What does each response have in common? They are, by in large, factual, rational statements. However, none actually addresses the call. Each is a deliberate attempt to shift the focus away from the issue at hand and steer the conversation toward something else. In relation to the actual problem, the argument is, at best, adjacent and, at worst, destructive.
This purposeful misdirection is a form of whataboutism, a propaganda technique often attributed to Russia during the Cold War, and it should come as no surprise that as a culture we find ourselves using this type of ‘debate’ more and more. Trump has long been the champion of the form. To be sure, humankind has engaged in whataboutism since the world’s first spat (“You left the fire go out, honey.” “Well you didn’t kill a single woolly mammoth on your hunt, dear.”). But I believe the frequency and ferocity of the current usage can be attributed to how often we hear it in the news and social media. And with our president having both of those markets cornered, we cannot escape it.
Whataboutism works so well because there is a certain familiarity to it. We trained ourselves to use it from a young age. Remember, as a child, getting caught doing something (stealing a cookie, getting in a fight, not doing a chore). Think about your typical response. “What about Joe? He took two cookies!” or “Why are you punishing me? Mark started it!” or “Why doesn’t Mary have any chores!” Because we felt disproportionately punished or unfairly blamed—but not that the accusation was false—these arguments were a defense mechanism meant to deflect attention elsewhere. And that is how whataboutism works. Rather than disprove or refute the original argument, the easier route is to [sometimes literally] point at someone worse or something else. Does posting a video on Facebook of a white police officer helping a black man mean that the police is working just fine? Or could it be true that there are good police officers AND the institution could use a makeover?
Whataboutism often doesn’t allow for two things to exist simultaneously in the same space. It forces you to choose between two quasi-related issues, turning a logical exchange into a mish-mash of disparate, loosely associated ideas. This form of argumentation is particularly detrimental to the Coronavirus. Often pundits and presidents ask ‘what about’ the common cold or flu. “Do we shut down the schools for the common cold!? Did we close restaurants for the flu!?” If you are a person who takes the Coronavirus seriously, these statements attempt to make YOU feel like the crazy person. The logic could be completely reversed very easily. How about: “Many actions taken to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 could be applied to cold and flu season. Let’s adopt them more broadly to keep our communities healthy.”
There are a few reasons that the U.S. leadership has resorted to whataboutism so often, and the previous paragraph underscores one of them. It allows you to shirk any kind of responsibility. Once you admit that the problem exists, you cannot simply point another direction and say ‘what about’. You’ve put the magnifying glass directly over the issue and now have to take ownership. Another reason is that there is no perfect response. Every policy move involves a trade-off and Trump is a man of either/or; he works in superlatives. Things are either the best or the worst, the most or the least. There is no ‘best’ response to COVID. So rather than evaluate trade-offs and develop a good plan, he has opted to keep pointing in different directions…resulting in no plan.
A third reason is that you may have to admit you were wrong. The science around this disease is not static, it is dynamic, which requires flexibility in the response. And inevitably, we will make mistakes. But imagine the breath of fresh air it would be to hear an elected official simply say: “I was wrong about this and we have made policy changes based on what we now know.” But if your heels are dug in and you refuse to accept the possibility that you could be wrong, what happens when you are wrong? You change the subject. Whataboutism is the ideal tactic for the stubborn.
So how do we break a cycle of whataboutism? How about…howaboutism? ‘How about’ is the phrase used right before offering a suggestion. It is constructive rather than obstructive. Whataboutism offers no solutions, just points out other problems. Howaboutism, on the other hand, immediately acknowledges the problem, and begins down the path to an answer. Granted, this path is often long, circuitous, undefined, but it is a step down that path. It meets the problem with purpose and direction, it spurs creativity and innovation, it opens the dialogue to diverse opinions but also forces compromise. I believe it can be a unifying response to cut through the divisive rhetoric of whataboutism.
When I am looking to make a change, I find it helpful to find an example in practice, and follow it. Luckily, we have millions of examples of howaboutism being used all around us. That is not an exaggeration. You have to look no further than anyone in the LGBTQ community and/or any woman who has been an advocate for #BlackLivesMatter. I saw a total of zero posts from the LGBTQ community reminding the world that June was their month and we should shift our attention to them. Similarly, I heard no woman suggest that a focus on black lives was taking away from their struggle for equal rights. On the contrary, we witnessed (and are still witnessing) solidarity and compassion, a concerted effort to work together for the common objective.
To be clear, women are still mistreated and underrepresented (just look no further than AOC’s remarks in Congress). LGBTQ folks are experiencing discrimination (it took until June 15 for the Supreme Court to rule that homosexual and transgender employees couldn’t be fired based on sex). #BLM didn’t magically solve other institutional and structural problems (it also highlights challenges associated with intersectionality), but those from which the focus was shifted did not use whataboutism to bring the focus back to them. Instead, they unified their voices around the cause and address the issue at hand. Instead of saying “What about us?” the message has been “How about we focus on this group right now?”
