Under Edward I, Jews were driven out of England with the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. For nearly 400 years, Jews were essentially nonexistent in England, meaning that the English Anglicans had no conception of or experience with a real Jew during those four centuries. Because of this, great works of literature, including William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, depicted Jewish characters like Shylock and Barbaras as monstrous and evil. Shakespeare and Marlowe had no legitimate experience with Jews, and gained conceptions of this group through assumptions, stories, and rumors passed down through generations of Anglicans. Shakespeare and Marlowe did not see Jews as what they were–people. Shakespeare and Marlowe were essentially unable to invite a Jewish person over for dinner, speak with them, see how much their counterpart loved their family and worked for their safety, or see how many fears they shared with one another. Because they had no true conception of any real Jewish person, Shakespeare and Marlowe assumed them to be evil, money laundering, blood libeling villains (all of which we know are certainly not true).
Another 500 years later, the moral of the story continues to play out (though clearly in a different context): without experiencing or interacting with other people, you are more likely to assume the worst about them.
Today, political divisions, rather than divisions along religious lines, reign supreme among Americans. The political division that has only deepened in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election. Although any election year sees a flare-up in political divisions, the pandemic seems to have taken these divisions beyond what any modern American has ever experienced.
Through travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and social distancing measures, Americans have been forced to remain in their personal bubbles. No longer can an individual easily interact with strangers, acquaintances, and even loved ones with whom they vehemently disagree. Rather, many Americans have retreated to social media, where legitimate discourse is disincentivized. In a time when “community” in the truest sense of word has seemingly been erradicated, many have turned to online “communities” in a desperate attempt to fill the hole in their hearts.
While Americans may interact with those with differing viewpoints virtually, the lack of humanity and personal connection involved in interacting with another social media user makes the experience far less productive than an in-person argument. Furthermore, social media’s “block” and “unfollow” functions make it easier to ignore things one might disagree with, while simultaneously making it easier to create an echo chamber for oneself.
Not only have pandemic-related events exacerbated these trends, but the politicization of the pandemic itself has caused further incivility. Those who fall to the right of the political spectrum are assumed to believe the virus is a hoax. Those who fall to the left are assumed to believe that COVID-19 is the equivalent of the black plague. Those on the right think those on the left are far too afraid, while those on the left think those on the right are inconsiderate. These assumptions, along with the vitriolic approach to interactions used on social medial, have blend into the limited in-person interactions we now experience. This is especially true in big cities, where interactions were already considerably impersonal due to high populations. The personal nature of real-life interactions has also been reduced by mask-wearing, as a portion of non-verbal communication is blocked. Furthermore, masks have become a political symbol representing one’s political belief (they should actually be apolitical, but the world is not a perfect place). As such, it is easy for a mask-wearing individual to assume the worst of a maskless individual they see in their neighborhood, and vice versa. Clearly, these are not ideal conditions with which to enter an interaction with someone.
Consider a situation in which two strangers, one wearing a mask and one without a mask, encounter each other on a walk. Both carry negative assumptions about one another. The mask wearer may look at the maskless person and think, “It’s okay if I’m a little mean to this person–they clearly don’t care about others since their actions will certainly harm someone! They could get someone sick and they could die! They must be evil, and I must have the moral high-ground here.” Simultaneously, the bare faced individual may look at the mask wearer and think, “It’s okay if I’m a little mean to this person–they clearly don’t care about others since their actions will certainly harm someone! Their compliance could ruin the economy and our democracy and people could die! They must be evil, and I must have the moral high-ground here.”
Both individuals, sitting on their high-horses, only considering their side of the story, believe they are on the right side of history, so it must be “okay” to be uncivil with their counterpart. Both individuals, in fact, are wrong, as neither considers the nuances of our current environment. It is true that being irresponsible in your actions can cause someone else to get sick and perhaps even die, although this is not guaranteed. It is also true that being compliant with every order put forth by your government can lessen your future freedom by giving the government more power, although this is not guaranteed. Entire books can be written to discuss the complexities of this particular historical moment, but like with many things, the truth of the situation likely lays somewhere in between the simplistic conclusions presented above.
If we somehow sought out meaningful interactions with members of the opposite mindset, we may find we have more in common with them than we once thought. The mask wearer, for example, who is afraid of the outcome of the pandemic, may realize that the maskless individual is just as afraid–just for different reasons. Both individuals can be nasty to each other, but both do so out of fear. Both care about the outcome of this ongoing problem, because both care about the future of the country, the future for their children, the future for their fellow Americans. Perhaps if we discuss this with one another, we can balance our concerns against one another, and come to a conclusion that solves both problems.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too optimistic. I myself am afraid. I’m worried not only about the outcome of the pandemic itself in terms of how many people are killed by or experience long term side-effects from the virus, but I’m also concerned with the impact of lockdowns. I’m concerned with how many people are killed because of the economic damage amid the pandemic, I’m concerned with the damage to mental health that lockdowns have produced, I’m concerned with how virtual schooling is being approached and how it will impact children’s futures, and I’m concerned with the destruction to our already tattered social fabric.
I’m no expert in epidemiology or economics, so I don’t have the answers to the larger issues at hand. I do know, though, that we won’t fix anything by being uncooperative, rude, stubborn, presumptuous, and arrogant. The only way to solve problems that we are collectively facing is to listen to and work with one another. Otherwise, the center will not hold, and we will destroy ourselves and blame it on one another’s.
As Shylock noted so prophetically in Merchant of Venice, we are all “subject to the same diseases.”