The COVID Jerk
The boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were.
Atlantic piece by Eric Schwitzgebel; remix by Hogeye Bill.
We all know the type. First appearing in the spring of 2020, the COVID jerk strutted masked through the supermarket, exhorting other shoppers and employees to put on a face diaper because of fear!, death!, stupid politicians said so!. Then there were paranoid bosses, forcing low-paid workers to diaper their faces and try to enforce the draconian policies on customers. Flaunting their disdain for individuality and human rights, the COVID jerks demand that you become every bit as fearful and subservient as them.
The classic COVID jerk still thrives. But because partially effective but risky vaccines have been available for some time, and as the Omicron wave subsides, reasonable people will disagree about what now constitutes a jerk move. The boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were.
I have a theory: Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the individual rights and intellectual perspectives of others around them. Let me unpack this a bit.
Jerks fail to appreciate others’ intellectual perspectives. Those who disagree, they see as idiots. They don’t recognize that their preferred opinions might be mistaken. They have no interest in exploring alternative views. Conversation aims at winning, or embarrassing another, or simply announcing the truth they know, usually accompanied by tribal chants. Listening with an open mind is for other people. But worst of all, they try to impose their own paranoia and fear upon others, by demanding that others be masked, vaccinated, or otherwise politically processed.
Coronaphobic jerks also fail to appreciate others’ emotional perspectives. Unless in alignment with the jerk’s own goals, other people’s feelings, priorities, and values barely register in consciousness, or register only as targets for ridicule. Everyone around the jerk, except the few they care about most, inhabits one or another negative social stereotype. Strangers and acquaintances are not unique individuals with diverse and worthwhile concerns. Instead, the world swarms with deplorables, anti-science igoramouses, racists, losers who couldn’t find a real job, anti-vaxxers, empty suits, cheaters, and suckers. Yet, all the COVID jerk needs to do is put on his own mask and mind his own damn business. But, in his scientific ignorance and political servitude, he thinks that umbrellas and masks only work when everyone is forced to use them.
Jerks culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of others around them. Not everyone is a paranoid propaganda-eater that can believe one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday, so long as an official government talking head says it on TV. Babies aren’t jerks; they aren’t demanding that other people wear useless face-diapers. Parents, on the other hand, can be amazingly doltish jerks. Some of the coronaphobes' perspectives are too foolish or noxious to believe — the perspective of a permanently brainwashed Lysenkoist neo-Nazi.
The opposite of the jerk is the libertarian. People with a tolerant disposition see value in others’ ideas. But that doesn't mean they support stupid ideas at excessive cost to themselves. Where the jerks could easily mask themselves and shut the fuck up, instead they shrilley demand that everyone else cater to their insecurity and foolish notions. Where jerks insult others almost by instinct and revel in it afterward, civilized people would simply mask up or not, and refrain from trying to coerce others into submission.
Having the wrong opinions about COVID safety is not what makes someone a COVID jerk. Stipulate hypothetically that the risks of COVID vaccines outweigh the dubious benefits. Assume for the sake of argument that COVID is the Black Plague and an extinction-level event. Even if that’s the case and you know it, you can still respect those who disagree. If you really think - however falsely - that someone breathing maskless puts your life at risk, you can put on your mask. If that mask really works to protect you, you are safe. There is no need to be a jerk and try to force others to wear the face-diaper. It’s the attempt to force others, often using the government "gun," that makes a COVID jerk.
As COVID-safety standards evolve in the next weeks or months, I recommend the following principles of non-jerkitude:
- Be open. If someone asks about your vaccination status, especially if they are elderly or sickly, tell them.
- Adhere to owners' requirements. If the supermarket has a sign on the door from a government agency, ignore it. That is not the owners' wishes; that is authoritarian assholes trying to coerce owners. Only if the actual owner requires masks, should you wear a mask or boycott the outfit. People less tolerant of COVID risk can decide for themselves whether to patrionize the business. They should not rely on others’ compliance with authoritarian demands in deciding when, where, and how to appear in public. Fuck custom, and fuck unjust law. Do the right thing, and let others do what they think is right.
- Be unwilling to compromise. If you think your children should start playing together without restriction, but another parent in your playdate group feels more cautious, the paranoid parent is free to prevent his child from playing. Do not cater to fear and paranoia. Try respectful conversation aimed at convincing the coronaphobic parent. Can you discover a mutually acceptable set of standards? Maybe his kid can wear a face-diaper and your kid not wear one. That is a reasonable compromise.
- Don’t inflict unusual risks or costs on others without their consent. Ordinary living entails inflicting some unwelcome risks and costs on others. We drive our cars, putting not only other drivers but also cyclists and pedestrians at risk. We burn firewood for a cozy winter atmosphere, compromising outdoor air quality. We host noisy parties and talk on our cellphones in public, annoying those around us for our own convenience. We do these things within ordinary bounds, since they do not reach the threshold level that constitutes aggression per our norms. Since not wearing a face diaper poses minimal risk, especially to someone wearing one themselves, there is no aggression. If someone feels otherwise, then they are free to put on a mask, get vaccinated, live in their basement and avoid all human contact, or whatever. But they have no right to force others to do so.
None of these principles requires that you have a particular opinion about COVID safety. Go ahead and argue against mask requirements at town-hall meetings, or even better, ignore coercive policies altogether. Do not wear a mask unless that is the owner's policy and you wish to comply. Any requirement by a non-owner, such as government officials or health boards or other nazi types can be ignored. If your school has draconian quarantine rules, consider home-schooling or unschooling. There are plenty of great syllabuses available online which are much superior to government indoctrination centers.
These principles allow you to live according to your own ideas and principles. If you feel comfortable eating at a restaurant or drinking at a bar, that’s your call. Yes, you might catch COVID, but then again you might get laid and have the time of your life. If you haven’t been a jerk about it - if you’ve been open, independent, and respectful - you are not culpable if someone somewhere gets COVID.