The same can be done with COVID-19. Other diseases did not take the year off. But in the same way that now is the time to fight for #BlackLivesMatter, now is also the time to fight COVID-19. Instead of pointing fingers, we should be asking the right questions: How about we re-imagine education and childcare? How about we consider both the unemployment rate and the stock market as valid economic indicators when creating relief packages? How about we use what we’ve learned about reducing the spread of COVID-19 and apply it during flu season? How about we take some of the best practices from other countries and implement them here? How about we use scientific evidence, real-time data, and informed opinions when creating public policy?
Words are just words, and changing from ‘what’ to ‘how’ will not solve the problem of Coronavirus. However, just the shift in thinking could at least start us down the right path.
If you have experienced this, you understand the concept of headwind/tailwind asymmetry, a phenomenon studied by Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai. In a nutshell, we tend to overweight the influence of barriers to our successes and underweight the influence of bridges. Consider the winter morning when your car doesn’t start, or when your colleague gets the promotion at work, or when your classmate gets the ‘easy’ group project and you get the ‘tough’ one. These are true headwinds with real repercussions. But now consider the accompanying tailwinds: you own a car, you have a good job, you are receiving a high-quality education. While the net impact of the underlying tailwinds is stronger by magnitudes, the feelings associated with the headwinds are more salient. The bias stems from the fact that the obstacles in our life are so tangible, obvious, in-our-faces, while the benefits we enjoy blend into the scenery and the normalcy of everyday life.
This headwind/tailwind asymmetry bias can be applied to white privilege, and I believe it contributes to the difficulty some have with accepting it exists. It is rational to take credit when things go well. We like to think that personal achievements are the result of our hard work and that failures are due to factors outside of our control. I’ll be the first to admit that when I have a good teaching day it is because—in my mind—I prepped like mad, perfectly blended content and humor, and just crushed the lecture. Alternatively, when I have a bad teaching day, it is not my fault. More likely I come up with an excuse, a headwind: the room was too hot, the A/V didn’t work, last night was Green Beer Day and so the students had no energy. Each of those headwinds disproportionately influenced my assessment of the outcome. Could it be that I just had an off day?
Privilege is related to gratitude, and gratitude requires accepting that you had help. No matter how much energy you put into an accomplishment, there are always underlying tailwinds that push you along the way. Gratitude does not minimize the success; it just acknowledges these tailwinds. I think it is easier to recognize white privilege as the headwinds that black people experience and white people do not. We witness things like disproportionate police brutality and higher incarceration rates, and we can take specific steps to reduce them (e.g., activism, voting, funding organizations). However, there are tailwinds that white people enjoy that black people often do not, and these tend to be less conspicuous. Things like growing up in a community with social programs or getting a job interview because our name ‘sounds white’ are tougher to observe. For instance, it’s easy to forget about the tailwinds (white skin, male gender, middle-class upbringing, access to education, etc.) that led to my opportunity to become a professor to begin with—let alone have a good or bad teaching day.
This is not to say that every person does not have to overcome struggles. Regardless of color, we all run into and against headwinds. Some are systematic (e.g., gender, appearance, ethnicity) while some are individual (e.g., fill-in-the-blank of your own experiences). Similarly, we all experience systematic and individual tailwinds. The challenge for white people, I believe, is to simply accept that we are pushed forward by certain tailwinds that do not exist for people of color, and we undervalue them because of the asymmetry bias.
My last post was about embracing the mistakes I will make when attempting to be anti-racist. So instead of ending with that ‘food-for-thought’, I will attempt to do something about this asymmetry. My endeavor is to try and provide that individual tailwind for someone who does not have it systematically built-in. The first step is to think about specific (often subtle) ways that being white has made my life easier. Have I walked by police officers without anxiety or fear my entire life? Have I been recommended for a position over someone else with the same credentials? Have I not been given the side-eye by clerks and cashiers? Are products always geared toward me? Is my understanding of art, music, and literature actually just white art, music, and literature? And on and on.
How have those tailwinds, compounded over time, shaped my life? They have offered a steady breeze at my back, pushing me through the sporadic headwinds. What can we do about it? Once we acknowledge our tailwinds, we should not feel guilty or shameful—that does not help anyone. Instead, we can be grateful and become that tailwind for someone who needs it.
One example. On TV and in the movies, successful and powerful people have always looked like me. The doctors, lawyers, CEOs, politicians—and college professors—are most often white males. How has that been a tailwind? Over time, that consistent cue subconsciously instilled confidence in me, driving me to believe I could achieve the career I wanted. College professors are white males, therefore I can—or even should—be a college professor. A black person my age would not have had that constant reminder, that representation, and would perhaps lack the same confidence. The opportunity for me is to make a concerted effort to instill that confidence in, say, one of my black students who would not otherwise have it, to provide an individualized tailwind where the systematic one does not exist.
But perhaps we have the capacity to create a systematic tailwind. In the model of #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackHikersWeek, and #BlackBotantistsWeek, let’s create #BlackProfessorsWeek, August 23-30, the first week of the fall semester for most universities. Black professors can share their stories and pictures on social media, representing and demonstrating how the profession is accessible to young black people. Equally important, it can show how the profession needs MORE people of color. White people who wish to be involved can share stories and photos of black professors who changed their lives. It’s a small start to creating the systematic tailwind that so many white people like me have enjoyed, but it is a start.
