The Shame Game: Judgement In The Times of COVID-19There are optimistic pockets of reassurance floating around the internet that can fool one into thinking that perhaps this virus is bringing humanity together in a way we haven't experienced before. But in between the heart-warming stories of populations coming together are signs of something more insidious, and even more prevalent: Pandemic shaming.

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The Shame Game: Judgement In The Times of COVID-19

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. Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been spending an absurd amount of time on the internet lately. The TikToks and memes feel like the only things keeping me sane in these overwhelming times. I don’t think I’m the only one. The Whatsapp mail chain has been buzzing off the hook with people forwarding (often questionable and unverified) information about ways to keep ourselves protected from COVID-19, make our own masks at home from pairs of socks, and Italians singing together from their respective apartments. There are optimistic pockets of reassurance floating around the internet that can fool one into thinking that perhaps this virus is bringing humanity together in a way we haven’t experienced before. But in between the heart-warming stories of populations coming together are signs of something more insidious, and even more prevalent: Pandemic shaming.

Right off the bat, I’d like to admit that I myself am part of this machine. If you read one of our recent articles titled, It’s a Dangerous Business Going Out Your Door: Lessons and Letters From a Trip to The Supermarket, you’ll have noticed that I’m not exempt from judging every human being with which I come into contact. Working on it.

woman in coronavirus mask
Source: Clément Falize on Unsplash

Ever since social distancing measures were initially implemented a few weeks back We’ve been on high alert, and not taking this pandemic seriously has become a crime that doesn’t only earn you dirty looks in the supermarket, but also a barrage of unsolicited feedback on social media. Somehow, everyone with a smartphone has an opinion about how we should all be behaving despite the fact that experts themselves seem a tad confused about that. We’re all very highly strung, and perhaps in an effort to prove to ourselves that in this new and confusing world we’re at least doing something right we cast judgement on those around us for touching their face, taking their kids with them to the supermarket, or wearing their mask the wrong way (I’m so guilty here).

On 16 March, the term “covidiot” was uploaded to Urban Dictionary and defined as: “Someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety”. It has since then been used to call out people behaving in what other internet users see as an irresponsible way (such as American teens on Spring Break) and publicly shame them online. But can this name and shame game be beneficial at all? Or are we just casting stones at a time when we should be supporting and learning from each other?

In some cases, writes Amelia Tait, public shaming has helped to make the situation better by, for example, keeping company employees safe during the pandemic. “After Waterstones’ chief executive, James Daunt, announced its stores would be staying open,” she writes,”an online backlash prompted him to reverse the decision within a day”. On the other hand, some have been experiencing “waves of hate”, which has made coping with the pandemic mentally and emotionally even harder than it already is. Those who’ve been infected in particular have experienced a barrage of hate online, even after they’ve overcome the virus, with the online community accusing them of endangering others when they recover and need to start going about their lives again.

man in mask in cafe, pandemic shaming
Source: David Emrich on Unsplash

“Some of these [judging] behaviours,” writes Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed, “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.” We’re flailing and trying very hard to grab on to some kind of stability and proof of that we are in fact doing our best and making a difference, and that can take the form of unhelpful righteous validation. Tait quotes social sciences professor, Dr Lydia Woodyatt: “The same things that drive hostility and collective action offline can drive shaming behaviour online: anger, identification with others in the cause, schadenfreude and belief that our actions together will make a difference”. Basically, the act of online shaming in itself can make us feel united with those who are doing the same, much like the way the singing Italians bonded with their physical communities. As we judge those around us with our friends and family members, we’re engaging in what we feel to be noble behaviour. After all, there’s no more noble goal than saving lives, says Woodyatt.

Combine that with the fact that many of us are trapped in our homes and dying for a little more connection with society, and you have an explosion recipe for online hatred and other irrational emotional outpourings in cyberspace. But despite the fact that this can be done from the privacy of our homes, even online this behaviour can have negative consequences for those it targets, and casting dirty looks at that lady in the supermarket isn’t exactly going to improve the situation either. Tait writes that while we may be trying to shame others into improving their behaviour, they often don’t. In that case we’ve just taken on those negative feelings of judgement ourselves for no reason whatsoever.

Furthermore, from the outside it’s impossible to know what a stranger’s life looks like, or why they’re behaving the way they’re behaving. Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, writes about a woman with a family of 16 who was publicly shamed for buying more toilet paper than those around her, who were obviously unaware of her living situation, thought necessary.

source: engin akyurt on Unsplash

It’s almost as if self-righteousness and judgement themselves have become symptoms of this pandemic. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for that either. “It’s not about condoning bad behaviour,” writes Scheff, “it’s about being compassionate and empathetic to other people’s needs, and understanding what they might be going through, especially if we don’t know them or the reason they are doing what you deem is wrong.”

It’s easy to write up a tweet about the “covidiot” in line behind you at the supermarket, and often it’s much harder to control the automatic eye-roll or the scowl when you see someone behaving in a way that’s contrary to what you think is right. However, now more than ever we need to take a moment to consider the fact that their intentions are probably not to carelessly infect everyone in the store. We’re all doing the best we can right now, and though we’re already stretched pretty thin, if there’s only one thing we can control during these messy and uncertain times, let it be our ability for kindness and understanding. We need to exercise compassion like we never have before, and perhaps when all this is over we’ll come out stronger and better for it.

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