Saturday, June 27, 2020

On Policing: On Finding the Line

A mask, six feet, and being outdoors: pick any two at a time, amirite? Plus wash your hands before and after eating or touching your face. Pretty easy.

So, ironically, sort of, as I wrote about the importance avoiding policing one another in our daily lives, I got called out for commenting on people who don't wear masks. I've been posting about masks and social distancing pretty much daily, trying to persuade people to change this one simple part of their day in order for everyone to be able to manage to live easier and safer. But after the call out, I paused a bit to consider my own judgmental attitude towards people avoiding masks, especially any close talkers inside a building, compared to being judgmental of other actions, like writing "Black Lives Matter" in chalk in front of your own house, or commenting on an unleashed dog, or selling bottled water on the sidewalk. God forbid I'm a Karen!!

I hate the direction call out culture has gone. It's useful when it calls out harmful words and actions that could be perpetuated - hate crimes material in particular - in order to change behaviours. But I think maybe we should stop digging up things people did decades ago. Full disclosure, I dressed up as someone from another race at least three times for Hallowe'en as a child. At the time, I was completely oblivious to the harm in perpetuating a stereotype about an identifiable groups of people, and so were my parents and others in my very white neighbourhood. I've significantly changed my views since then, and there's not much I can do about the me from the '70s.

But there's a significant difference there between calling out masks, calling out people doing nothing harmful, and calling out harmful actions from decades ago.

The line between when it's important to question behaviour and when to bud out should be all about harm prevention. In a fearful society, though, the most innocuous interactions can look dangerous, so we have to combat the fear by actually asking, "Can this current behaviour actually harm someone?" People slip into, "Can this type of person harm someone?" and then do some weird rationalization to match the person to some media inspired version of a 'bad guy' before deciding to call the cops believing they're preventing harm in a Minority Report kind of way. And they seem unaware (we can only hope) that a 911 call can dramatically increase the potential for harm to life. Or, they slip into "Can this behaviour harm someone's profit margin." That's the question people ask before they get outraged by unlicensed lemonade stands because their concern is that the rules of capitalism are being ignored. So it has to be a clear and steady focus on current behaviour and on potential harm to living things.

And not wearing a mask has the potential to harm living things.

The closest analogy I can think of to understand my reaction to mask avoiders, whether it's because they think it's the devil's law or worry about how hideous it makes them look or are just confused about what's true*, is my reaction to drunk driving. In both cases, when being asked to wear a mask or hand over your keys, I understand that your freedom is being infringed upon because of a scant possibility that your actions might harm others. It's sometimes hard to acknowledge this potential harm in the moment, when you just want to get on with your day, which is why we made drunk driving illegal and allowed ride-programs to form. People need to know there's a more certain risk something bad will happen to them if they drink and drive. And maybe that's why we need masks to be mandated as well.

It might be the case, a good thirty years ago or so, that I, myself, have awakened in a fog after a heavy night before, trying to piece together how I got home, only to spot the car in the driveway. The the faulty logic begins: since I've successfully driven drunk in the past without causing harm, therefore, when I drive drunk, it's not harmful. Many people follow this rationalization. They clearly haven't caused anyone to drop dead so far just by breathing on them, for crying out loud, so therefore it's obviously harmless for them to continue projecting right next to people, so the reasoning goes.

And, like a car accident, only a small percentage die. Many are completely unaffected, so there's a chance we can get away with some momentary thoughtless behaviour. And then there's the people that often get overlooked: the survivors that are affected for life: disabled or plagued with headaches or unable to think anymore, possibly ever again.

For both scenarios, the risk just isn't worth the cost. The price of a cab ride home or a spare tea towel and some elastics is well worth knowing that you didn't take a life. Right??

It might feel like an insult to suggest it's possible that you're diseased or that you can't drive right now. But it's not an insult; it's just a fact. With a 45% asymptomatic rate of infection, there are many people with a deadly virus that feel completely healthy. Unless you never leave the house and have everything carefully sanitized before it crosses your threshold, then there's a possibility you're carrying the virus. It's not an insult; it's just math.

So, in order to save lives, it's important to be judgey on this one.

In a recent panel discussion on 3 Quarks Daily, three philosophers argued about moral action during a pandemic. One panelist defined morality as a decision in which we incur costs in order to benefit another. Another explained that the trick of a moral system must be to turn the hearts of the unjust, and sometimes that requires some punishment, which could be jail, but it could also be shame. From that, it would appear, that shaming the unmasked is a moral thing to do.

The moderator asked, can we weigh the costs of lives against the economy, and the panel rejected the false dichotomy set-up, one quoting Malala: "eight days of military spending . . . the money to send each child to primary and secondary education for twelve years for free is already there." It's not a matter that asking people to change their behaviour is harming the economy irreparably. We have enough money for all our needs, if we just choose to spend it differently. The pandemic is giving us the possibility for rethinking everything. Getting us masked when we go out, and restricting where we can go, isn't the true cause of poverty.

So how do we go about calling out people well? Recently at a store with a mandatory mask policy, when an employee asked a customer to wear a mask, the customer intentionally coughed on her. It can be dangerous in the moment to try to convince someone to immediately change their behaviour, like provoking a drunk friend to give up their keys. And it's always awkward to question a peer's choices, so it's easier to slough off the task to an authority or do nothing and just hope for the best. It's hard to tell which words can change the behaviour without provoking defensiveness and escalating a situation. What are the words that won't get the vitriol pointed in our direction?

A friend just told me, when confronted with a man who believes the mask-mania is all a hoax, that she asked him if he's a flat-earther, too! He just laughed and got a mask to wear, which is lucky. Maybe I need to work on my comebacks. We all need the right words and the courage to speak up against actions that have the potential to harm others and against people who can't seem to mind their own business! We all do stupid things sometimes, and need to be gently reminded when what we're doing is harmful.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could get people on board with all this so we don't need it to be legislated?


* Some people have argued that it's just so confusing to know what to do, and that they haven't really heard, for sure, that masks actually help. So I tracked my own awareness (below) by looking at when I started sharing the mask-wearing push on social media. It was back in March, almost 4 months ago, when experts first explained that we have to look at what's working elsewhere and to think of it as protecting others from our germs. And I was really going to town by April 1st (and continuing in the present - as long as it seems necessary). Key, it appears, to hearing a consistent message, is to largely ignore American media. Hopefully nobody's confused any more! A recent study looking at 194 countries, controlling for a variety of variables found that "duration of mask-wearing by the public was negatively associated with mortality. . . . In countries with cultural norms or government policies supporting public mask-wearing, per-capita coronavirus mortality increased on average by just 8.0% each week, as compared with 54% each week in remaining countries. . . . Policies supporting the wearing of masks by the public . . . are independently associated with lower per-capita mortality." Is that for sure enough??

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