We’ve swung about as far in the direction of the individual as we possibly can, a claim that I will proceed to back up in great detail but that can be observed by anyone in any common area these days. There is only a certain amount of time it can hold in this position before it inevitably begins to swing back the other way.
An example that comes to mind is of a woman who was killed by an alligator in Florida back in May. She was informed that the same individual alligator had taken down a deer at the same exact spot. She replied, “I don’t look like a deer,” moved closer, and those were her last words, as the alligator then proceeded to do what alligators do.
If you’re ever looking for a way to explain the concept of “death by misadventure” to your kids, this would be a solid example.
What was happening there?
It’s mean to pick on someone who isn’t here to defend herself, and I don’t mean to do that. I still feel the same shock and horror that I felt two months ago, when I first read this sorry tale.
Why would someone disregard social proof or direct evidence of objective reality?
I’m not sure, because I’m not wired that way, but I can take a few guesses. Demonstrating autonomy, that nobody tells me what to do? Displaying skepticism, that I’m smart enough to tell the difference between common sense and urban myths? (Although... alligators are real??) Raw physical courage? Belief in one’s ability to move quickly and outrun danger, on the extremely unlikely chance that I guessed wrong?
This is exactly what I think is going on with the novel coronavirus and mask refusers.
I can tell you from personal experience that COVID-19 sucks. Hated it. I can also tell you that the person who gave it to me thinks it’s no big deal. She believes she’s immune now and that the crisis is overblown. She is not alone in this reaction, to be sick with COVID and then shrug it off. All I can say is that if her symptoms were as bad as mine, then she must have the grit and stamina of a thousand wildebeests.
What people are saying over and over again is that rules don’t apply to them. Emotionally they buy into the concept of the sovereign individual. They interpret the situation of living in a pandemic to mean that they are assuming personal risk, and that is their ethical prerogative.
The merest suggestion that any one human can owe anything at all to any other human, under any circumstance, seems to trigger a deep rage in these people.
I think this is only possible because of where we are on the pendulum swing between the individual and the collective. We’re at a place where the idea of “a community” of any kind doesn’t even make sense to some people.
Just because there is more than one person in any given location does not then mean that there is a “group” of any kind. No connections, no broad categories. It’s impossible because there is only The Individual multiplied by seven billion.
The opposite extreme of this would be the idea that there is only a group, and that there is no such thing as an individual with personal rights. It’s fairly easy to imagine this, and it’s possible this is how it feels to be a bee, or a fish in a school of fish. Any ant stands in for any other ant, but in this formulation they don’t have personalities or names or music preferences.
Obviously it makes the most sense for people to exist somewhere in the middle, with personal rights but also with social connections, friends, and some way to contribute to a greater good. This is the space with the potlucks and the games and the concerts. This is the space with a modern economy.
The far individual end is the space with the terrorists and the mass murderers. Arguably the mass murderer is a notch more individualistic, because terrorists tend to act based on group decisions and delusions. The lone gunman is probably acting on a personal grievance. The only reason it would make sense to inflict a personal vendetta on random strangers is if those strangers have no value to the killer.
The reason I talk about this is that an asymptomatic super-spreader of coronavirus... may very well have a higher body count than most mass murderers.
“Oh it’s just the flu...” that is 50x deadlier than influenza.
Why would someone persistently refuse to pay attention? Sure, I can understand why someone would feel allergic to mainstream news. But at this point, people know someone personally who got sick or died. I know I do. At this point I have several friends and a few first-degree relatives who have gotten sick, and someone I’ve been to dinner with several times has died. I know a dozen people who have lost a family member to COVID.
Which specific friend or relative has to die before someone finally caves and says, “All right already, I guess the alligator really does grab people sometimes”?
The trouble is that nothing is harder for the extreme individualist than admitting to a mistake. It comes across as losing face. For a sensible person, getting solid information is a cause for gratitude - thanks for looking out for me, I know you’re trying to help. (Avoid food poisoning, avoid getting a speeding ticket, avoid a sunburn, etc). A narcissist will be more and more enraged the more serious the warning was, because the bigger the threat, the dumber they might look for missing it.
One of those mistakes that is impossible to admit is the mistake of trusting a con. Being tricked is so embarrassing that people will avoid reporting fraud, sometimes even at the cost of millions of dollars. Finding a way to reframe these events in a way that is emotionally more acceptable would really help correct a lot of issues.
How do we get the pendulum swinging again, so it is at least one notch away from the farthest possible point of selfishness? What are some ways to help people feel safe to relax into a friendlier, more altruistic position? How can we help people feel proud and smart for stepping away from the alligator?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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