COVID-19: The Diet Effect, the Misery of Company, and Other Tales from the Misanthropic Side
Anecdotes are the stuff of life, literally—if you believe that telling stories is one of the main ways in which we make sense of the world. This does not make stories and anecdotes an unconditional source of truth.
But, of course, they do make a reasonable foundation for critical inquiry—at least according to Aristotle’s method of doing ethics (endoxa).
A few anecdotes may serve to bring into relief some foreshadowings of where we might be headed. I am not a psychologist, so at the very most what follows is my attempt to make sense of things as a philosopher and a self-confessed misanthrope. At the very least, it’s a stab at some pop psychology.
The Diet Effect
Those who are inspired to start a diet often find some health benefits in the short-term, but maintaining those effects requires resilience and a change to one’s lifestyle. In other words, the diet of eating well requires making it a habit.
But getting into a good habit can be tough. One of the difficulties is that many of us can be fooled by the short-term benefits of a diet, thinking that once we lose the weight we wanted, we can ease back into old ways. Things then fall apart.
I have been noticing that where I live (in the seaside town of Whitstable, UK), as other countries speak of easing lockdown restrictions and as the British government announces plans to do the same eventually, it seems (anecdotally) that many people are already in the easing mode.
Compared to only a few days ago, I’ve noticed the number of cars going up and down the High Street have dramatically increased (I live on the High Street). Maintaining social distancing while walking on the pavement (sidewalk) is difficult when it requires one to step into the street when passing by another person. The other day, I had to either stop and wait for a long line of cars to pass or sprint to the other side of the street before the traffic arrived.
I wonder, then, if several weeks of lockdown have lulled us into a sense of complacency or a false sense of progress with respect to fighting the coronavirus?
Only the diet of lockdown will tell.
Misery Loves Company
So the saying goes . . . and in Britain there is a peculiar cultural version of this. It is often attributed to a latent religious sentiment about how suffering is good; how we need to refrain from enjoying or being seen to enjoy life.
As a windsurfer, I am well aware of the reasons for engaging and not engaging in outdoors sports during the pandemic that have a risk element. To date, we are lucky in England since water sports are still legally permissible (not so in Wales).
Just the other day (anecdotally), I had just finished having one of the most enjoyable windsurfs with a few friends. I might add for clarification that we respected social distancing on the water (not so hard when you have the whole bay to yourself), as well as safety precautions by not going out farther than we could swim (if something went wrong with our kit). It was also low tide, and the bay is quite shallow.
As I was de-rigging on shore, I was surprised by two things. First, a passerby stopped to chat (at least 6 feet away). I was waiting for an admonishment for being outside and enjoying the weather and the sea. But he smiled and said, “That looks so fun. I wish that I knew how to windsurf.”
What ensued was a conversation about the joy of windsurfing, where to take lessons, and a worry about why people think it’s shameful to do something on or in the water, as opposed to walking, running, or cycling. Even swimming can be looked down upon, as my interlocutor confessed (anecdotally) as a sea swimmer.
Second, two police offers later stopped by to chat. What’s nice about the British approach to policing is that they usually don’t take an authoritarian approach. Conversation and educating the public come first. The officers explained that what we were doing was not illegal, but it was risky. They wanted to make sure that we were aware that rescue at sea was not available if something went wrong. "It's a nice day for it," concluded one of the officers as they walked away.
What do these anecdotes suggest?
A little conversation can go a long way. The fear that one might be publicly shamed or misrepresented (especially on social media) for taking outdoor exercise is powerful. One can defy it by going out on the water, but at the back of the mind is always the fear that someone will confront you. The psychological and emotional pressure can ruin the very exercise you’re doing and actually be counter-productive with respect to the benefits of doing exercise and being outdoors.
Talking it out helps educate the public and oneself. In fact, if you are a part of an outdoor sporting community, it’s worth having a group discussion about the reasons (for and against) doing exercise, the contingencies, and the strategies for responding (and not reacting) to those who might confront or address you.
Some of the local windsurfers here in Whitstable have done just that. It’s been liberating.
Why Is There No Adjective for “Solidarity”?
Solidaritous? Sounds like a Bush-ism. There is no adjective (and here is a feeble attempt at poetic license) because it’s often hard to want to describe and question what it means to be in solidarity. Why?
Because to be “in” with the group that is in solidarity means that everything is contiguous: people and ideas linking together, everyone working as one. While to be “out” of solidarity means it is very difficult and intimidating to describe why the solidarity needs to be questioned. Shaming and social exile are often the consequences.
So this final anecdote is about my worries when a community gets behind an idea or goal. And this is not to say that getting behind a goal is bad. But there can be some consequences that go unnoticed.
As a self-confessed misanthrope, I do not really care for the use of the term “hero” when describing people doing what they do in everyday life or even going beyond the call of duty. I am fine with attributing praise to those who deserve it, but describing them as a hero can be problematic and even run contrary to the intention to do so. (Conversely, using the term “coward” is also problematic.)
The first worry is that it puts them on a pedestal and in fact exerts a social pressure to continue to live up to the label of being heroic. It can also result in a sense of guilt – why am I being called a hero when it seems others have sacrificed more or have simply been the victim of misfortune?
The second worry is that it can mask some things that really need to be critically examined. This phenomenon can be called “valorization”.
Valorizing someone makes a role or a job noble but ignores what may be injustices lurking beneath the surface. So, for example, along with medical and healthcare workers, those employees that keep society functioning (e.g. the supermarket employees, the bus drivers, the rubbish collectors, etc.) are being called heroes on the frontline of the pandemic. They risk their lives by ensuring that we can go about our lives.
I am not questioning their sacrifice and resilience. On the contrary, I praise it! But let's take a look at how calling them heroies valorizes, or has a bad effect.
Consider how it makes their roles appear noble while possibly ignoring the reasons they have to do what they do. It makes it seem that they undertook their position because it was noble to begin with and can ignore facts about economic compulsion (they just needed a wage) or limitations on real opportunities (they had no other career paths available to them due to economic and social constraints).
So this general anecdote about the rhetoric of solidarity suggests that we need to understand that solidarity is a complex thing and that getting behind one cause might mean creating more problems down the line. It certainly cautions us not to judge or react to someone because they appear to be “un-solidaritous” (sorry).
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, after Aristotle, has a wonderful phrase to describe the fine balance between doing good and causing harm and the difficulty of trying to keep this balance amidst the uncertainties of everyday life—“the fragility of goodness”.
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.