two -isms shaping the pandemic: safetyism

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast out of Chicago. They were interviewing the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. This is a wonderful zoo that I remember visiting several times growing up in Chicagoland. The director was talking about their plans to reopen the zoo after an extended period being closed to the public. She said something that startled me. According to her, this was the first time the zoo had been closed for an extended period of time since it opened in 1868. In over 150 years, there has never been another circumstance – not a World War, not civil unrest, not an economic depression, not a pandemic – that has shut down the zoo.

It turns out, what is true about LPZ is also true about many other institutions. Here’s a sampling.

  1. The Rose Parade was started in 1891. It has only been canceled three times all in connection to World War II: 1941, 1943, 1945. They have already canceled the parade scheduled for January.
  2. Minor League Baseball was started in 1901. They have never canceled a season until this year.
  3. The Boston Marathon has a 124-year history. This year will be the first year there will be no race.
  4. Wimbledon began in 1877. This year will be the first that the tournament won’t be played in peacetime.
  5. Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the world’s largest rodeos, was canceled for the first time in over 120 years this summer.
  6. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled for the first time in its 81-year history this year.
  7. The British Open was started in 1860. It was canceled once in 1871 because they didn’t have a trophy. The only other times it was canceled was in connection to the two World Wars.
  8. Here’s one that really shocked me. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed this year for the first time since 1349!

How do you explain this?

One explanation, of course, is that the pandemic is so dangerous that these unprecedented moves were necessary. I’m willing to grant that. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s hard to make the case that we should be sitting in the stands with thousands of other fans cheering on our favorite college basketball teams.

But it’s the word “unprecedented” that bothers me. One of my friends on Twitter recently posted a comment that these are not really “unprecedented” times. Society has lived through pandemics before. He pointed to the Spanish Flu pandemic from 100 years ago as an example. When you actually run the numbers, COVID-19 is a mild inconvenience compared to the Spanish Flu.

Given the fact that these are not unprecedented times, how do we account for the unprecedented actions that we’ve taken? I suppose there are a lot of explanations. It’s important to remember that as recently as the end of March, major news outlets were announcing the mortality rate of COVID as nearly double that of the Spanish Flu. There was an urgency to lock downs and cancellations in the panic of the moment that has never really left us even as we’ve discovered more about this disease. Some have also argued that we are a much more mobile and dense population than we were in 1918. This is obviously true. But there’s a trade-off to that reasoning. Our present medical knowledge and technology also makes 1918 look like the Dark Ages. Some have argued that the tragedy of the Spanish Flu would not have been as bad if they had adopted measures then that we’ve adopted now. The message goes sort of like this: “Wear a mask, you dummy. Some people in 1918 didn’t wear masks either. You know what happened to them? They are all dead!” It’s hard to refute or confirm historical counter-actual arguments like this. The most you can say is “well, maybe.” I’ve argued in other places (here and here) that one of the reasons why lock downs became the norm is the presence of digital technology which made it “easier” to propose locking up populations, including school children, for up to half of an entire calendar year. I imagine that if Zoom and Netflix didn’t exist, the shape of our lock downs would be much different. You also can’t dismiss the cascading effect of groupthink. “How can you dream of having a Rose Parade when they’ve already canceled the British Open?” “How can your school stay open when another school in another part of the country has closed? Don’t you know there’s a pandemic?!” Groupthink has bound up any sense of local or personal agency.

I think there is something else going on here. I think that there has been a worldview shift that was with us before 2020, but it is now shaping the way we deal with this pandemic. In my previous post, I talked about the worldview of scientism. This post is dedicated to what some people call “safetyism.”

In their fantastic book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt and Lukianoff define safetyism this way:

Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. ‘Safetyism’ refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. ‘Safety’ trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger.

The Coddling of the American Mind, 29-30

The authors argue that “safetyism” is one of three great untruths we are teaching to our young people which is stripping them of the grit needed to succeed in life.

The unquestioned assumptions of safetyism are shaping the way we respond to this pandemic. Mike Rowe, on Facebook, expressed it far better than I could.

Echoing Rowe, I posted a message to Facebook that said, “Safety first is an awful way to live life.” If we live our lives with safety always as our first, motivating principle, it’s hard to imagine justifying any risk or even leaving the house. Life, in the effort to be safe, will be emptied of all texture and color. The very things that make life worth living will be shelved out of the need to be safe. Is it a sign that a culture has forgotten about the purpose of life, that our number one priority is simply to not die? Is it a sign that a culture has so completely insulated itself from the realities of death and dying, that we would devise such a delusional worldview as safetyism? You can tell which generations were raised on safetyism and which ones weren’t based on their level of fear regarding COVID. Many of those who are most afraid of the virus, are actually least susceptible to it, but they have been raised according to the tenets of safetyism.

