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Social Shaming in the Era of Social Distancing


How much finger-wagging is enough and when does it go too far?

We have an on-again, off-again Coronavirus Task Force less than effective since day one, with nothing but confusion about what's next and how Americans should behave in the months to come. That onus is apparently now on the governors.

We have a patchwork of governors easing COVID-19 restrictions in over 40 states, while some continue to enforce strict guidelines. Misunderstanding is running rampant about who does what, what is open, closed or in-between, whether or not to wear a mask, social distance, stay home, or go out?

The CDC submits scientific guidelines about these questions and reopening the U.S., and the administration rejects them.

A government report released this week -- and again, ridiculously rejected by the White House -- says infections will quadruple and deaths double in the months to come because confused and ill-informed Americans will begin to relax -- or worse, ignore -- social distancing guidelines.

Is being confused about what to do an excuse not to do the right thing? And is doing the wrong thing worth being vilified online about it?

Those who ignore, or consciously disobey these pandemic rules are either right-wing patriots fighting for freedom, impatient and misguided miscreants. or bored narcissists who put their selfish needs above the greater good.

The latter group is finding out the hard way that in this day and age of watching out for one another, they better watch out for themselves; their errant behavior is being scrutinized and lambasted via social shaming, and maybe rightfully so.

Case in point, a New York City gay house party called "Rona Rave" stretched from Monday evening to Tuesday morning featuring an adult performer, drag queen, a DJ and a shirtless shoulder-to-shoulder crowd dancing together. Social distancing? Face masks? Coronavirus sickness and death? Willfully and blatantly ignored.

The social sphere went wilder than the party when pics were shared on Instagram of the misplaced merrymaking. People ripped apart the mostly ripped men about their reckless behavior, and how they were not only endangering themselves but others if they were asymptomatic transmitters. The takedowns forced the take down of the imbecilic images and most of the attendees' social accounts.

Celebrities like A-Rod, J. Lo, Mario Lopez, Mark Wahlberg Ivanka Trump, George Stephanopoulos, and Chris Cuomo have been shamed by flouting the rules while they were on the road during a mask-less walk, or ride to a closed gym that was only open for them. Social shaming in the era of social distancing is being debated as to whether it's socially acceptable.

The mayor of Providence, R.I., said during a radio interview that social shaming is a good idea to help stop the spread of coronavirus; however, the radio host disagreed with the mayor, saying, "You're going to come across the wrong guy."

During the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s, governments, the Catholic Church, and businesses deservedly came across the wrong guys when they were social shamed by activist groups like ACT UP, which were successful in bringing about recognition, attention, and action. In this case, public shaming most definitely saved lives by putting an embarrassing face on those responsible for bigotry, ignorance, and hypocrisy. ACT UP broke the rules and led to breakthroughs.

As a communications expert, having worked for and with lots of major brands, politicians and celebrities, and as an adjunct professor teaching Digital Media and Marketing, there have always been loose sets of rules about how and when to respond, react or retaliate online. Generally, you advise people and businesses to stay positive, avoid politics, religion, and argumentative discussion and confrontation. These rules aren't as hard and fast as they used to be, and in a sense, they're being flouted through this pandemic.

When iconic brands Clorox and Lysol in effect shamed the president by warning their social media followers not to ingest disinfectants, it marked a turning point -- and a first really -- about how brands interact with politicians and, most notably, the president. The manufacturers' social shaming of Trump was for the good of public health. So, can our social shaming of partygoers and social distancing flouters also be considered efforts at maintaining public health?

In an appearance on MSNBC's Deadline White House, Dr. Kavita Patel, a former health policy advisor in the Obama administration, said that with all the confusion surrounding the do's and don'ts of COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, social shaming those who don't adhere might be our only hope to force people to acquiesce. But wouldn't that inevitably lead to mislaid confrontation?

In the wild west of COVID-19 posts, shares and comments, where people are taking shots left and right, rules are virtually impossible to follow, and calling out people ostensibly for public health seems to not only break the confrontation rule but, now ludicrously, the political one. According to an Associated Press story, the wearing of a mask is pitting people willing to follow health officials' guidance versus those who feel it violates their freedoms.

So, if you social shame someone not wearing a mask, will the comment section under your post turn into an argument between MAGA hat wearers and dutiful mask wearers? Defeating the purpose of unmasking the unmasked? Drawing yourself into a no-win political debate rather an attempt at altruism?

What if you are altruistic, and following all the advice, and staying home as well, while your impatient neighbor posts about being out and about? Again, in this divisive era, if you social shame your neighbor, be prepared to get into a vehement discussion about the constitutionality of stay-at-home orders. Boneheaded people like Elon Musk are appearing on Fox News claiming these directives wouldn't hold up in court. It's all another set-up for conflict.

Does your stay at home post reverberate with "go to hell?" Will you be labeled a communist, a socialist, an activist, or a pacifist all the while trying to pacify? Will your home page shouting "staying at home" to someone who's not home force you to delete your account? Will the impatience of one person who you shame turn into a tidal wave of tirades from tired recidivists?

That leaves us with the selfish actors, i.e. the New York City "Rona Rave" partiers. The LGBTQ community is at an increased risk of infection. And as such, it seems that we should be taking extra precautions during this time, not only for others but particularly for ourselves; however, that was surely not the case during the now infamous "rave." While all those who were identified as the shamefaced were social shamed into deleting their accounts, Chris Weaver, aka drag queen Nedra Belle, kept his active, and released a video on Facebook apologizing for his behavior and commenting on the social shaming.

"For those who you have attacked, please know that your action causes reaction. Think about the person on the other side," he said, adding, "If you want to cancel me, cancel me. But I'm going to press on and do what I do."

Well, that sounds perceptive, but the partygoers were the ones not thinking about the people who were literally on the other side -- all of those beyond the doors and walls of that cramped apartment. Selfish and conceited behavior, like the partiers and celebrities who feel entitled to use closed gyms, may have a right to be called out on social channels. There's hardly a political confrontation to be had there.

However, calling the guilty out can have the potential to be damning and dangerous, but isn't the narcissists self-centered behavior also damning and dangerous as well? People in this pandemic era of fear and distress posting death threats to those who they perceive to be death threats?

There's no excuse or tolerance for wishing someone harm -- and those that do are guilty of something much worse than attending a party during a quarantine.

Maybe the next time a party invite comes through, or you are contemplating leaving home without a face mask, give some consideration to the selfless memes and profile pics that have flooded social channels advising, "We're all in this together."

Perhaps then, those wayward rule-breakers might contemplate doing the right thing and make the safe bet by staying at home, social distancing and wearing a mask. There's no shame in doing all that.

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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