The other week, just as the press and social media were blowing up on the topic of city people hoarding on Long Island’s East End, along with a more general toilet-paper panic across the country, I ran out of paper towels. I went to my small local market and found, to my chagrin, that they only had Costco-size 10-packs, far more than I’d ever buy, even in these strange times.
The more problematic issue was that I had to ride with them home on my bike. Feeling like I was wearing a billboard-size kick me, i’m a city hoarder sign, I put down my head, lowered my cap, and raced from the parking lot to back roads to avoid running into anyone on our tiny main street.
The last thing I wanted was to be shamed in a coronavirus callout.
If a national emergency has unleashed everything from anxiety to altruism, it has also escalated our cancel culture. On social media, the new village square, everyone now gets a shot at kicking the clueless.
The short list includes a fashion influencer who tested positive then fled to the Hamptons, where instead of going into quarantine, she posted pictures of herself outside; a Miami spring breaker who told CBS news, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying”; and the pub owner in Pasadena lambasted for staying open on Saint Patrick’s Day. Then there was Representative Thomas Massie, of Kentucky, who forced some in Congress to come back for a last-minute vote on its $2 trillion relief package. “Disgraceful,” tweeted Representative Pete King, of Long Island. “Irresponsible.” Donald Trump dismissed Massie as “a third rate Grandstander” with the authority of a first-rate one.
Another big coronavirus callout flared up when the Brooklyn Nets got tested for the virus. “Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. The New York Post was less kind to line-jumping elites (“Rich and famous get Covid-19 test but average people can’t”). But then, gossip has always existed as a corrective for the powerful, a way to hold public figures to account.
If a national emergency has unleashed everything from anxiety to altruism, it has also escalated our cancel culture.
“It’s part of efforts to pressure other people to do the ‘right’ thing and assert moral authority,” Lauren Rosewarne, an Australian social scientist, recently told The Wall Street Journal. It doesn’t help that, unlike countries with strict and even punitive nationwide rules about home sequestering, ours are less clear—especially when undermined by our own head of state.
So, at a time when things are inconceivably scary, it’s no surprise to see people wanting to assert control over anything and anyone, from imprudent parents to cavalier kids, posting pictures of strangers not observing social distancing and telling them to “stay the fuck home.”
“PLEASE STOP. YOU ARE NOT SOCIAL DISTANCING, YOU ARE SOCIAL SPREADING,” novelist Candace Bushnell, just back from a trip to not one but two infected Asian countries, e-mailed after I posted about adapting to social-distancing rules as they were being made, not ahead of them. “Even if you do not want to safeguard yourself, please think of others.”
If her scolding was in the name of public safety, the plea from Lucinda Rosenfeld, another novelist, was more for social decency. “How about a moratorium on rolling mountains/golden hour beach walks and sunset shots?” she posted on Instagram while stuck in Brooklyn. When I shared the post with a city friend sequestering with her family on Sanibel Island, in Florida, who had been posting pool and boat pictures, she replied, “That’s what self control and filters are for.”
That may be so, but it seems to me that, along with vigilance, an excess of consideration might have its place right now. That would mean not just filtering out others but filtering ourselves.
Cornelia Guest recently canceled on a friend’s dinner party in Dallas, where she now lives. “I didn’t shame her, and I don’t judge people, but it said enough that I told her I didn’t want to come,” said the vegan former debutante, who is careful not to embarrass friends for eating meat or wearing fur. “You get people to listen more based on how you behave, not what you tell them.” Or as Alexander Pope put it, “Honor and shame from no condition rise; / Act well your part: there all the honor lies.”
Sometimes you have no choice but to say something. A neighbor of mine in line at the market was wearing a scarf over her face because she had a cold and wanted to be a good citizen. The mother and child behind her were way too close, but when politely asked to step back, the mother muttered to another customer, “She thinks that scarf is going to protect her.”
My neighbor turned. “If you want to catch my cold, stand as close as you want,” she said. The woman quickly backed away. No man is an island and no woman either, especially while grocery shopping during a pandemic.
Bob Morris is a writer who lives in New York