Fear and Loathing in the Time of COVID

The pandemic and its attendant stress have turned otherwise normal people into unruly passengers, poorly behaved consumers, and worse.


In 1781, the Royal Academy of Science in Brussels issued a call for scientific papers on some obscure mathematical question. Our ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, wrote a letter to the academy suggesting it set its sights a bit lower. “It is universally well known, that in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind,” Franklin observed. Permitting “this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.”

Why not, therefore, investigate the scourge of farting?

Franklin’s cri de coeur for the carminative sciences, popularly known as “Fart Proudly,” was satirical. But he was actually on to something.

A couple of centuries later, Jonathan Haidt and some colleagues discovered that the fetid smell from the famously sunless last exit of our digestive highway can have a profound effect on our mental state. Subsequent research by Simone Schnall and others confirmed Haidt’s pathbreaking fart research.

Since I don’t actually intend to write a whole “news”letter on what New Zealanders call “shooting a bunny,” I’ll cut to the chase. Feelings of disgust, of the sort elicited by air biscuits, cause us to make harsher moral judgments. (And not just about the one who dealt it.) If our feelings of disgust are triggered, we’re more likely to want harsher penalties for all manner of norm violations. In Haidt’s experiment, subjects exposed to noisome aromas were more likely to be more outraged by shoplifting and political bribery.

Jonathan Haidt is not just a pathbreaking flatulence researcher, he’s also one of the world’s foremost psychologists. If you haven’t read his book, The Righteous Mind, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Of all the topics I’ve changed my mind about over the last 20 years, the relevance of psychology to politics is near the top of the list, and Haidt’s work is a big reason why. (I still think Theodor Adorno’s stuff is crap, but that’s a topic for another day.)

One of the points Haidt explores at great length is how the part of our brain that deals with hygiene is deeply involved in all sorts of cultural, religious, and political concepts. When we see the American flag desecrated, those of us offended by it are using the same part of our brain that is disgusted by rotting meat or disease. Hygiene and sacredness are closely related concepts in our minds. This is most commonly explained as an evolutionary adaptation. The quicker you are to be disgusted by someone covered in boils, the more likely it is you won’t get whatever caused the boils in the first place. Traditional rules about food preparation, cleanliness, personal hygiene, etc., are not “scientific” as we understand the term today. They were deeply entangled in religion and culture.

There are some who argue that conservatives are more “disgustable” than others. I’m open to the idea, but this is where my previous skepticism kicks back in. I’m not saying it’s not true or partly true. But I tend to think a better way to think about the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives is to examine what disgusts them. A conservative might be offended by someone burning Jesus in effigy more than a secular progressive, but my hunch is that a secular progressive would be more triggered by burning, say, Martin Luther King Jr. in effigy. In other words, different ideological worldviews organize around different concepts of the sacred and the profane.

The great pandemic freakout.

I could go on about this (and did in Suicide of the West), but I want to get to Maxwell Berry, the bozo who flipped out on a flight from Philly to Florida. He got so abusive and disruptive that flight attendants had to bind him with duct tape. Actually, I don’t want to talk about him, save to say that this incident is not nearly as unusual as it should be. Last month, a woman got so unhinged she tried to exit a plane midflight. She, too, got the duct tape treatment. In May, a flight attendant lost two teeth to a violent passenger.

These are not isolated incidents. Unruly passengers on planes are becoming an epidemic. According to the FAA, the number of incidents has skyrocketed since 2020.

And it’s not just planes. Retail workers are quitting in huge numbers because customers are becoming so abusive. The Gap had to issue a public plea in the face of abuse, allegedly concentrated against minority employees. Road rage incidents are surging—one person is reportedly shot in a road rage incident roughly every 18 hours. Emergency room visits by teens suffering a “mental health emergency” are way up (though suicides, thankfully, are not). We saw drug overdoses surge by a third in 2020, to 93,000, despite the fact access to opioids has been sharply curtailed.

This isn’t an American phenomenon. Major retailers in the U.K. published a letter demanding the government respond to the “shocking violence and abuse” of retail workers during the pandemic. “One business reports a 76% increase in abuse and a 10% increase in violent attacks during COVID-19, of which over half involved a weapon, and many of our colleagues have been coughed at or spat on,” the letter reads. A survey shows 1 in 6 workers report being abused on every shift.

