Public shame to the rescue
Shame is a powerful motivator. Still, it's not always considered the most polite way to get someone to do something (at least among Americans). In our "mind your own business" culture, calling people out is often considered petty and tasteless, something a Karen might do. Even in adulthood, no one wants to be known as the tattle-tale.
But as the coronavirus outbreak has spread throughout the United States, it has unexpectedly fallen on individuals to monitor their peers' behavior in a way that is new, uncomfortable, and often very, very public. With the country's social distancing advisories for individuals really more strong suggestions than actual enforceable rules, it is the burden of communities to police themselves — and what could be more effective than a little public shaming?
The tactic is distinctly American in the sense that it hasn't been needed to the same extent in countries that more swiftly and successfully curbed the spread of coronavirus, like China and South Korea. Both have demonstrated far less tolerance for a person's right to risk their own life, something we apparently happen to really value here in America. In South Korea, for example, which remains the global model for how to slow the outbreak, the government mandated home quarantines and even used GPS tracking to ensure citizens remained in lockdown. Public shaming isn't really necessary if people are getting isolated in government-monitored quarantines, whether they want to be or not.
In the United States, though, social distancing and self-quarantines have been a bit more of a free-for-all (the same is true for parts of Europe, although on the whole countries with major outbreaks like Spain and Italy have still been more authoritarian in their measures than we have been). While there are millions of Americans taking the guidelines seriously, many others have not. Even after the World Health Organization warned that the novel coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic, Americans still celebrated St. Patrick's Day in crowded bars, partied in sweaty clubs over spring break, and flocked to Florida beaches. In New York, where some of the strictest measures in the country have gone into place, individuals are still largely not being fined or otherwise punished for openly flaunting life-saving measures that would help flatten the curve.
For those who are taking medical experts seriously, it can be aggravating or downright scary to see neighbors, family members, and strangers ignore common sense measures and social distancing regulations. But since following outbreak guidelines is an individual responsibility at this point, it's also up to individuals to call out violators. That can take many forms: Millennials shouting at their boomer parents on Facebook, or commenting "STAY INSIDE!!!!" on friends' Instagram selfies in bars, or joggers barking "six feet!" when they pass blasé on-comers taking up the whole sidewalk. Still, even if you feel a sense of social and personal responsibility, it can be awkward to correct others, particularly if you're nonconfrontational to begin with: "I did perhaps tell off one couple for not social distancing with us," one friend recently wrote on Instagram, "and I felt like a meanie."
But Americans are increasingly emboldened to protect their communities, taking a "Wall of Shame" approach to posting photos and videos of strangers on social media who break the rules. Often these violators' faces are in full, recognizable view, along with text or audio scolding their reckless activities. In one particularly telling contrast between Europe and the States, Italians went viral for singing together from the safe distance of their balconies, while the viral video that came out of New York involved people shouting "go the f--k home!" at pedestrians on the streets below.
What part of social distancing are people not comprehending? You guys have to encourage your friends that this is NOT a time for things like this!!
Please take it seriously for the sake of those who are immunocompromised and their lives depend on our actions! pic.twitter.com/9rGgrpCwna
— iJustine (@ijustine) March 17, 2020
On behalf of anyone and everyone who has a loved one in the high risk group (or who simply has a heart): screw you, spring break morons. https://t.co/o3ohiX6XfN
— Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly) March 18, 2020
Even the media has begun to pile on. You can find articles compiling "30 Times People Spotted Total Jerks During The Coronavirus Crisis And Shamed Them Online" and videos of television commentators yelling at joggers on crowded paths. It's effective; after all, one doesn't really want to have their picture under a headline that says "St. Pat's Revelers Blow Off 'Social Distancing' Pleas to Protect the Vulnerable," no matter how cocky they are, do they? The New York Post even put on blast random newlyweds, writing "Staten Island couple still holds wedding amid coronavirus warnings."
Businesses have also been publicly shamed into taking steps that save lives. After people yelled at Target for selling badly-needed N95 masks in Seattle, the state governor got involved and the store ultimately donated all the masks to hospital workers. A pub in South Pasadena, California, was berated for opening on St. Patrick's Day despite government guidance: "To have people call me and my business out online so viciously — in some cases, to have people screaming at me and the employees of this bar — was incredible," the stunned owner told the Los Angeles Times.
Social-distancing ultimately is an act of selflessness, a decision made not just to protect yourself but to protect your friends, your friends' grandparents, your barista, and potentially dozens of people you might never even meet. Stopping the disease's spread is a team effort, and one where we need to hold each other accountable.
Admittedly, that's not always done respectfully. But in these extraordinary times, "go the f--k home" can truly be just another way of saying I care.