The novel coronavirus has produced a new litmus test for one’s character. Besides trust and kindness, we now also want our friends to believe in science. Over the last week, I’ve begun to see many friends again after a long, long summer. Many of them have expressed a new social dynamic — the choice to see a friend isn’t just about scheduling or closeness or friendship, but also a crucial new factor: How safe has this friend been?
Of course, attention to safety makes sense. Perhaps setting down firm boundaries — “I won’t see you in person if you continue to do x activity” — might encourage people to adopt safer behaviors.
But as with any other type of social shaming or pressure, there are inevitable drawbacks. One friend mentioned to me that she wouldn’t be visiting another friend. “I saw her Snapchat stories this summer and she definitely wasn’t distancing,” she said. “She pretends she’s being safe at school, but it’s just performative.”
There is no perfect way of encouraging others to adopt better social behaviors. At Yale, we tend to pressure others through condemnation of wrongdoing, rather than sympathy and guidance towards better actions. This attitude manifests itself in gossip, cancel culture and exclusion: “Anyone who goes to a party this semester is cancelled!” Suddenly, there is a huge social pressure to appear as though you are being careful and safe.
But what are the consequences of using shaming as our tool instead of empathy? A strong social pressure to “seem safe” may have the opposite effect we want it to. Instead of genuinely changing their behaviors, our classmates may put on a facade of safety. This leads to a more concerning, but accurate distinction for people at Yale: instead of “safe” versus “unsafe,” most will split between “safe” and “performatively safe.”
What happens when people are performatively safe? Performative safety is somewhat akin to performative activism — you do enough such that you are not an obvious troublemaker (i.e. you don’t go to parties), but you still act dangerously under a veneer of doing good.
The costs of performative safety are dire. Suddenly, pretending you wear a mask with friends when you actually take it off the minute you see them, or denying that you hooked up with someone outside your bubble can mean the difference between life and death. The effects ripple far beyond your friend circle — too often, they’ll affect the people who are most vulnerable in communities around us.
Instead of shaming, we ought to look at the underlying reasons why people act the way they do. Many people are desperate for human connection, and moral shaming is not going to change their desire for this basic need. Sure, some people are purely selfish, but they are the exception, not the norm.
I want to be clear on one thing — in no way am I endorsing unsafe behaviors. But the next time someone near you expresses a desire to act in a way you deem unsafe, I would encourage you to pause the judgement first, and ask them why. More often than not, going to a party is not about the cheap alcohol or sticky dance floors. So instead of worrying about what students cannot do, we ought to focus on what we can do to meet the very real need of human connection.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.