I didn’t imagine that my brief Facebook post would be regarded as controversial by anyone. I was wrong. One of my Facebook acquaintances responded in this way: “Barely clinging to life alone in a hospital bed with a breathing tube down your throat is a much better way to live.” It’s hard to imagine a better distillation of safetyism as applied to the pandemic. Note the catastrophizing language along with the assumption that the only alternative to safetyism is recklessness.

You want to go out to eat on your anniversary? Reckless.

You want to go to church? Reckless.

You want to go to your uncle’s funeral? Reckless.

You want to give your grandma a hug? Reckless.

You want to send your child to school? Reckless.

You want to keep your business from closing permanently? Reckless, selfish, and greedy.

Safetyism requires the cessation of life in order to protect life. But it’s not an unfair question to ask whether things will ever be safe enough for the safetyist. Some have come to adopt a standard that comes terribly close to “zero infections and zero deaths.” Folks, if that is the standard, then we should never open up anything again. If your argument for keeping schools closed is that “you can’t imagine a kid catching COVID,” wait until you hear about influenza. You are convinced that you are saying something responsible and righteous, but really you are writing a recipe for paralysis, fear, and fragility. Also consider, one of the sneaky ways that safetyism has made the pandemic worse is because some people will eventually rebel against its strictures and will actually do what is reckless in response. “You want to lock me in my house, away from friends and family until there’s a vaccine? Screw that. I’m having a COVID party at my house!”

I know that some will decide to misinterpret this post. They will say that I’m not taking the pandemic seriously enough. I’m not sure what to say in response. I do take the pandemic very seriously, but I’m unwilling to submit to a worldview as destructive to human flourishing as safetyism. Somehow, or another, we have to break the spell. We have to remember that there are things about living more important than merely staying alive.

One thought on “two -isms shaping the pandemic: safetyism

  1. Stopping at “Given these are *not* unprecedented times” for a second:

    1. The Spanish Flu lasted 24 months. We’re in — arguably — month 4 of Covid. If you switch your statistic to deaths-per-month, we’re looking at around 3 million dead globally in two years, assuming some measure of a mean rather than a double compounding curve. That’s a lot of dead in a modern era that has utterly forgotten memento mori and danse macabre.

    2. Short of 9/11, we have had no culture-upending death count in the first world since the invention of “first world / third world” labels following World War II.

    3. Making this the first significant global threat other than nuclear war threat since the aforementioned World Wars.

    4. And being the first global event since World Wars, the first global common enemy since the plague unless you buy alien conspiracies or count colonial invasions.

    I don’t know, given that, that I would agree that it’s not unprecedented. I think *current* mortality rate is only a small piece of precedence. Particularly when you include both living memory of the aforementioned disease (that currently dominates every other we know of), consider other societal-upending events (58,000 dead in Vietnam, 2,700 in 9/11, vs 150,000 in USA — especially when compared play-for-play to other third-world and first-world countries), and the objectively terrible compounding of the disease’s effect through what interstate and national polls across partly lines now argue was unprecedentedly terrible and morally reprehensible leadership.

    There’s a lot that you could point to and say, “Nothing like that has happened in my grandparents lifetime” prior to _any_ response, I think. Even the above-cited Rowe post seems to imply this.

    ___

    Statistical and historical quibbles aside, I continue to say we’re being as safe as courage allows. I played 2 on 2 basketball this morning for the first time in 10 years. Played contact with neighbors. Got sweat all over me.

    Wore a mask the whole time. Showed and sanitized afterwards.

    Perhaps Kierkegaard’s either / or applies. Every decision is a risk. But there’s measured risk. I wouldn’t get caught dead investing in TSLA right now. But I’m pretty proud of my PFSI shareblock purchase. Risk buying a single stock instead of a mutual fund but there’s also an opportunity cost in only doing a mutual fund when — as the data implied — PFSI doubled its share price in 6 month’s time. In the same manner, there’s such a thing as measured risk with COVID.

    But perhaps that’s what Rowe means anyways.

    To be completely fair, I guess some of it’s not really a loss for me: I’ve never been a fan of 500+ worship gatherings outside of something like international church reunions and think the church would be better off if that sort of thing went the way of Puritans. Then again, I seldom go to concerts or sports events bigger either — I tend to suspect the crowd, wine, and circus when it’s not creed, wine, and le jongleur de dieu.

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