There’s been a spike in side-eye. In public encounters, polite nods and smiles have been displaced by wary looks. Occasionally, this is accompanied by a message – I’ve seen a man told off for handling packaged items in the supermarket without gloves; another chastised for man-spreading along a narrow path, driving another passer-by onto the road. A few weeks ago, I saw a family yelled at for picnicking in contravention of public health orders.
This behaviour is part of a trend of COVID-related social shaming – which is even more prominent online. For the past month, my Twitter feed has been abuzz with photos of crowds being called out for their selfishness in flouting public health advice. I’ve seen vibey farmers’ markets, packed beaches, crowds rallying to have public health restrictions lifted – all captioned #covidiots.
Public figures are called out personally. Jennifer Lopez was denounced for going to the gym in breach of a stay-at-home order. Ivanka Trump was condemned for travelling to New Jersey from Washington to celebrate Passover, contrary to US federal government guidelines advising against discretionary travel. And after informing her 1.3 million followers that she had travelled from New York to the Hamptons only eight days after testing positive for the coronavirus, influencer Arielle Charnas was barraged with angry comments.
This form of social surveillance questions whether people are behaving responsibly, in a way that minimises risk to others at a dangerous time. It finds its logic in the fact that COVID-19 is so contagious. We rely on each other to stem the spread of the virus, so when people act in a way that’s contrary to this objective, it’s understandably riling.
The instinct to shame others for bad behaviour isn’t new. It represents a psychological drive to shape undesirable social behaviour through negative feedback. Depending on how this is done, it can be useful and effective. Lydia Woodyatt, a lecturer in psychology at Flinders University, posits that shame is ‘functional to the extent that it encourages goal-directed behaviour and survival.’ Human beings are social creatures, who seek belonging and acceptance from peers – when this is at risk, we may be driven to change our behaviour.
Some of the messages imploring people to stay indoors tap this instinct well – they impress the gravity of the situation, they are stern and informative, and they appeal to our common humanity.
But some of the things I’ve seen strike me as the opposite of empathy, in times that call for more empathy than ever. For example, this insane flyer, posted outside someone’s home. Or a story Poppy Noor shared in an article for the Guardian: ‘Take the case of a friend’s mother, who was recently reported to the police for making too many trips outside. She, in fact, was dropping off supplies to people who were sick and in isolation. Now she might feel less inclined to do so – but who cares, so long as whoever dobbed her in gets to post on social media about it?’ I can’t help but notice that these attempts at monitoring antisocial behaviour are themselves quite antisocial.
When social shaming is executed in this way – cruelly or disrespectfully or without any attempt at human connection – it is more likely to isolate and disconnect its target than shape their behaviour. Dr Woodyatt muses that, ‘where public shaming is stigmatising – that is, a person’s behaviour is discussed in such a way as to make them feel that they are incurably flawed – this leads to poor outcomes,’ such as prompting disengagement and entrenching the behaviour in question. This diagnosis applies to online shaming in particular. Its inability to offer context, connection or reciprocity causes Dr Woodyatt to doubt whether online shaming can ever yield productive results.
The online strand of social shaming is part of a much broader trend – one on which call-out culture and the impulse to cancel public figures when they make mistakes may also be plotted. This trend shows an eagerness to pounce upon missteps. It fetishizes authenticity, refusing to believe that anyone should be allowed to contradict themselves or their past behaviour. It holds in its heart a tiny, hard kernel of schadenfreude.
It reflects a desire to impose control. In his 2015 book, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, John Ronson posits that social shaming via online media is a tool of social control, with those engaging in this behaviour seeking to ‘mercilessly find people’s faults… [and] defin[e] the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it.’
The psychology of the broader trend of online shaming goes some way towards explaining the more recent spike of pandemic-shaming. Both are driven by a desire to establish control. This instinct makes sense right now, when most of us are plagued with insecurity and uncertainty. In the world we’re living in, to feel in control is comforting – illusory though it may be. It feels good to rage about other people’s selfishness because it puts us back in the driver’s seat for a second. For a second, we’re not helplessly responding to a terrifying situation, which is entirely beyond our power to change. Instead, we are making sense of the world, and attempting to shape it, which feels so revolutionary and so normal at the same time. It’s nice to feel that way right now.
The problem with this is that calling out undesirable behaviour is easy; actually influencing others is hard. COVID-related shaming suffers from the same problem as broader call-out and cancel culture. Even when it’s the right message (stay at home! As much as possible, we should all be doing this right now), it’s unlikely to yield positive results when done in a way that provokes defensiveness or causes its target to disengage. As Loretta Ross writes for the New York Times, ‘call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture.’
And it misses so much nuance. When someone is called out for their behaviour, either online or in real life, it’s usually not possible to know their personal circumstances, or the full story behind their decisions. Maybe this knowledge would provide context for their actions and inspire compassion. A little more compassion would not be a bad thing right now.