If you didn’t know better, you could easily assume that the American people are as deeply divided over measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic as we are over partisan politics. The national news media aren’t helping, giving heavy publicity to protests against stay-at-home orders without providing context and perspective.

Those protests are troubling, but I find great comfort in knowing that 93% of Americans are trying to stay six feet away from others in public and 86% support stay-at-home orders. This means that physical distancing is literally more popular than apple pie (81%), kittens (76%), and Tom Hanks (84%).

Not only is it gratifying to see strong support for things I myself support, it’s also comforting to know that Americans can reach a broad consensus on a novel issue.

This consensus could serve us well as we start to reckon with the long-term consequences of the pandemic and grapple with the opportunities for creating a more just and equitable society it has revealed. Making real progress against racism, poverty, unequal access to health care, and environmental degradation feels more possible now than it did four months ago.

But the sense of unity, purpose, and dedication which will be necessary to capitalize on the opportunities this crisis has presented is fragile, and it is already under threat.

Medicine has come to understand that the most dangerous consequence of infection with SARS-CoV-2 is the catastrophic overreaction of the body’s own defenses.

Something about this virus can provoke the immune system to fight so hard that it shuts down organs or entire systems (though it’s important to remember that this is statistically rare).

Remarkably, something analogous to this molecular phenomenon is happening on the social level.

In a broad sense, most of the organization and regulation of society happens not through official channels, but through social interaction and anticipated reaction, a sort of societal immune system.

Most of us seldom interact with the police or the courts, but everyone interacts with family, friends, and strangers, and anticipates their reactions as a matter of course.

Reports of strangers shouting at strangers “Stay home!” and, more recently, “Wear a mask!” have become commonplace. Some of my friends have proudly posted online that they have delivered such admonitions.

They claim they are doing their part to keep the community safe — they are saving lives! Now, I love my friends, and I believe their intentions are good, but I feel obligated to point out that scolding, especially under these circumstances, does more harm than good.

It’s true that with a highly contagious disease, other people’s decisions affect us and our families, but hostility and shame are poor strategies for improving other people’s behavior.

First of all, insisting that scolding strangers will engender the desired reaction is disingenuous. Scolding provokes resentment (and sometimes worse), not introspection and amendment of life.

Experience has taught us this.

Most people think they’re doing the right thing, and have already justified their choices.

The scolded will not perceive any compassion or nobility, but may conclude that the scold is a condescending, self-righteous busybody — and might even feel they must assert their autonomy by defying health guidelines they were previously inclined to follow. So a scolding could well end up causing the disease to spread further.

Secondly, scolds often betray their ignorance: The risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors from someone more than 6 feet away is vanishingly low, and many people have invisible physical and mental conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.

Fortunately, the governor’s order to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible acknowledges this, noting that “A person who declines to wear a mask … because of a medical condition shall not be required to produce documentation verifying the condition.”

But few people seem to know.

This situation may be new, but the insight into effective correction is ancient: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Before you approach someone, first check your anger, fear, outrage, hostility and self-importance.

If you still feel you must, remember that they have feelings too, consider that we’re all doing the best we can with fast-changing and sometimes contradictory guidance, and speak to them as you would wish to be spoken to.

As surely as a cytokine storm jeopardizes the body, every act of judgment and condescension damages the social cohesion that we need, both to endure this crisis and to build a better world after it passes

The Rev. Bret B. Hays is rector of Saint John’s Episcopal Church. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.

Recommended for you