How COVID-19 has sorted us out

Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The trials of the American Revolution would distinguish the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” for the true patriot. Well, any crisis tries the souls of those who live through it. The crisis puts a spotlight on actors who must respond to it, and their actions and utterances in the moment of crisis reveal their character.

The Covid-19 crisis has presented a situation requiring a coordinated emergency response. Coordinated behavior change was required in a population of 300,000,000 people (I’m discussing only the US here), but it was not clear who had authority to make all the decisions, and it was not obvious what should be done. This situation sorted us into four classes:

Leaders

These were people in a position to make decisions, take actions, and coordinate the work of others toward solutions that would protect the public. Leaders were people whose expertise (virological, epidemiological, pharmaceutical, administrative, logistical, front-line medical, legal, etc.) and positions (holders of offices in governments, universities, corporations, healthcare organizations) qualified them to contribute knowledge or organize action. Some leaders organized scientific work to help us understand the virus, to develop tests for its presence, to develop therapies for the illness that it causes, to create vaccines to give immunity to people who have not contracted the disease. Some leaders organized the logistics for delivering tests and vaccines. Some leaders worked politically to bring public resources to bear, both in the work of addressing the virus and in protecting the economy and its elements (companies, families, individuals) from the financial damage wreaked by the pandemic. Some leaders (political and religious) use their authority within various communities, from the entire body politic to particular neighborhoods and congregations, to encourage unity, resolve, collaboration in addressing and overcoming the difficulties. A common trait of scientific, political, and religious leaders is commitment to truth. They seek to learn the truth, and they strive to tell the truth, even when the truth is inconvenient. A good, historic metaphor for leaders, political and religious is shepherd.

Mature adult citizens

Most of us are not leaders in the senses described above. For us the responsible option was to behave as adults. To be people willing to encourage and cooperate with the experts and the political, corporate, and community leaders, understanding that their knowledge and their counsel with regard to action would necessarily evolve as more was learned about the virus. A mature adult is not a sheep in the sense in which this term is currently used as an insult, but mature adults recognize that when there are numerous people, if they are to live in concert, they must in some sense constitute a flock that is accepting of shepherding. Anyone who has been an employee of a successful company, or a member of a healthy congregation, or a participant in any constructive collective action (orchestra, military unit, sports team, etc.), knows this is true.

A mature adult does not assume that the scientist is always right, or that the political leader has chosen the best of all possible courses. To the contrary, the mature adult understands that human knowledge is always imperfect, and that when a new phenomenon appears (such as, for example, a novel coronavirus), the scientists will move from not-knowing to knowing through a progression of stages, that hypotheses will be tested, that early conclusions will be found wanting and replaced by better conclusions. The mature adult understands that political leadership is difficult, that alternative courses might at any given moment seem equally valid, and that a course chosen in an earlier moment might turn out later, in retrospect, not to have been the best course. But the mature adult understands also that in a crisis coordinated action is required, and that in light of that requirement, it is best to cooperate with the difficult choices made by those who are burdened with leadership. The mature adult is not dismayed or surprised when course corrections are made, and does not gripe against a leader who makes course corrections. The mature adult citizen is prepared to forgive errors made in good faith and move forward on the new course.

Mature adult citizens, in following legitimate leaders, themselves become leaders. They understand that just as the authentic leader is a servant, so also conversely the mature follower is a leader. Mature adults are not non-agents, and they are not passive. They are agents who deliberately align their agency with others for the sake of a common good.

Saboteurs

The shadow counterpart of the leader is the saboteur. If the leader is a unifier and coordinator, the saboteur is a disrupter, a scatterer, a sower of discord. The leader has the common good in view, but each saboteur has their own good in view. They see the crisis as an opportunity to expand their own power, or their own wealth, at the expense of others.

In the scientific realm, leaders are not lone rangers. They do not do their own private research and then seek platforms for publicizing themselves and making their case to the public that their private conclusions are best. Leaders in science submit their work to the judgment of their peers through the structures created by universities, scientific journals, and scientific organizations. Leaders in science know that they have no inherent authority, that their degrees and their titles do not establish them as masters whose utterances must be accepted as correct because of who they are. In science, people who think that way and act that way are renegades and saboteurs.

In the political sphere and in the religious sphere, pure and undefiled leadership can be hard to find. In these spheres, many or maybe all aspire to leadership from a mix of selfish and noble reasons. A crisis can bring out either the best or the worst in a leader. As Paine says, a crisis tries souls. If in general the whole body of leaders is a corpus permixtum, a crisis tends to separate true leaders from selfish leaders. The true leaders will give themselves, spend themselves, working for the good of the many; the saboteurs will reveal themselves as seekers after their own good at the expense of the many. In both science and politics, saboteurs—false leaders—substitute their own will, their own desire, for the truth. In extreme cases, having no loyalty to a truth larger than their own egos, they become habitual liars about everything.

Infantile citizens

The shadow counterpart of the mature adult is the infantile adult. In the time of crisis, infantile adults reject maturity, despising legitimate leadership and falling prey to the lies and incitements of saboteurs. Infantile adults call mature adults sheep because the mature adults follow the leaders, not recognizing that deliberate cooperation for the common good is one of the highest uses of individual agency. At best, they follow their own individual judgment without regard to the attempts of leaders to inspire unified action. At worst, while claiming to “do their own research” and follow their own judgment, they allow their minds and wills to be engulfed in the master-will of the disruptors. They seek out and spread further the deliverances of self-publicizing renegade scientists. They cheer for and support political saboteurs whose aim is to disrupt society for the furtherance of their own power and profit. They enthusiastically accept and repeat, and sometimes even believe, the lies of saboteur politicians. They yammer incessantly against everything done and said by the experts and leaders, especially their mistakes (and inevitably there are mistakes!) and their changes of advice (which should not all be classed as mistakes: progress in knowledge legitimately requires adjustment of tactics). While mature adults become leaders by deliberately aligning themselves with efforts toward the common good, infantile adults reduce themselves to noise, to static; but if they are persistent in their disruptions, they themselves become saboteurs.

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