Don’t feed the trolls: The identity politics of good hygiene

In Apollo’s Arrow, Dr. Nicholas Christakis describes the social unity that prevailed in March and early April of 2020. Americans, indeed people everywhere, were facing a single common threat, motivating outpourings of generosity and sacrifice. “[A] widely shared peril erodes prior divisions, bringing large numbers of people into the category of ‘us.’ Everyone becomes part of the group confronting the problem. And the shared adversity creates what is possibly the most important division of all: those who are facing the same threat one is facing and those who are not.”

Since then, society has again fractured. While the coronavirus rages on and continues to be the single greatest threat to the commonweal, a large portion of Americans have decided that is not the case. Instead, they rally around threats that are either totally made up (e.g., QAnon theories, election fraud) or blown far out of proportion (e.g, left-wing censorship). And even though the issues are fake, the community and solidarity benefits are as they were for society at large in March and April 2020.

What’s more, even those of us who still correctly see the coronavirus as the number one danger have become split into warring camps. COVID realists are increasingly bickering about how strict or lax one can be regarding the virus. You’re the problem for taking your kids to a socially-distanced baseball game. No, you’re the problem for not eating outdoors to help out local businesses.

Thus, the solidarity among those facing the coronavirus described by Christakis has been greatly eroded. There is less and less an identity defined by belief in mask-wearing and social distancing, and more and more an identity defined in negative terms: We do not believe there was election fraud, we do not believe that Joe Biden eats Chinese babies.

In other words, the voices of reason are increasingly defining themselves using the terms of the voices of unreason. This is understandable, but unfortunate. By defining ourselves increasingly only by what we are not, we make ourselves the out-group and the stupid theorists the in-group. And it’s very hard to get anyone to join you when you’re the out-group. No one ever wanted to join a club after hearing what it is not.

Moreover, as Christakis puts it, solidarity is motivated by “confronting a problem.” In swatting down stupid theories on twitter, Facebook, and late night television, we aren’t confronting a problem; we’re contributing to it. Talking about stupid theories only amplifies them and gives them a wider audience, infecting more vulnerable minds.

If we want to get back on track for the winter and spring, we’ve got to start re-asserting a group identity that is built around a healthy, informed, reasonable response to the pandemic. Such a robust identity, trumpeted everywhere through the mass media to bumper stickers and yard signs (and, of course, with conspicuous mask-wearing), would force the stupid theorists into the position we now find ourselves in — and they’d have no choice but to join the only team left standing.

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