To be more vocal requires more confidence, and one way to gain confidence is to become an expert in the subject matter. If the Jeopardy! category was Star Wars, I would speak loudly and without hesitation. If the category was British royalty, I would mumble almost inaudibly or say nothing at all. In short, I do not want to say the wrong thing. I do not want to do the wrong thing. I choose to remain silent rather than embrace the possibility of making a mistake.
Black Lives Matter and systemic racism are things in which I will never be an expert. After George Floyd was murdered, I have done what a lot of people have done: join a BLM protest, read, watch, and listen to as much as I could absorb, create a few social media posts, support black organizations, etc. But apart from that, my gut reaction was to just keep my head low and mouth shut. Not only am I not an expert, as arguably the most categorically privileged type of person (white, male, straight), nobody wants to hear from me about this issue.
In general, we can avoid Sloppy Mistakes. If your cell phone rings in church or you forget to shut off your car’s engine overnight (guilty of both), that was sloppy, and you didn’t really learn much either. An Aha-Moment Mistake is also unintentional but provides a big learning opportunity. Perhaps your tomato plants die from over-watering or you put a red T-shirt in the white laundry (also guilty of both). You did not intend to mess up, but you’ll never make either mistake again. As a professor, my goal is to help my students not make High-Stakes Mistakes. We conduct mock interviews where the worst thing that can happen is they lose a few points. The goal is to use feedback to ensure they do not make those mistakes in the actual job interview—where the stakes are high. Better to slice your tee-shot on the driving range than at the U.S. Open. And finally, Stretch Mistakes occur when you try something new. Here you expect to mess up, but you learn from it. The first time you make a soufflé, it will probably be burnt. The first time you parallel park, you will probably hit the curb. But it is not as if you were lazy or didn’t try. It is simply a matter of taking a risk. The mistake is bound to happen and necessary to achieve growth.
So what does that mean for approaching the black lives matter movement and racism? As the most important issue in our world today, it requires voices. For me, it means not shying away from discussions because I am not confident on the subject matter. (There are not enough books/podcasts/documentaries in the world to do so). It means embracing conflict, making mistakes, and growing from them.
But what are the right mistakes to make? Sloppy mistakes are the result of laziness, and this problem is too important to be lazy. Assumptions based on race, un-vetted social media posts, these should not occur. I have already made an Aha-Moment Mistake. The first time I saw a “Defund the Police” sign while marching in Athens, OH, I thought “they can’t be serious.” Forty-eight hours later, I had a completely different point of view, informed by a diverse set of opinions and statistics. I now engage in those discussions not because I am an expert but because I realize its importance. I also understand that being uninformed and silent is a privilege that many do not have.
I am wading into new territory, and therefore, I am bound to make Stretch Mistakes. But rather than shy away from them, I need to embrace them. I am going to say the wrong thing. Racism is embedded in our culture that this is inevitable. I continue to eliminate phrases from my vocabulary, add new ones, and share what I have learned—and need to learn—with others. If the goal is to become a better person, an ally, an advocate, an engaged citizen, then I will mess up. I need to be grateful for the lesson in whatever form it takes.
I did not forget about High-Stakes Mistakes. In theory, these should be avoided, but the stakes are intrinsically high, and there is no avoiding them. Inaction is also a privilege that many do not enjoy, and it can be just as detrimental to any cause. This means I need to embrace the conflict that may come from actions. It may mean difficult conversations with friends and family. It may mean alienating friends and family. But if the result is a just society, it is worth it. We don’t get to decide the stakes in this case.
While the BLM movement is intertwined with the Coronavirus, they require different things from us. The best approach to COVID-19 for the average citizen is relatively simple: stay at home in your comfort zone, wear a mask which muffles your voice, wash your hands to be clean of the problem. The approach to ending racism, however, is more complex. It requires going out of your comfort zone, removing the figurative mask stifling your voice, and getting your hands dirty because this problem cannot be simply washed away. It will require a growth-courage mindset, and that will only occur if we are open to making mistakes.
This dichotomy recalled an episode from ‘The Weeds’ podcast. Essentially, they broke down our two political parties into similar groups using one word descriptors: Democrats=hope and Republicans=fear. Thinking about the words objectively, this resonated with me because of its simplicity and—in my opinion—its accuracy. As the podcast noted, you only have to look at the last two winning presidential slogans. Barrack Obama used “Hope and Change” while Donald Trump used “Make American Great Again.” The former seemed to view the changing global landscape as something to be hopeful about. The latter seemed to suggest that things were better ‘back in the good old days’. Obama sought change while Trump longed for the status quo, or rather, what used to be the status quo.
