“It’s a free country,” the bully declared when his classmates pushed back against him harassing one of them. Some adults, it seems, are stuck at the same level of moral development. If they are free to do something, that makes it morally neutral.
The second highest ranking member of the US Senate said President Trump was free to aggressively disperse peaceful protestors in front of the White House so he could show how tough he was and clear the way to get himself a photo op in front of someone else’s church and then hold up a Bible to the cameras. He was free to do that. The Senator said that as if to declare that Trump’s actions were morally neutral and beyond question. This, while the bishop of that church was outraged by the sacrilege of the President’s actions.
We all to often hear the same reasoning about following best practices for dealing with the pandemic. People say store employees are free to wear masks or not; it is their choice. And if you don’t like it, you are free to shop elsewhere. When these people go out in public, it is there choice whether they do social distancing or not. That is as far as their moral reasoning goes.
The idea that what is legal is morally neutral has led to the breakdown of community trust. When neighbors are unwilling to take others’ safety into account, neighbor has no meaning. We must address this position wherever it occurs, or it will only get worse.
What I say when faced with this attitude is where you see right, I see obligations that we have to others. Someone tweeted to me that I needed to start thinking for myself instead of just blindly following the experts. But I’m not trying to think for myself, I’m trying to think like Jesus.
Am I safe for you to share space with? What are the cues that you use, consciously and unconsciously? What is your radar looking for?
Human beings and animals unconsciously look for signals of safety or danger as we encounter each other. We used to rely on body language and facial expressions to tell us whether a person was physically and psychologically safe to be around or interact with.
With the pandemic, the type of danger we now pose for each other is invisible. What you are scanning for is whether I pose a risk of infecting you. There may not be visible signs that I am infected. There may be no runny nose or cough or red eyes. I may not know that they are carrying the virus. So we are all coming to rely on other cues – safe or unsafe behavior. When you encounter me you look at what I am touching with my hands. Am I wearing a face mask? Am I aware of my distance from others and doing what I can to keep safe distance? I either help you feel safe or not based on these things. These are what our safety radars are now scanning for. And this is relatively new, so it is still stressful to get used to.
This radar is actively scanning any time we leave home. Seeing people wear masks, we relax. No mask, we are on caution. Several people talking at safe distances, we are happy. Too close to each other, we feel threatened. All of these calculations happen consciously and unconsciously. Our radars will become a much more active as stores and other activities open up. This is an added stress we aren’t fully used to yet.
Stores like Costco and Mendard’s are now requiring face masks of all customers and that we keep at least 6 ft spacing from each other. We can only touch products in order to put them in our carts. We can’t feel fruits or vegetables and then return them to the display. If we see someone doing so, we wonder what else has been touched. Airlines will require face masks to board their planes. These requirements will signal to their employees that they are as safe as we know how to make it. And it will signal the same to us as customers. The safety radar gives us a green light in those places.
Then there are stores that will only request or suggest that we wear masks. Knowing this, our radars will signal caution. If we go in anyway, radar blips will go off as we see people without masks or not keeping safe distance. We know full well by now that some people in our communities won’t wear masks or keep safe distance as a matter of some sort of principle. Some store owners feel the same way. So if stores won’t do all they can to protect their employees and customers, blips of danger go off on the radar. These signals will move us to avoid those situations in order to be safe.
Some stores say they will only do the minimum that the state requires them to do. Caution! Anyone who only does the minimum because they have to is not fully appreciating the nature of the risk of COVID-19.
Some of us are vowing now to only shop at stores that require masks while others are boycotting them. For many of us, the requirements of masks and safe distance signal safety, that the store cares about everyone’s safety. They will do what they can, not just the minimum.
Some people and stores think we should trust their judgment about safety instead of requiring standard safe practices. It is unreasonable for me to expect you to trust my judgment when you don’t even know me. Furthermore, I am fallible; I can slip up. Do I always catch my hand before it touches my face? Don’t I wish! Our radars won’t give people a green light who think we should trust them when the don’t follow best practices. There is too much uncertainty. How can we know what they mean by safe? A small percentage of employees admit to not following safe practices at work. No, I won’t trust their judgment. I need their employers to require safe practices of them.
