The pandemic has highlighted many of our problems. One of the most disturbing, for me, is the complete lack of a national conversation. There’s very little public conversation at all, and that tends to be confined to geekdoms. There’s almost nothing that can properly be called public discourse. All we have is a bunch of overconfident, self-righteous people yelling at each other.
The internet defines a conversation as, “a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.” I think this is a solid definition. I wouldn’t limit it to news and ideas. I think feelings and questions and other things are fair game for conversation, too. The important thing, though, is the exchange. Conversations require sharing. All the parties involved need to be willing both to give and to receive. That’s what we’re missing.
What would a pandemic conversation have looked like? It would have started with someone laying out ALL of the known, relevant information. Ideally this would be the government, but the press could step up, too. And I mean all of the information. So, they could tell us if we do nothing, we project x infections and y deaths. The economy will change by z%, and the unemployment rate will change by q%. Teacher and student absences will result in p school hours missed. Hospitals will exceed capacity by b%, and on and on. Then, do the same thing for a total, complete lockdown with curfews, mandatory closings, government payments for not working, mandatory quarantines, complete travel bans, etc. And do it for several points in between doing nothing and a complete lockdown. Then, we could start talking.
Different constituencies will, of course, have different priorities. Organized labor might focus on job losses and hazard pay while wall street focuses on the markets. Parents may worry about safety and education while medical professionals are focused on hospital capacity and vaccine development/distribution. The key to it being a conversation is that we must all recognize that every one of these priorities is important, legitimate. Then, we can find a compromise that balances all of these concerns as best we can. It won’t be perfect. It certainly won’t satisfy everyone, but as long as everyone’s position is honestly considered, we will get buy in. We can focus on the solutions together. That is the advantage of a conversation.
Almost none of this happened in reality. We still don’t have all of the known, relevant information. The government and press are only telling us what fits their agendas. No one is taking any priorities but their own seriously. And none of us have been presented with a range of options to choose between. We have basically split into two opposing sides, and neither will tolerate the other.
The two sides, broadly and generously speaking, are freedom and safety. It baffles me that the two sides can’t talk. I have been very good throughout the pandemic from the safety point of view. I’ve been staying in and wearing masks. I’ve gone weeks without seeing my kid for fear of possible exposure. I even quit a job in large part because I was one of the very few there who seemed to take the pandemic seriously. I also generally think that freedom is way overrated by most people. But, I’m very sympathetic to the freedom side. It’s disturbing to see the government force businesses to close and regulate what people can and cannot wear. I don’t like travel restrictions. I recognize the economic impact of social distancing.
I don’t think I’m unique in being able to see both sides. Most of us, I think, have some sense of it. But everyone refuses to talk about it. Well, that’s not true. Plenty of people talk about it, but they refuse to converse about it. The talk is never about exchanging ideas, it’s about forcing a viewpoint on others. Both sides are guilty. The freedom side may be more obvious with the ways they shut down conversations, but the safety side’s techniques may be more harmful.
Freedom folks are mostly shutting down conversation with variations on, “Don’t tell me what to do!” It’s not very subtle, but it is quite effective. The other group’s techniques sound a little softer, but they’re equally as effective. In the beginning of the pandemic, they were consistently saying things like, “If we react appropriately, it will look like we overreacted.” That’s straight up gaslighting. “Hey, guys, any evidence you find that we were wrong is actually evidence of how right we were.” Next thing, they’ll be telling me that they only hit me because they love me more than those other guys. Luckily (that’s probably not quite the right word), this tactic was dropped when it became clear that nothing about our response to the pandemic looked like an overreaction.
The next tactic adopted by the safety crowd was, “Listen to the science,” and it’s still with us. Science has been used as a conversation stopper for ages. You might say it’s a classic, and all the more dangerous because so many people don’t even notice what it’s doing. Science does not, will not, and cannot dictate policy. (I’m assuming that Political Science is not actually a science. I hope that’s not too controversial.) Science, at least when it’s done right, can tell us what is happening, but it doesn’t tell us how to deal with it. We need values and priorities to decide how to deal with things. Science is silent on both of those things.
I can hear the objections. Hopefully an example can help. Let’s say I want population control, I’m like Thanos. There are too many people and we need to fix that problem. Science can help. Step one, don’t lift a finger to do anything about Coronavirus. Step two, gather in large groups as often as possible. Step three, make covering your face taboo. I don’t just mean no masks, when you sneeze or cough, there can be no hands or elbows getting in the way. Just let it fly. We can go further, outlawing condoms and ambulances while encouraging smoking and drinking, but that’s enough for now. I have just listened to the science. I understand how COVID works and what to do with it. Science never once spoke up and told me there was anything wrong with my goal.
We live in a pluralistic society. That’s mostly a good thing. But, that means we are living with people who don’t always share our values and priorities. Their values and priorities are legitimate. I can’t insist they do what’s best for me and mine. We have to find what works best for all of us. That means we have to have a conversation, full of give and take. It’s the only way to begin to understand each other to find common ground.
The lack of conversation has been particularly frustrating during the pandemic even though it’s not only a pandemic problem. I’m not an infectious disease expert. Nor am I an economist. I’m no expert on education, supply chains, or mental health, either. However, I am a citizen of a (supposed) democracy and a father. That means I have to make decisions about the pandemic. Decisions that will affect others. I want, desperately, an open and honest conversation with all of the experts and stakeholders so I can make the best decisions possible. In the past year, I haven’t gotten anything close. A year into this and I still feel like I’m flying blind.