Both men were looking at a similar situation: the unknown. Where is the United States heading? What is our American identity? How should we handle issues such as immigration, systemic racism, economic issues, foreign affairs, inequality, human rights, etc.? They just viewed the situation through different lenses. You could argue (as pundits do) which is the correct lens, but the important thing is that the same basic picture can be framed so dramatically differently.
Most people identify with both hope and fear in some way. How do you answer the question: what does the future look like? Is your answer “Things will get better,” “Things were better before,” or somewhere in the middle. You could call these liberal or conservative values, but both can be useful—now more than ever. To borrow the cliché, in the midst of this pandemic, we need to work across the ideological aisle as we think about next steps. We need to balance a sense of hope and fear.
Fear can be a good thing. We are familiar with the fight-or-flight response to a dangerous situation. Scholars suggest this phenomenon evolved from our time on the plains thousands of years ago. Sensing a predator in the high grass, we quickly determined it was time to retreat to safety. This instinct evolved to ensure our survival. Today, we are fearful of an invisible virus that spreads easily and indiscriminately while harming and killing discriminately. This fear also evolved to ensure survival. If we did not fear the Coronavirus, we would fall victim just as we would have to a lion on the savanna.
Fear can be a bad thing. However our fear manifests (anxiety, stress, doubt, suspicion, despair) it acts as a self-imposed limitation on our potential. We can become paralyzed by it and miss opportunities. Often a difficult or threatening situation reveals our most admirable qualities, from standing up to a bully to speaking in front of a group. Overcoming fear shows courage and resolve. Fear is omnipresent right now, and while it is certainly helpful, succumbing to it hinders our resilience.
Hope can be a good thing (the character, Red, from The Shawshank Redemption would argue “maybe the best of things”). Without hope, the future is bleak, but hope is more than optimism. The optimist wants to believe the future will be good. The hopefulist (patent pending) actually expects it. We hope that the spread will slow, we hope that therapies, drugs, and vaccines will come to market quickly, we hope for the restoration of ‘the new normal’. This provides us with a sense of purpose to continue in our day-to-day lives, to pursue goals, and put things on the calendar.
Hope can be a bad thing. Like fear, hope can lead to inaction if we feel as if the hard part is already done. Hope without action is not a strategy, it is wishful thinking. Hoping that your dog will sit, stay, and roll over will not lead to a well-behaved pet. It requires training. Hoping that someone will ‘figure out’ climate change will not reduce global temperatures. It requires massive coordinated effort. Hope provides the direction, but action gets you to the destination. Expectations can indeed be great—if you do something to make them happen.
As countries, states, counties, and cities unveil their new guidelines and phases of reopening, our society faces a major test, and like a final exam in school, both fear and hope can be beneficial if used appropriately. If you are paralyzed by a fear of failing, you probably will, and if you are purely hopeful that you will earn an A, you will probably not. Hope and fear are static; they require action to be useful. If your fear motivates you to talk to your teacher and your hope motivates you to study harder, you will succeed.
Perhaps hope and fear are two sides of the same coin. If so, there is value to be gained from both heads or tails if a healthy balance can be achieved. We can use our fear to take precautions and safety measures, to avoid unnecessary risks, and save each other’s lives. But we can’t allow it to make us feel helpless. Similarly, we cannot hope the virus away, but we can leverage our hope to maintain positivity, to offer encouragement to those who need it, and to help our communities recover for a future we expect. We have the ability to activate the positive motivations from both hope and fear, which can give us control over the situation. Because in some ways, ‘things were better before’ but ‘things will get better’.
Sometimes this trust is earned. Consider your friend who has built it over decades or the medical expert through education and practice. But in the case of driving down the highway, we give it without a second thought. This implicit trust is a good thing. It is what makes our society so livable. We make assumptions that our fellow man and woman will take the ethical high ground. And with rare exceptions, this trust is warranted and reciprocated. Imagine a world where it didn’t exist, a lifetime filled with anxious moments wondering if someone was holding up their end of this unspoken agreement.
This baked-in trust is fundamental to a benevolent civilization, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—when you could argue it is most needed—I feel as if it is in jeopardy. Consider any news program, social media post, or press release. Do you trust the reporting and the statistics? Do you trust the data and its interpretation? Do you trust the person providing the information? If you answered No, that is probably a good thing. For instance, if you trusted President Trump in February, you thought the virus would be miraculously gone by now and we’d have a vaccine, if you trusted him in March, you thought the flu was worse than the Coronavirus and everyone would be tested by now, and if you trusted him in April, you might have literally drunk bleach. If you trusted Beijing’s initial reports, you’d believe Coronavirus killed far fewer people than it actually did in Wuhan. If you trusted the Bakersfield doctors, you would have too much mis-extrapolated information to even process. If you trusted certain memes, you’d believe that dolphins are swimming in the Venetian canals.
In some cases, finding out that we shouldn’t have trusted the source is fairly benign and non-consequential (if you want to daydream about dolphins squeaking while jumping over the Rialto Bridge, what harm is there in that?). But the others are breeches of our trust with the potential for catastrophic consequences.
