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Piece Of Mind


The politics of shame in the time of Covid-19 are complex, but it's nevertheless on the rise


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piece of mind columnist  

One of many confusing aspects of pandemic life is that it’s become more performative despite being largely lived behind closed doors. The panopticon of social media and our increased reliance on it partly explains this, as does the social anxiety that breeds in isolation, but even when we do go out in public now, we’re aware of each other in new ways. How near someone is to us and who they are with, what they are touching with that ungloved hand to.. wait, is that technically exercise? The flip side is just as paranoia-inducing: how is this stranger judging me?

The dictionary definition of a pandemic may be to do with the large geographical area over which a disease has spread, but in my mind that Pan- prefix, from the Greek meaning ‘all’, ‘of everything’, has come to reflect the pervasive reach of Covid-19 into every area of life, colonising even the most intimate, psychological spaces, including our dreams. The psychological impacts of the virus are wide-ranging and vary according to individual circumstance. Not all of them are bad. Some report a seize-the-day mentality or appreciating all that they have. But one particularly complex emotion is being weaponised in the fight against the disease.

Shame, that self-conscious internal state, has long been analysed by sociologists as well as psychologists as a tool of social control. Humans have relied upon it to police one another’s behaviour for millennia. It can be an effective if primitive deterrent. In evolutionary terms it makes sense as an emotion we are hardwired to avoid. For our early ancestors, being ostracised from a group and losing its protections could be lethal while complying with social convention in order to work together has some obvious benefits. It’s unsurprising that in a pandemic, while we await a vaccine and make do with non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social-distancing, we’ve resorted to such instinctive methods to keep people in line.


It was one thing in the early days before confused government messaging crystallised and became law. Then, spreading awareness of Covid and its consequences was arguably vital, but now the public shaming frenzy is spinning out of control. First it was stockpiling, then going outside. Soon ‘middle class’ pandemic pastimes of baking sourdough and reading novels became sources of social media snark, simultaneously erasing all working-class people who do those things as well. More unlikely sanctimonious flashpoints ensued: clapping, the Karen meme. Police using drone footage to denounce private citizens. Perhaps the most insidious is the creeping ecofascist sentiment. All those social media posts crowing that ‘Humans are the disease!’

“Many psychologists argue shame actually reduces our tendency to behave in socially constructive ways.

What purpose does this really serve? To take stockpiling as an example - great if shame stops a profiteer hoarding hand sanitiser. Not so great if it stops a struggling single mother who needs to stock up on formula because she’s wrongly been told by a politician not to shop more than once a fortnight and her neighbour is just itching to upload evidence of her transgression each time she steps outside. Many psychologists argue shame actually reduces our tendency to behave in socially constructive ways. Its cousin Guilt is better. Shame, by contrast, has a tendency to punish those most vulnerable, with low-self esteem and poor mental health, often those habitually looked down upon, gaslighted or abused. Powerful corporations and governments are more likely to be impervious and motivated instead by pride, which translates to a lack of transparency - never admitting when they’re wrong and, crucially, diverting public scrutiny when they are. Hence NHS workers are blamed for ‘using up’ valuable protective equipment rather than the UK government accepting responsibility for not providing them with adequate supply.

Individuals rather than systemic failings are being scapegoated for ‘killing people’. Even victims are being tacitly blamed. When Boris Johnson’s recovery from the virus was framed in terms of his individual grit, it shames all those ‘more vulnerable’ who died. Among the tragic deaths of key workers, a disproportionate number appear to be BAME. One of the factors that could be contributing to this, according to the head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, is if BAME doctors feel less able to complain about inadequate personal protective equipment, thereby putting themselves in danger. “BAME doctors often feel bullied and harassed at higher levels compared to their white counterparts,” he said. “They are twice as likely not to raise concerns because of fears of recrimination.” The cascading effects of shame thus lead to unintended consequences, even if our intent is to communicate pride. So even when the actions of key workers are framed in heroic terms (and they are heroic) they can enter the not-quite-human category of saints, making them easier to martyr. There is no shame in a nurse not wanting to sacrifice her own safety to work without adequate protection or pay.

Even for powerless people, shame may be the one tool at their disposal to lessen the psychological burden of living through a pandemic. Shaming others often serves to disown what we ourselves feel. In order to escape these painful, self-loathing feelings - which have already led to suicide, as in the case of the Polish professor infected with coronavirus, Wojciech Rokita - we express contempt toward another, mentally transposing our own shame onto them. If that person does the same, shame becomes a harmful contagion itself, one that will do nothing to stop this virus.

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