A Philosophy of Fear and Society of Scolds

Fear was a natural enough response to the arrival of the coronavirus on America’s shores. The novel virus from Wuhan is highly infectious and had already caused thousands of deaths in China and Italy by the time hotspots of infection began to appear here. What was remarkable, however, was not that Americans were alarmed to the point of panic-hoarding toilet paper, or that officials responded with such sweeping policies as “shelter in place” orders, but that activists on social media reacted with fury toward anyone who failed to be fearful enough—anyone who, for example, questioned the wisdom of shutting down the consumer economy virtually overnight, with predictably dire consequences for the millions of cooks, waiters, drivers, bartenders, retail clerks, hotel workers, and others who do not enjoy the luxury of being able to work from home.

A clash over policies and the trade-offs involved would be one thing, and, given the stakes, such a clash would inevitably involve powerful emotions. But even where there were minimal policy differences, those who were deemed by social media activists to be insufficiently affrighted were subjected to vitriolic hostility—standing accused of callousness or rank stupidity, a deficiency in morals or intelligence or both. Being a good person came to mean not just staying indoors and washing your hands and doing everything necessary to minimize your chances of catching the virus or infecting others, but also following self-appointed opinion leaders up to the right pitch of anxiety. Nothing practical depended on doing so, but something of the highest importance for social psychology did.

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