Trust is wholly dependent on truth, and like so many virtues, it can take a lifetime to build and seconds to evaporate. Truth, likewise, depends on trust. We tend to only speak our deepest truths to our most trusted friends or proven experts. But we also trust, more generally, that we, as humans, are all playing for the same team. We default toward trusting that we will individually take the high road for the collective good. Part of what keeps our societal fabric so tight is the thread of freely-given trust woven throughout it. And that is why our cultural trust is in jeopardy. When we cannot trust that public officials, medical experts, the media, and the President of the United States, are playing for the same team, who do we turn to for leadership?
Now is not the time for our basic trust in each other to erode. Over the coming months, treatments and vaccines are going to be available. We need to trust public health officials to make the ethically appropriate decision on distribution measures. Incidentally, there is no ‘right’ way to do so. One could argue first-come-first-serve, life years, quality of life, best chance of survival, instrumental societal value, among others. The key here is that we trust medical ethicists to make the best decision given the set of parameters. Further, there are many more viruses like this that could strike down the road. We need to trust that our government will fund the studies to get ahead of the next crisis. We need to trust that when our governor issues another month of social distancing, he or she has our interests in mind and is not motivated by political reasons. We are going to have to trust that our education system is actively looking for creative way to engage students. On a personal level, one day we are going to go to a pub to meet friends. Like passing drivers on the highway, we will have to trust that everyone has taken proper precautions or they wouldn’t be there.
Skepticism is not inherently bad. Skepticism can further discussion, spur debate, and lead to an optimal course of action. Cynicism, on the other hand, offers little value. It halts discussion, ends debates before they start, and leads to self-interested action. However, it is becoming more prominent with every news cycle. While conspiracy theories, fact-massaging, convenience sampling, and ulterior motives are nothing new to 2020 or COVID-19, they have been accentuated by the current imperative for information. This makes us more vulnerable to losing faith in each other, to cutting that thread of trust, and ultimately, to a cynical society.
I believe we can course correct. But it will require a certain tuning-out of the loudest voices and a tuning-in of the quieter ones. These could be people who have earned your trust and those who have simply not lost it. Most of us are on the same team, individually striving for the collective good. I want to trust passersby freely and, likewise, I want them to trust me. Perhaps if we maintain and strengthen our communal faith in each other, it can rise to those people threatening to corrode it. Trust me.
The blessing and curse of the English language is the multitude of choices, the sheer magnitude of the word bank. My favorite professor at Wilkes University said that there was an expression for almost everything—if you had the right vocabulary. There is a powerful sense of control when you can say exactly what you mean. I remember specific instances I learned that two words were not interchangeable. For instance, one might feel anxious but not nervous. A statistic can be accurate but not precise (and vice versa). If you start a sentence with due to, since, or because, you will mean three different things. You have less water but fewer bottles of water. OK, I’ll stop there.
Proposal 1: Let’s replace the term Social Distancing with Physical Distancing. If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be social distancing, I advance that you are not actually social distancing. Think about it. If you have access to Wi-Fi and a smart device, have you been socially distant from people this spring? Or have you been physically distant? All of the interactions that I listed above were virtual, but they have certainly been social. Consider some definitions of social: “Related to activities in which people meet each other for pleasure” and “An informal gathering organized by members of a particular group.” To me this sounds like most of the interactions I have had. Further, I’ve been connected to people I do not normally interact with. I’m chatting online with friends every other week that I normally see once a year. Case in point. Over its 15-year history, how many times has my fantasy football league done a video-chat? Twice. And they’ve both been in the last month.
The point may be that if we are lucky enough to be able to remain physically distant—but connected—we should embrace it. There are lot of people who do not have the ability to practice physical distancing. Essential employees in hospitals, food delivery, the postal service, etc., are quite literally not able to. Their work brings them in close physical proximity with people whether they want to or not. I would argue that these individuals might actually be the only ones unintentionally having to practice social distancing. Given the long hours and exhaustion, these frontline workers are more likely to be worn out when they finally do get home, leaving less personal time to connect with friends and loved ones (even remotely).
So when we are having a virtual cocktail with some friends in a Zoom meeting, I propose a new norm: are engaging in physical distancing—not social distancing.
Proposal 2: Let’s replace Self-Isolation with Social-Solidarity. Quick, How many Facebook friends you have? How many Instagram followers? I’m guessing it is a huge community of people. Now, do you feel isolated from them? Do you feel deserted by or detached from them? Or do you feel like you have a common interest, a mutual goal, a feeling of unity and harmony with these people? If the latter, I suggest you are not isolated from them but rather than you are in solidarity with them. Again for those of us physically staying at home, we are working together to accomplish a shared objective. Sure, we are acting alone, but we are not in self-isolation; we are acting in social solidarity for the collective good.
Words are important tools, and the ability to properly employ them is a hallmark of our species. In fact, some anthropologists suggest language is what first defined mankind as we think of it today. Just think about how an engaging book makes hours go by unnoticed, or how an inspiring message at the right time can change your perspective, or how people and markets react based on the turn of a presidential phrase. Our words have weight, even gravity. They have the ability to influence, and so why not use it for good?