And then there’s domestic abuse. From Time magazine:

Surveys around the world have shown domestic abuse spiking since January of 2020—jumping markedly year over year compared to the same period in 2019. According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine and the United Nations group U.N. Women, when the pandemic began, incidents of domestic violence increased 300% in Hubei, China; 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore and 50% in Brazil. The U.K., where calls to domestic violence hotlines have soared since the pandemic hit, was particularly shaken in June by the death of Amy-Leanne Stringfellow, 26, a mother of one and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, allegedly at the hands of her 45-year-old boyfriend.

Finally, there’s the surge in violent crime. I understand the argument that all of the spikes in homicide are the result of anti-law enforcement and “defund the police” rhetoric from liberals. And I think there’s definitely something to all that. But the connections and causal arrows are more complicated than a lot of people make it seem. Very few—if any—police departments were actually defunded, and crime is up in plenty of places where spending on law enforcement was untouched or increased. I think the “Ferguson effect” is a real thing. The epidemic of resignations by police has real-world consequences. We can talk about all of that another time. But is it so outlandish to believe that if relatively normal and peaceful people are coming unglued because of the pandemic, people more inclined to criminal violence would also be subject to the same phenomenon?

Disease of the body and mind.

In the early days of the pandemic, Yuval Levin wrote, “The fact is that intense epidemics and grim public-health crises don’t generally result in social renewal. Because they make us fearful of those around us, they tend to drive us apart and to bring out the worst in us.”

He points out that it was ever thus:

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the disastrous social calamity that accompanied the Great Plague of Athens in 430 b.c.e. The disease, which is now thought to have been typhus, killed many tens of thousands (historians estimate perhaps a quarter of the population) and decimated both the city’s poorer agricultural class and its elites and political leadership. Pericles himself died of it. And although it brought out courage and virtue in some Athenians at first, over time the epidemic coarsened civic life. People became afraid of one another and abandoned all propriety to protect their families. “The catastrophe was so overwhelming,” Thucydides writes, “that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

We’re not quite there yet. But I think it’s worth pulling back from the specific debates about masks, mandates, vaccines, lockdowns, etc., and looking at the whole picture. As a society, we have no living memory of anything like the last 18 months. But deep in our genetic library, we have volumes of memory about how to respond to disease and contagion. From an evolutionary perspective, we can rationally explain why we have these responses. But that doesn’t mean the responses themselves are rational. One of the great debates in Western philosophy is over the relationship between emotion (or “passions”) and reason. The thorniest problem with this debate is that our emotions aren’t always entirely visible to us. After all, if the mere whiff of a fart can make us change our attitudes about public policy, it’s amazing we can even pretend to be rational about anything.

I don’t have a neat and tidy political argument to make here. I think of the pandemic—both the disease itself and the pressures and stresses attendant to the response—as a kind of background radiation that affects people differently. Some people were downright blasé about the pandemic, but lost their minds about shutdowns. Some people were blasé about shutdowns, but are coming apart about going back to normal.

(Also, it affects different peoples differently. America, which has always been more violent than Europe—that’s one boo for “American exceptionalism”—has seen a surge in homicides which has not manifested across the pond).

After all, I don’t think there’s a great explanation in evolutionary psychology for why so many people are downright phobic about wearing masks, unless there’s literature that says denying that a disease exists is an adaptive response to disease. Vaccine phobia is different. There’s a deeply ingrained fear of invisible stuff that can hurt us, which is why it’s so hard to get people to accept the use of recycled waste water

But even if I don’t have a black-and-white political story of good guys and bad guys to peddle, I think I’m on safe ground when I say the background radiation is affecting our politics (as I argued here).  How could it not? If otherwise normal people are spitting in the face of fast-food cashiers, why would our already dysfunctional political life be immune?

So perhaps a bit more humility is in order? Perhaps a bit more understanding that there’s plenty of irrationality to go around? And maybe, just maybe, we should try a bit harder to not make people angrier than they already are?