Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Thoughts and Actions

So over the weekend, I was chatting with some friends online. Normally we get together in person about once a month, but, "stay at home orders" and all that. In any event, the topic of conversation was the wearing of masks when outside of the home. As is conventional wisdom, the consensus was that it was somewhere between unserious and irresponsible to not wear a mask when out in public.

I replied, more than a little facetiously, that I was somewhat concerned about wearing a mask in public due to my persistent allergy to bullets. This was greeted with the idea that I should be granted an exception to the general practice of being masked in public.

And thinking about that. something occurred to me. People are being asked to make some fairly substantial changes to their lifestyles. In some cases, at the cost of their livelihoods. And this could continue for a significant (although not unlimited) time. And the general expectation is that people are going to put up with it, willingly, if not happily. And when people complain about it, the general response tends range from incredulity to anger. But when it comes to racism, the reaction is closer to simple resignation. It's interesting to think about what people understand that they can change, or, perhaps more accurately, play a part in changing, and what things they consider to simply be immutable parts of the landscape. Of course, attitudes are different from behaviors. It's possible to use social disapproval to push someone into behaving a certain way, but one can't use that same method to drive them to think a certain way.

Perhaps it's the lack of expert advice. As pertains to the coronavirus, the desired actions are simply laid out by trusted authorities, and all people are really expected to do is what they are told. They don't have to think about it (and there is a strain of thought that says they shouldn't, because this is too important to allow people to come to the wrong conclusions). When it comes to dealing with racism, there no such clear guidance. For many, this is because the "expert" class is not themselves interested in finding a solution to the problem, but it seems more likely that this isn't really a problem that's amenable to being solved by the instructions of a few learned people.

Social will in the United States is often a fleeting thing. Stay at home orders, social distancing and wearing masks and the like; none of them will continue forever. While the individual, day-to-day costs may be small, the overall cost is high, and if it doesn't bear fruit on a relatively short schedule, people aren't going to stick with it. Everyone realizes that. I don't think that people believed that putting this sort of effort into combating people's prejudices would have a fast enough payoff to the worthwhile.

Of course, part of it is fear. COVID-19 has engendered a level of public fear that racism simply can't match. As much as my friends, perhaps mistakenly, understand that racism may be a problem for me, it's not really a problem, in the same way, for most of them. It's a suboptimal feature of society, but not really the same level of threat. And in a culture that often relies on fear to get things done, that can be important.

No comments: