The Limits of My Empathy for Covid-Deniers
"I recently drove by an anti-vaccine rally just outside of Winston-Salem, N.C. It was not very populated. There were maybe a half-dozen people with signs and more onlookers than protesters. Drivers honked their car horns, whether in solidarity or disgust I could not tell.
Some of these protests are larger. In Oregon last month, approximately 2000 people showed up in that state’s Capitol to protest mask mandates and vaccine requirements. On top of the organized protests across the country, there are the everyday protests in stores and public places where people refuse to abide by mask policies.
I live in the South, a region too often mischaracterized as exceptionally backward on science and public responsibility. But you can look around the world’s most urbane cities in recent weeks and see similar backlashes to common-sense Covid precautions: London, Paris, New York City.
Social media and news reports are full of stories about Covid deniers dying in hospitals. Many of those stories seem to be in good faith. It is as if they are trying to force us to marshal empathy for people who were led astray by nefarious disinformation campaigns to their own peril. The stories have all the makings of an emotional “feel good” cinematic morality play. The dying are humanized through their social roles — a dad, a mom, a veteran — all wishing in their final hours that they had done something differently.
Like many people, I am finding it hard to muster the empathy these stories try to elicit because other images are so fresh in my mind. The maskless rallies, the red-faced anti-maskers screaming at grocery store workers, the protesters hurling invectives at the schoolteachers who are begging for masks so that schoolchildren can return to school — those images fill me and crowd out my empathy.
I am not concerned about “death shaming,” or shaming those who die from Covid instead of persuading them to get vaccinated. Fear of being ostracized for engaging in risky behavior does not seem to be the reason that millions of people are rejecting the vaccine or masks. Shame may not motivate someone to get vaccinated but I do not have any sense that shame is preventing anyone from getting vaccinated.
No, I’m not concerned with shaming as much as I am concerned about what empathy does for me. I rely on empathy not to make me morally superior but to keep me tethered to what matters. Empathetic impulses give me the humility to keep asking questions, even when I do not like the answers. Because I value being a thinking person, I honor emotions like empathy, fear, joy and trust to guide me around the pitfalls of my ego. Ego makes for really sloppy analysis and writing. I am at a point where headlines about ill and dying Covid deniers do not pull at my empathy strings the way I want them to.
Afraid that I am hunkering down in the certainty of my perspective, I turned to my friend Martha M. Crawford to get my empathy back on track. Martha is one of what I call my thinking friends, a person I think through life and its many problems with. We often do that online. She is a psychotherapist and clinical social worker with a grounded approach that resonates with me.
When I asked Martha to help me with my empathy, she started with the topic of grief. If you are like me, struggling with empathy as the world seems to split apart at its social seams, Martha’s perspective may help guide you back to a version of yourself that you can live with.
She suggests that the anti-science, narcissistic, antisocial Covid deniers are displaying a collective grief response. We are all grieving the loss of big things and small things. But, some of us are rushing into a collective denial of death and loss. That grief wears differently on people, depending on what self they brought to the grieving process. And living in an individualistic society that values health as a moral good is not helping.
Tressie: I am watching the different ways that groups of people respond to Covid, especially around vaccines and public-health messages. We have collectively experienced a lot of loss, over 600,000 deaths so far. Yet, we do not have a way to think about all of the loss, how it is so different for everyone and yet the same collective experience. I am thinking about the big losses but also about the small losses, like our professional identities as we lost jobs or our work changed dramatically and the loss of our daily rituals. I managed solitary confinement in my home for nine months just fine. But every time I thought about browsing bookstore displays, I got unbearably emotional. Those little rituals anchor our core identity and ability to interact with others. Still, I cannot deal with the Americans who are insane as it pertains to Covid denialism. What is up with them?
Martha: This is practically a Freudian notion of a kind of manic defense against death. It is not like formal mania. It’s not psychosis. It is an activated, grandiose invulnerability, and you see this a lot, even on an individual level. You see funerals that are a celebration of life, where you can just tell that everybody’s feeling their appreciation and the gratitude and their presence. And that they can still sort of hear the person’s voice in their ears. It is like the horror hasn’t hit them yet. They’re in an initial, almost ecstatic phase of grief where you’re just so relieved that you remember the person, or that you’re alive, you had your toes curled on the dip so you didn’t fall in. There’s a kind of manic response that is activated and grandiose and inflated by massive, collective crisis.
