arresting people of color for allegedly breaking social distancing guidelines, while those same forces politely hand out masks to large groups of white people. That’s on top of the fact that the coronavirus is killing black and Hispanic people at disproportionately high rates, in part because they’re more likely to be the same people for whom social distancing is a privilege, but also due to America’s longstanding economic and health care racial divides. Partly because of that history, these are not the people who are allowed to yell at strangers in public without consequences.

It’s why I keep thinking about the screaming women in Central Park. On some level, I get it. There’s so much to be angry about, but it’s all so faraway and abstract. It’s much easier to position oneself as the knower of all rules, the educated expert who has read the most articles and who can cast themselves as society’s hall monitor, while many of our elected officials continue to squander what good faith remains with them. What’s happening is the chaos of failed leadership; it’s the same reason people are buying socks with Dr. Fauci’s face on them or getting horny for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, two of the few officials who seem to be taking the coronavirus seriously.

Of course you should be wearing a mask, reducing trips to the grocery store, and social distancing whenever you can. As more states begin to reopen, however, the rules will continue to change and people will continue to be confused and scared and judgmental. More people will get sick and more people will die, more jobs will be lost, and more leaders will blame it all on our individual selfishness rather than their inaction. There has never been a better time to be a scold, but we have so many better things to do with our anger.

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