Sunday, July 26, 2020

Awwww... Freak Out!

“Some Republicans are much less freaked out by the virus than they were a few months ago,” said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who is tracking Americans’ perspectives of the coronavirus through a panel survey. “But things are changing so quickly — these new outbreaks could scare them and maybe some of that polarization disappears.”
Republicans And Democrats See COVID-19 Very Differently. Is That Making People Sick?
One thing that has become something of a pet peeve of mine about the SARS2-CoV outbreak is the degree to which "freaking out" or "being scared" are equated with having a clear-eyed view of the risks involved and having an appropriate tolerance (or intolerance, as the case may be) of those risks. Mainly because fear and freaking out, are, more or less by definition, the opposite of clear-eyed and rational. In the same way that "outraged" and "attentive" are not synonyms, "concern" and "acknowledgement" aren't either. When the Pew Research Center asks people: "How concerned, if at all, are you that you might spread the coronavirus to other people without knowing that you have it?" that's a valid question. But it's not the same question as: "How, if at all, likely do you believe it is that you might spread the coronavirus to other people without knowing that you have it?"

While American English tends to use "I am afraid/concerned X will happen," to mean "I think there is a likelihood that negative event X will happen," those sentences are independent of one another and each of them can be true when the other is not. After all, people admit to having unreasonable fears (say, being bitten by a typical household spider), or express acceptance of risk (driving frequently) all the time

In any event, I'm not particularly concerned that there is a large enough cohort of the American public that understands the risks and takes them in stride that the numbers that Pew gathers are somehow fundamentally inaccurate. And as for the idea that it's become normalized to see fear as the only rational response to an unknown (and for many of us, myself included, unknowable) risk, well, that ship has already sailed. (I'm pretty sure it collided with an iceberg, and is now resting comfortably at the bottom of the ocean.) Like I said, this a pet peeve of mine. And that peeve is that it's hard to express nuance in a situation in which nuanced language is commonly squeezed out.
Some surveys offer a glimmer of hope, suggesting that the partisan gaps in how people are actually behaving — whether they wear a mask, for example — are much narrower than the divides on questions about what they think the government should do in response to the virus or whether the worst is behind us.
Why wouldn't one expect that measures of personal behavior would differ from questions of what someone else may or should do, or what the future will hold? A person whose head is under water is going to hold their breath, whether they expect to breach the surface again in five seconds or in one minute. Seeing hope as it is presented above strikes me as an overly pessimistic view of the way partisanship works. Whether or not a person takes precautions against an event happening can be independent of their understanding of the likelihood of the event. I keep a fire extinguisher (more than one, actually) in my apartment. I have never, in my life, been in a situation in which a home that I was in, mine or anyone else's, has been burning. I expect that this will continue to be the case, likely indefinitely. But having the ability to put out a small fire is better than not having it, and the cost was low. And, more to the point that I'm making here, if a journalist were to see the fire extinguishers and conclude, from that alone, that I expected a fire to break out in the forseeable future, they'd be laughed at. There would be an expectation that if they wanted to understand what I believed the risk of a fire to be, or my emotional state concerning same, they would have to ask me more directly. There's no reason to extend the current virus outbreak the same courtesy.

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