So these are my suggestions. First, let’s do the same things we’ve been doing, but let’s attach some goodwill to the terminology. From now on I am practicing physical distancing as a part of social solidarity with the rest of the people on this planet. Second, when life returns to something resembling normal, why not take the positive pieces of this and carry it forward. Keep the monthly FaceTime session with your high school friends, the weekly Zoom family happy hour, the Saturday virtual game night, and the video-chat with your fantasy football league. We’ve learned to be socially-active while physically distant. We’ve learned to embrace solidarity with our neighbors across the street and across the globe. These skills will remain valuable even when we are not battling a pandemic.
Acknowledging it could rub people the wrong way, I feel compelled to explore this question. The feeling started when air travel restrictions fell into place. As one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions, I wondered how this drastic industry-wide regulation would impact air quality. It would be like giving the Earth a chance to take a quick gulp of fresh air. Not long after, the city of Wuhan and then the entire Hubei province went into lockdown, closing all factories. As of this writing, China’s reported death toll stands at 3,345. Estimates from environmental economist Marshall Burke say that this reduction in pollution ‘saved’ 50,000 lives. He derived this number using predictive models from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when the government put into place massive efforts to curb pollution for the athletes. For more, read this Freakonomics podcast. There are lots of question marks around the statistics coming out of China (e.g., numbers withheld, missing data, deaths from people who died from other causes because they could not receive medical care due to overrun hospitals, etc.), but the takeaway is that a brief reduction in production/consumption can have a huge positive impact.
But positive for whom? For what? In my sustainability class, we often draw the famous Venn Diagram on the board with overlapping circles representing society, the economy, and the environment. Our discussion always comes back to how it is impossible to isolate any one component. Every decision or action impacts all three—and it is almost impossible for it to be uniformly good or bad for each stakeholder. For instance, if McDonalds increased its minimum wage to $15/hour, it would help employees financially and psychologically (good), but they would have to either raise prices (bad for customers) or reduce profits (bad for shareholders). Let’s consider COVID-19. It is a massive negative shock to the economy (bad) that kills people (bad), which decreases air pollution temporarily (good), which saves lives (good), but also puts people out of work (bad), but brings communities together in solidarity (good). And on and on.
Going down that road, the ‘bads’ would certainly outnumber the ‘goods’. So then what good can we possibly takeaway from COVID-19? Perhaps it is the chance to pause and reflect. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to make us re-evaluate our current situation. We’ve heard “this is our Pearl Harbor moment” and “this is our 9/11 moment” but those were just that, moments, and they were also moments for the United States. I acknowledge that those events linger to this day, with people and places still healing. But we are not in the midst of a national moment, we are living through a global movement, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think the potential for positive social change is what we need to takeaway.
That is a tall order. We are entering a global recession that will have lingering ripple effects on quality of life for the foreseeable future. Unemployment is increasing, whole industries are shutting down, and the most vulnerable communities (e.g., the elderly, minorities, lower socioeconomic groups) are being disproportionately impacted. In short, it seems hard to excavate any lasting positive outcomes, but let’s give it a try.
Perhaps the most obvious beneficiary is the planet. With fewer cars on the roads, fewer packages being shipped, fewer flights, and less movement of people, we are reducing our impact on the environment. But I argue there is a positive outcome for the social component. My small town of Athens, Ohio, almost immediately forged an unspoken and unwritten charter to support the local businesses. It happened organically through grass-roots social media, but mostly because people are committed to their community and they want to help the individuals who comprise it. This crisis has also forced us to be innovative and creative in how we communicate and how we do business. We are witnessing the human capacity for empathy, courage, ingenuity, and compassion, and this is true in communities across the globe.
Americans often reflect on the weeks following 9/11. The feeling of unity, the waving of flags, the singing of patriotic songs. Once trivial occurrences took on meaning. Every Major League Baseball game was an excuse to bask in the glow of national pride. But those feelings dissipated. Politics and politicking took over, and the ‘back-to-normal’ mentality washed away the harmonious collective identity built in response to that tragedy.
So what will our global mentality be like when we get ‘back-to-normal’ from the Coronavirus? I’m not naïve to think that this feeling of global solidarity will last forever, but I do hope we take the opportunity to re-evaluate our current systems and how they interact. This involves our political systems, economic systems, ecosystems, social institutions, and many more. We need to use our positive reactions and adaptations to this pandemic to shape future policy. We have uncovered new ideas and dormant methods to solve problems that are not specific to time of crisis. These approaches can be applied by policy-makers even when this situation moves to the back burner.
When the virus started to spread outside of China, experts said that countries should prepare because it was a “not-if-but-when” situation. Similarly, this crisis will end—there is no ‘if’. The only ‘if’ is whether or not we learn from it. If the environment is cleaner, people are kinder, and the economy is innovating, perhaps there is some good that can come from a global pandemic?
