Do people annoy you more than they used to? I’ve found my levels of irritation with people in public spaces rising over the last year and I’ve found it interesting to think about why. The reasons for the irritation are varied: not wearing masks on public transport, ignoring one ways systems intended to support social distancing, blocking pavements with their cars and being oblivious to their proximity to others. These share characteristics with things which annoyed me before the pandemic (viz cyclists on pavements tacitly expecting pedestrians to move for them 😡) but the diffuse danger of SARS-COV-2 has clearly animated and extended this category of irritant.
As an amateur-epidemiologist like so many others, I understand there’s little to no imminent risk attached to any of the ensuing encounters. I’m not going to catch COVID because I briefly brush past someone while evading a car that’s been parked over a narrow pavement, at least not unless that person is infectious and happens to cough directly in my face at the moment I happen to be inhaling. Masks are an exception to this point, particularly when I’ve been on longer train journeys where the absence of windows in an enclosed space coexists with people unwilling to wear face coverings.
However even then the sense of risk doesn’t exhaust the phenomenology of my irritation, even if it does play a role in it in a manner which isn’t the case when passing someone on the street. It involves a degree of censoriousness in me which I find jarring to recognising, as something who has had basically libertarian instincts for as long as I can remember. There have been elements of this growing for a while, particularly when it comes to being frustrated with noise (go away planes!) which I suspect may just be in part a function of getting older. I seemed to get slightly grumpier almost overnight when I hit the second half of my thirties*. The pandemic has at the very least turbocharged this process in a way which I recognise in other people as well. When I’ve been on the receiving end of this censoriousness, particularly early in the pandemic when I was followed round a shop being shouted at by a woman who accused me of invading her personal space (ironically invading my own personal space in the process) I’ve felt how unpleasant this is as a social emotion.
Zeynep offers a convincing explanation of this phenomenon in a recent Atlantic essay. She stresses the role that individualism plays in experiencing the pandemic, with the belief in our own capacity to influence our events (keeping ourselves and others safe through responsible actions etc) going hand-in-hand with a disposition to blame others for failing to act responsibly in the same way:
Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/how-public-health-messaging-backfired/618147/
The point is not to look upwards towards the ‘macro-social’ and forget the level of the individual. The point is not to inflate the significance of individual behaviour during this crisis, as well as to recognise the social psychological mechanism which lead us to do it. It’s normatively and legally legitimate to expect adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions during a crisis of this magnitude. Not least of all because social behaviour is an aggregate of individual behaviour across all these different encounters i.e. each fleeting individual act might be insignificant but the total of them isn’t. However it can shape the pandemic politics in unhelpful ways, as Zeynep points out below. Furthermore, it can make us grumpy and uncharitable, which is going to be a problem when it comes to vast reconstruction of the social (amidst stark and spiralling inequality) which will be necessary after this crisis.
The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/how-public-health-messaging-backfired/618147/
*I feel so much older having written this.