Early in this pandemic people were fond of saying that we are in this together. Now it is clear that we are not. Some people haven’t even bothered to educate themselves about safe practices, despite the best efforts of public officials and medical experts. Some people are misinformed and act like experts. A few are actually hostile toward people wearing masks.
Some people don’t realize that they still need to protect the medical system from being overwhelmed so their neighbors can get the elective surgeries that are on hold, and the hospitals can begin to financially recover. Their awareness and concern does not extend beyond themselves.
Sadly, we are not in this together. Some people have opted out. While the public health threat may be from a small minority, they may be enough to keep this thing spreading if we don’t require things of them.
Picking where we shop based on requiring best practices is the best we can do to protect our health care workers, hospitals, store employees and each other. Hopefully it will encourage more business to have these requirements, rather than subject us to the least people are willing to do.
Am I prepared to be safe and keep others safe, assuming any one of us could be infected without knowing it?
Am I ready to engage in team building with others, to be kind and encouraging, with the generous assumption that they also have positive intentions, even when it sure doesn’t look like it? This assumption is a gift we give each other that goes a long way.
Unlike many people around the world, we may live in neighborhoods where we aren’t used being unsafe when we leave our home and do simple things like going to the grocery store. Now, with the pandemic, we need to get used to being unsafe. With the opening up process, we will be less safe than during the stay at home phase, especially with and research showing all essential workers are not following safe practices and others being openly defiant. So, we need to get better at this.
We, citizens all over the world, have been drafted into a global war against COVID-19. This isn’t really voluntary; it is a moral obligation. In this war there are two divisions with different roles, actually quite similar to how the body defends itself against the invasion of a virus.
The first unit in the body to deal with a virus is the innate immune system, whose job is to provide a barrier to prevent the spread of the virus within the body. On the level of society, this is the role we have been conscripted by our governments to play, to form a Citizen’s Division, so to speak. When these barriers are breached by the virus, the adaptive immune system gets triggered.
The job of the adaptive immune system is to actually kill the virus and eliminate it. This is the role our scientists, science-based corporations and medical teams are playing for our society. Scientists and corporations are famously competitive with each other. But now, they have suddenly started cooperating like never before. Corporations are releasing patented information, previously kept secret. Scientists are sharing their findings as they come in, with no concern for who gets credit. The whole scientific and medical community world-wide will be deserving of a Nobel Prize, not just individuals.
And we, in the Citizen Division, are doing pretty well with our job of containing the spread of the virus. But some cracks are showing. Unlike the scientists and medical professionals, we weren’t trained for this. Remember how hard it was at first to keep track of what we touch so we don’t infect ourselves or others? Or even to remember to wash our hands thoroughly?
What we have to do now involves more emotional and mental self-control than some of us have developed. It is like this. Your car may have a lot of little things wrong with it, but if you never drive over 45 mph, you don’t even notice them. They don’t matter. But when you try going 110 mph, the car might shake, be hard to steer, and the brakes might fail. So it is with our mental and emotional self-control. Under the demands of the pandemic, our weakness are showing. We may need some fine tuning to do our jobs without turning on each other or just throwing in the towel and going AWOL. That would be deadly.
The scientists and medical systems are cooperating like never before. Scientists are usually highly competitive with each other. Now they are cooperating. So are science-based corporations, sharing patents they used to keep as trade secrets.
The Citizen Division has also been impressively unified, but now it will get harder.
To engage in team building, we may need to be better able to tolerate negativity in others and better able to control it in ourselves. Maybe they aren’t expressing their concern very diplomatically or skillfully. I had no idea how good people can be at this till I observed professional diplomates in action. It was impressive. They put people at ease in a genuine way, first, by being calm and confident themselves. They look past an angry delivery to try to find the heart of what is upsetting the other party. The intensity of a person’s response tells us how strongly they feel about what they are saying, or how close to the edge they are. Pushing back with equal intensity is simply not helpful. We can be calm and considerate without losing our own voice.
Brain studies show people are not able to hear your point of view until they feel you have understood theirs. This is a pickle when both people have the same conflicting need at the same time. So we have to be the ones to start by being empathic toward them, or it may never happen.
So, help the other person be calm by being calm yourself. If you haven’t mastered this yet, it may be better to say nothing until you can do it well. Most of these encounters are brief in situations where we can’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart. They are busy and we are too. And neither of us really wants to do this anyway.