I’m not alone in that passion. I know 150 people who share a passion for travel—some for the reasons I mentioned, others for reasons all their own. The number is not random. One-hundred-fifty is the number of students in our Global Consulting Program who were supposed to spend several weeks abroad this summer. They were gearing up for once-in-a-lifetime trips to either Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, or Hungary where they would work with local students at our partner universities to engage in consulting projects with companies in that country. They also could travel after the program, gaining incredible professional experience and making lifelong friends and memories.
As director of this program, I have the pleasure of preparing students for this experience. Besides learning about global business and the consulting process, we talk about the excitement of overnight flights and wheels touching down in a new country. We learn enough about the region to be able to ‘get by’ in a new language and culture. We discuss do’s and don’ts, variations across cultures, and how they have the opportunity and responsibility to be ambassadors of not just Ohio University, but of the United States to everyone they meet. In short, this prep course underscores the value—both personally and professionally—of international travel.
Obviously, these programs were cancelled due to the Coronavirus. Students were justifiably devastated by this news. As a class, we navigated the daily updates, created contingency plans, and developed alternative game plans to the best of our collective ability. The thing that has surprised—and inspired—me has been their response to this situation. My fear was that the COVID-19 crisis would possibly deter this group of students from international travel in general. Consider that the same map that we had looked at all semester with curiosity and excitement now had blood-red dots growing and multiplying. The famous sites that we were looking forward to exploring were now abandoned and empty. The popular greetings we had talked about (e.g., double-cheek kiss, handshakes, etc.) now were literally forbidden in those very countries. We had spent 2 months building up the value and importance of connecting with the global community only to have that connection be marked as the way a deadly virus spreads across the world.
I needn’t have worried because quite the opposite has occurred. Through adversity, they have become more motivated than ever. When asked about future travel plans, these students have responded with positivity. In fact, not only did this crisis not dampen their spirits, it seems to have sparked a stronger desire to explore, to travel, to even work and live internationally. Based on my conversations, they view this as merely an obstacle, an added challenge to fulfilling their hunger to see the world—not a permanent barrier. They acknowledge that this has changed their perspective and will shape their views of traveling, but also that true adventure involves ambiguity, which is part of the draw of international travel in the first place. They view this as not a reason to sulk but as an opportunity for growth. Indeed, I often speak about how these trips push us out of our comfort zones, but that is part of becoming your best ‘you’, and these students are doing that in spades.
To those students reading this blog, please understand that you are an inspiration. Obviously to me. But also to those around you. Because if I picked up on your character and integrity through this whole dilemma, others did as well. If it was apparent to me that you are meeting this with confidence and optimism, then it is apparent to your parents, your classmates, your friends. Trust me that in this very moment, some of those people need that positive energy, so take a moment to feel good about yourself for being its source. Finally, please know that you WILL experience all of those things you were hoping to experience. It may be next summer on this same trip, it might be an internship for a company headquartered in Brazil, or it might be in two years when you and your best friend backpack across Europe. But if you want it, you will get it. Trust me.
Take the group of folks who are simply working from home, getting paid the same salary, dealing with a dog barking on your Teams Meeting, COVID-19 is an inconvenience. Sure, some may get sick themselves and they will absolutely know someone who gets sick, hospitalized, and probably somebody who dies from the Coronavirus. I do not want to minimize the overall impact across the board. This virus does not discriminate; however, humans still do.
Now consider an example from another group of people. A couple with 3 kids who rent a house and both parents hold service positions at a restaurant. For this family, the situation is grave. The restaurant and school both closed, which increased their personal costs while eliminating their revenue source. Or consider the single parent who works at the grocery store who is ‘allowed’ to work—and might even see increased hours. Being an essential employee allows her to earn an hourly income, but she is exposed to the Coronavirus. Given financial burdens, she doesn’t have a choice. Sure, her place of employment has been labeled ‘essential’ by the government, and so she can earn money, but she might choose to be nonessential.
Both examples are more likely than the first group to live in closer quarters, to rent an apartment, have less access to healthcare, less savings, and fewer safety nets in general. There is, of course, a third tier of increased susceptibility. It is sobering to consider how this virus will spread through the most vulnerable of us, people in prisons, nursing homes, patients in cancer wards and with immune-deficiencies, and our growing homeless population. For these individuals, there is literally be no escape and no option.
None of this is new to the dialogue, however, I wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic will expose the inequality that exists in our world. If the misnamed Spanish Flu from 1918-1919 is a benchmark, then it absolutely will. However, given the stresses of World War I, many government officials and public news outlets did not want to present more bad news, and so the inequality was largely forgotten about soon after. In fact, it was the Spanish government who first presented real data on the situation, leading to the perpetually misnomer of the strand of influenza itself. In 2020, we do not have a global war to detract attention from the pandemic or the glaring inequality that it highlights.
In my sustainability marketing class, we go over all of the factors that contribute to the current problems we face. Global income inequality is not often on the top of mind, but the class quickly comes to a consensus of its role. The stats are always changing and always staggering. For instance, as of December 2019, the top 26 richest individual people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.8 billion. [That one deserves a second look, but when you consider that 1+ billion people live on less than $1 per day and Jeff Bezos has 107.3 billion dollars, it adds up].
