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Should I Call Out My Neighbors for Not Social Distancing?

Why call-out culture doesn't work in a pandemic — or ever.

by Gretchen Brown
April 20, 2020 | Living

This article is part of Rewire's Coronavirus: Information You Can Use series.

Walking in a nature preserve last weekend, I happened upon a group of maybe 10 people stopping to socialize in the middle of the trail.

Normally this would be fine. But in the middle of a pandemic — in a state that has mandated a stay-at-home order and advises social distancing — it made me a little bit mad. 

I wanted to tell them they shouldn’t be gathering in big groups right now. Instead, I walked off the trail and went around them. I said nothing.

Still, I’m not sure whether I did the right thing. Should I have said something? Would it have even made a difference? 

[ICYMI: When Shouldn't You Shy Away from Conflict?]

I’m not the only person struggling with this. While I couldn’t bring myself to call someone out in person, other folks are doing it online.

Just check the neighborhood social media platform Nextdoor.

One man in my neighborhood posted about his “safe social gathering” (a bonfire where attendees supposedly stayed six feet apart). Folks called him out for it, commenting that he’d won the “Darwin award.”

Another Nextdoor user posted a photo of a group gathering near a light rail train station, as if to call them out for breaking the rules.

Most folks are following social distancing guidelines. According to a survey from Morning Consult, 75 percent of American adults say addressing the spread of coronavirus is more important than the economy right now.

But on social media, it feels much more polarized. Everyone has an opinion.

For people who are doing all the “right” things, it’s easy to feel like those who aren’t are ignorant and irresponsible. 

Calling out doesn’t work

But would calling them out for it make them change? 

Not likely, said Bernice Hausman, a professor of humanities and public health sciences at the Penn State College of Medicine.

“Any time you begin a kind of assault on somebody’s behavior that has no empathy for the reasons they might take that position, you risk further entrenching them in their views,” she said.

A woman yelling through her computer. REWIRE PBS Health Call out
While call-out culture is based in rage, calling-in is rooted in empathy.  |  Credit: Adobe

“That’s the thing about call-out culture: there’s no attempt to understand, and there’s no attempt to bridge the gap.”

Call-out culture has been talked about a lot in the context of racism and sexism; the practice of holding people accountable, typically online, for things they’ve said or done in the past.

And it’s tempting, too. When you think someone is wrong, it feels like it might be the most satisfying thing in the world to drag them for everyone to see.

But call-out culture is based in rage. There’s no empathy involved. That’s why folks from all political sides say it’s not the most effective way to get through to people.

Hausman is an expert on the anti-vaccination movement. She sees some overlap between vaccine dissenters and folks who are resisting some of the social distancing guidelines.

“What I’ve seen among vaccine dissenters almost immediately is a set of concerns about the police force of the state,” she said.

“And concern about authoritarian rule and how it might be transferred to emerging vaccine laws.”

Some folks are worried about being forced to do things they don’t want to do, and believe that they should be able to make their own choices for their family.

Liberty with limits

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re ethical, or justified, for holding that position. The truth is that social distancing does slow the spread of disease, and that takes everyone’s participation.

But it’s important to understand that a different opinion doesn’t always come with malicious intent. It’s more complicated than that.

 American society has been devoted to personal liberty from the very start — the right to do what you want, when you want. Social distancing resistors have that part right.

But from the start, those rights have always ended where someone else’s start, says Nancy Tomes, distinguished professor of history at Stony Brook University.

In short: you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re not hurting someone else.

“Going back to the founding fathers, the idea that you could do something to make somebody else sick was a no no,” Tomes said.

“So even at the foundation of our highly liberty-oriented society, there was a recognition that, if a deadly disease threatens your rights as an individual, it should be curbed.”

Over the years, this concept has been held up over and over again in Supreme Court rulings, such as Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), which held that states reserve the right to require folks to do things in case of a public health emergency.

States across the U.S. are using that power right now. There are now stay at home orders in 42 states, three counties, ten cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In many states, breaking the order can be punishable by law — but officials are asking folks to “voluntarily comply,” meaning there’s not a lot of enforcement. 

Instead, they’re directing folks to report any noncompliance they see by calling their local law enforcement agency.

Inform and empower

As of last week, in Minnesota (where I live), 23 people had been charged with a misdemeanor for violating the order — most as a secondary offense to another charge.

This is where calling out comes in. Because when you see someone breaking the rules, it feels like you have the power to intervene, filling in those gaps where law enforcement can’t reach.

From a public health perspective, though, shaming folks for slipping up isn’t smart, said Kumi Smith, an assistant professor in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Public health has always been about acknowledging free will, encouraging good behaviors, and not necessarily punishing bad ones.

“Public health is trying to say… we can’t force you to,” she said.

“But we can give you information that explains to you why this is important, not just for you but for our health system.”

The philosophy is to inform and empower; to give folks all the tools they need to make the right decisions.

When you see someone who isn’t wearing a mask in the grocery store, for instance, you don’t know everything about their situation.

You don’t know whether they have access to a mask. You don’t know whether they have the time or resources to make their own. You don’t know whether they actually have a mask, but forgot it at home.

Breaking the rules isn’t always malicious, even though it might feel that way.

Call-in, not out

It is possible to have productive conversations about safety amid COVID-19, and actually change behavior. 

But those conversations will be much more effective among your friends and family than a random person on the street.

The activist Loretta Ross calls this calling-in, not calling out.

“Calling-in is when you express concern about what someone is saying but you do it in as respectful a fashion as you can,” Tomes said.

The strange person in the grocery store doesn’t care about you personally. But your close friends and family do. By nature, it’s a more empathetic exchange.

That’s actually how public health enforcement worked historically, too. During the Spanish Flu, for instance, the calling out happened at home as children.

“A lot of the health habits people got about being careful, were something that they learned because moms were in charge of teaching children how to behave properly,” Tomes said.

There have always been people who intentionally break the rules for all to see. One hundred years ago, being careful about coughing and sneezing was coded as a “motherly” thing. So men might break that rule in public to seem “macho.”

We tend to think that facts speak for themselves, and that people who take them a different way are practically illiterate. But rhetoricians like Kenneth Burke have said that’s not actually the case. 

Facts need to be presented in a way so people understand them. They’re not supposed to speak for themselves.

Empathy makes a difference

Proximity also breeds empathy. Hausman points out that before the 1980s, lots of people had homophobic and discriminatory views.

Then more and more people started to come out publicly. Folks who were not gay began to realize that they actually knew gay people. It’s harder to despise a group when you know someone who is a part of it.

“That kind of proximity and realization creates a more empathetic understanding,” Hausman said.

“When you have this ‘us vs. them, they’re different from us, I have no idea why they think the way that they do,’ that creates real problems in democratic societies.”

In my state, as of this writing, there have been 2,356 confirmed cases of COVID-19. About half of those people have recovered. One hundred thirty-four people have died.

That means not everyone knows someone who has been personally affected by the virus yet. But they will likely, eventually. 

These aren’t conversations that can just happen once, either. It’s likely there will be pushback to the Coronavirus vaccine, whenever it is released. 

Vaccine alarmists might say it was released too quickly. Others might argue it wasn’t released fast enough.

It’s not easy to talk to your family about these things. Some might argue that it’s less emotionally taxing to shame people you have no emotional connection to.

But it’s worth it.

“Those are the kinds of conversations that could actually make a difference,” Smith said.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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