Second, let’s try not to take offense when someone expresses upset about our behavior. If a defensive response wells up inside you, that is the time for the deep breath you are tired of hearing about. Try to see what they are seeing. They may have a point, but we can’t see it yet. Safe practices are actually a bit more complex than we think. Maybe the other person understands something about it we don’t. If you are unable to take this calm approach, maybe apologize for it, like “I’m sorry. This is really hard for me. I don’t take criticism well.” You might as well say it rather than proving it by being reactive.
We notice someone not following safe practices. We feel threatened. Now what? The goal is to effectively recruit them into safer practices in a team building way. People have worked on this. The book Giving Voice to Values, is about confronting people about their behavior. It suggests we try out ideas in advance for what to say and then practice saying them several times before we are in the situation. Their follow-up research shows it produces good results. These responses are something to brainstorm with family and friends. The goal again is teambuilding.
This is also a good time to review what we know about effective communication. Many of us have had workshops. There is a ton of good information on it on the web. This is a good time to review it. But we won’t use it if we don’t have adequate mental and emotional self-control.
“You would never know there was a pandemic going on.”
Following best practices got us to the point where reopening activities may soon be possible. Then, our behavior will continue to be a deciding factor in whether it is successful or harmful. But applying coronavirus best practices to old settings is not going to be easy. The Florida beaches have been reopened and a reporter noticed she was the only one with a face mask. She was the only one doing social distancing. For everyone else, it seemed to be a normal day at the beach. One person interviewed even said it was a welcome break from having to think about the pandemic. That will not be sustainable.
This is exactly what public health officials feared would happen and will continue to happen. The beachgoers had not prepared themselves mentally to carry safe practices into their beach experience. There was no group pressure to conform. So, they behaved at the beach the way they always have.
One of the things working against successful re-opening of activities is state specific learning. What we learn in one setting does not automatically generalize into other settings. We have to be deliberate about it or it won’t happen. What is more likely to happen is that we will be like the beach goers and act like we did before.
A helpful process for this is mental rehearsal. Before going to the beach or back to work, you imagine as clearly as you can doing so while following social distancing, wearing a facemask, keeping control of what you touch, and doing good hand cleansing. Repeat this several times before you go. The repetition will give you really good momentum and help you see when you or others start to deviate. We may need to give other people reminders, something many of us are uncomfortable doing. But that is part of being in this together.
Another big thing that shapes our behavior is how those around us are acting. When they don’t follow best practices, we are less likely to. We don’t want to be the only one. But when we keep the behavioral standards in mind before entering the situation, we are less likely to drift to how others are acting.
Already, in the essential service of grocery stores, more and more managers are feeling the need to protect their employees from careless customers. They are considering eliminating in-store shopping and only doing online shopping with home delivery or curbside pickup. This means other customers are witnessing careless behavior that are public health hazards and letting it go.
Careless behavior in a store is not just between the customer and the employee, it is between the careless customer and everyone else present. So, to be successful with having open stores and businesses, we need to exercise more mutual accountability.
Since beginning these blogs on the psychology of dealing with the pandemic, I have stressed mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility. Those are what motivated following best practices. Now we must add mutual accountability. It is through mutual accountability that new behaviors become the norm. This is really hard. Holding others accountable and being held accountable by peers is very uncomfortable. It works best if we assume good intentions on everyone’s part. What we are doing then is bringing a person’s attention to what they had lost track of. Then our response will be to thank the other person, not get upset or defensive.
Even if the person does not care about best practices, this approach of assuming the best has the greatest chance of bringing out the best in them. If it brings out their worst, then they need to experience that they won’t just get away with putting others’ health at risk.
It can be difficult to act graciously when you feel unsafe or angry. If we remind others as we would like to be reminded, it won’t be woke scolding. It is really a way of collectively taking ownership of safe behaviors instead of blaming the government for imposing it on us. So, our skill set for reopening needs to include the willingness to hold others accountable and be open to them doing the same when they notice our lapse.
It is time also to remind ourselves to watch for thoughts that justify making exceptions for ourselves and others. We covered this in an earlier blog, Dangerous Thoughts.