Tressie: What many of us struggle to understand is how and why this manic response is so unchecked by logic or even motivated self-interest. Is there something about our Western mode of thinking or our collective belief in rugged individualism that makes us rush through the process of grief in these weird, counterproductive ways?
Martha: On this territory, there is no culture that is plugged into the radio, television, or reads books, that hasn’t been indoctrinated to believe in this kind of notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If you are living in a community that fosters a kind of humility and interdependency and mourning and sense of mortality, you’re doing that as a radical act against that individualistic way of thinking.
That sense of community requires a lot of humility, precisely the thing I am afraid that the onslaught of Covid denial stories is robbing me of by undermining my empathy for others. Martha helped me with perspective. This is not a problem of individual moral certainty or persuasion. This is a social problem with big structural issues. That does not absolve me of my responsibility for seeing the humanity in people I vehemently disagree with, but it does make me feel less guilty about being unable to save them.
I still do not understand how we can be in community with people who, by withdrawing from their social responsibility, are actively harming others. But, I do not think I have to understand it. I don’t think that I even have to be in community with Covid deniers. I have to somehow be in community with the people who are behaving in socially responsible ways without demonizing those who are not. Demonizing them turns my community into a reactionary force, which is precisely how the vaccines and masks became weaponized to begin with. It is a classic case of not becoming what you despise by losing focus on what you value. Still, I honked my horn at that little rally last week and it was definitely not in solidarity with the anti-vaccine protesters. Baby steps.
You’re reading the web version of my first newsletter with The New York Times. Despite growing up with “Jerry Maguire” levels of love for a manifesto, I am going to keep this introduction short. I have been writing to an audience for over a decade — from Myspace to LiveJournal to blogs and digital media and back again. Writing a manifesto when so much of what I think and believe is already on the record somewhere feels cheeky. So I am skipping the manifesto in favor of a simple introduction: I am a sociologist, a professor, and a writer.
Just as important as my affiliations and formal training, though, is how I interact with the world. I have indefensible tastes in popular culture and defensible tastes in art, design and travel. You will notice a sprinkle of British anachronisms that might seem odd for a Southern-bred and based writer. At the moment I am working my way through British mystery series at a clip so embarrassing that I won’t quantify it. I am also a voracious reader with little patience for sorting texts into high and low culture. As a very curious person with high resistance to authority in every form who thinks about how we live in a modern, digital society, I also get in a bit of trouble from time to time. That is when I call in friends to think with, like I did this week with Martha. Many of those friends are sociologists because that is one of my tribes but all of them are people whose work helps me think.
Speaking of thinking, here are some things that have my mind (and emotions) going this week:
What I am listening to
Black and Indigenous musicians are making some of the best country and roots music around right now. Brittney Spencer’s new single “Sober & Skinny” is a notable addition to my “Country Soul” playlist. It is charming and soulful and has that songwriting gold standard, the catchy hook.
What I am reading
I just finished reading the sociologist Juliet B. Schor’s book “After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How To Win it Back.” I was never as gung-ho on framing the app economy as a “sharing” economy as some people were. This book settles the issue on whether that matters. It does not matter, because whether you were hopeful about the sharing economy or critical of it, we are in the same place. Private interests won. If there is any hope for resisting the worst parts of a society dominated by privately-owned platforms, Schor’s analysis of building community ties is part of it.
What I am watching
I am watching the Brit cozy mystery comedy “Agatha Raisin.” It is funny and bright and has a strong female lead that you do not always like.
What has my attention
Everything has my attention and it is overwhelming. In the time I wrote this issue, I have seesawed between: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan refugeeresettlement, Hurricane Ida ravaging Louisiana before moving on to historical floods in New York and New Jersey, and the shameful Supreme Court decisionon Texas’ draconian anti-abortion legislation. This has been a good week for practicing empathy for myself and for others."