F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is not only a sign of smarts, but a necessity in trying times – when tough and complicated decisions must be made. So it is with viral pandemics.
Here are two ideas:
One… A pandemic is deadly serious. It is up to each of us to be informed about the risks and act responsibly to protect ourselves and others.
Two… Humans are prone to panic, which is often an equal or greater threat than what we’re panicking about. It is up to each of us to stay as calm and reasonable as possible so that we don’t make the problem worse.
To put it another way: the threat of panic is just as salient as the threat of pandemic.
This panic takes many forms, most of them expressed in our society as support for state action like mandatory business closures, bailouts, and curtailment of civil liberties.
But there’s also a form that is entirely relevant to each of us and our individual choices – and this is moral panic.
Moral panic is when a popular groundswell about a certain kind of taboo turns everyday people into moral crusaders. Suddenly people feel especially empowered to condemn their neighbors if they don’t conform to whatever standard the crusader has himself adopted.
This is a very dangerous phenomenon. It is not an exaggeration to say that moral panic fueled the great atrocities of the 20th century.
It is also a form of tunnel vision, in which the cause celebre is all that matters – nevermind the crusader’s imperfections or hypocrisy on many other moral issues. Outside of a moral panic, most people maintain a certain humility about themselves and others. They offer benefit of the doubt. But not in panic! There’s no time! And the consequences are too dire!
This is not to diminish the importance of social sanctioning. Yes, promote good habits; admonish bad ones if necessary. Encourage your friends and neighbors to confront the reality of a plague that takes advantage of our normal human desire for social interaction.
But in a moral panic, don’t be the one calling to “burn the witches.” Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that condemning others is your most valuable contribution to your community.
Instead, be an example of virtue and others will follow. Be humble. Be helpful. Be kind.
This too shall pass, and we’ll all want to be proud of how we acted.
Author: Mike Vine
Published: March 26, 2020