These eye-popping numbers go on and on. In normal times, socioeconomic status is related to outcomes such as quality of life and life expectancy, but we are about to witness just how negatively correlated the variables can be. For those of us who are somewhat insulated, who have the privilege to social distance, is there something we can do?
There is a lot of rhetoric about what is going on in relation to COVID-19, and hopefully we begin to ask what are potential ‘silver linings’? We’ve already seen this happening with reduction pollution in China, but what are some other social aspects that we can address in this time of crisis so that when things get ‘back to normal’ we do a better job at protecting those of us who need protection? I don’t suggest that any true good can come from a global pandemic; it is just putting a lot of social institutions under the microscope. Some for better and some for worse. Regardless, we won’t be able to justify our global imbalance when it is so blatantly in our faces via red numbers on a ‘death toll’ screen.
In summary, is this just a “Them’s the breaks, kid” situation for certain people beneath an arbitrary socioeconomic divide or do we have a responsibility to shift the paradigm? If the latter, how? John Rawls Theory of Justice is a good starting point.
Because I teach courses in business and professional development, every semester, we spend a few minutes discussing the keys to a professional handshake. Not too firm, not too soft, the correct number of ‘ups-and-downs’, dry your hand if it is clammy, etc. No lobster-claw, dead-fish, leave-ya-hangin, pass-the-teacup, bone-crusher, southpaw, Queen’s fingertips, fist bumps, chest bumps, high-fives, high-fives-into-low-fives, high-fives-into-foot-grabs, bro-hugs, halfsies, limpsies, etc. I put importance on this task because it is often the only physical contact we have in a professional relationship. It seems crazy to even type this right now, but I usually have students shake the hands of ten other students. (My classes can attest this semester—about 6 weeks ago now—I refrained from this exercise. Not due to Coronavirus but simply to not spread any germs around a class of 150 students). Suffice it to say, I think this is an important skill that requires practice and attention. While the do’s and don’ts of handshaking seem obvious, I’m always surprised by the learning that takes place in this lesson.
Now that we cannot (or should not) be within 6 feet of each other, let alone shake hands, what other ways can we connect? Waving, smiling, and eye contact.
The gesture of a wave is built into our culture from a young age. You wave goodbye to your parents when they leave for work. Santa Claus waves from a faux chimney during the holiday parade on Main Street. You wave as your kid goes off to college. And if you are like some wonderful folks I know, you wave when someone drives away from your house until they are literally past the horizon or around the corner and you can’t see them anymore.
Smiles are even more a part of our culture (in the US, at least, this is not the case in other countries—but that is for another blog post). We get excited the first time a baby smiles and we decide whether or not it is worth asking someone out on a date based on a reciprocation of a smile across the proverbial crowded room. Universities and trainings even teach subtle smiling nuances in our professional development classes to help people ace the interview.
Eye contact is crucial to non-verbal communication. It demonstrates that you are engaged in a conversation, that you are actively listening to a person speak, and allows you to convey empathy. Too little can show disinterest or lack of trustworthiness. Too much can be threatening or downright creepy. But we each calibrate to the other person to effectively achieve the correct recipe for the situation. It puts us at ease and makes the conversation comfortable.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, handshakes are out. Smiling, waving, and eye contact are in. Or are they? My assumption was that given the social distancing taking place all across the world, human nature would lead us to do more of these three things. Online meetings and conference calls do not allow for physical touch, so we are making do with our other tools. We even have a name for the smile/nod combination we all do at the beginning of a Zoom or Teams meeting: the ‘virtual handshake’.
However, anecdotally, this has not translated to my in-person interactions. Living in a small college town, (now emptied of half of its population when students were sent home), I take to the bike path almost every day for a long walk or run, and I’ve been doing an observational analysis. I try to make eye contact, smile and/or wave at every person I see. You know, the little half up wave, maybe a slight nod or ‘hey’ as you pass someone. My prediction was that more people would reciprocate than, say, last fall when I was on the same bike path doing the same walks or runs. Being bottled up in our homes, practicing social distancing, self-isolating, etc., led me to believe we would crave more interaction (as fleeting as a wave or smile) when we were out in the world.
Unfortunately, I did not start this study last fall to provide a control, making this completely unscientific study even less credible, but I have been surprised in the 1:4 ratio of people who reciprocate with a smile, wave, or eye contact versus people who a) look away, b) look at their phone, c) meet my eyes but quickly look away, d) or ignore me all together.
Now granted, there are a lot of biases and other extraneous variables at play here. And yes I am aware that I might be known as the weirdo on the bike path who waves at everyone, but I was surprised by this result. Perhaps fear has trumped (hate to use that word) the longing for social connection? We associate friendliness with engagement, which we associate with human interaction, which is what we know spreads this virus. Perhaps in that split second as I run (super fast) by the other person, fear bubbles to the surface just ahead of the need to socially interact. Maybe that gut instinct is “human interaction=bad” followed closely by “human interaction=good/great/essential.” Who knows, maybe if I turned around, they’d all be waving and smiling back. I like to think so.