In pointing this out, we mean well! So it’s understandable that many of us responded defensively when Trump supporters condemned “Anti-Trump Twitter danc[ing] on Herman Cain’s grave” or called out “abjectly disgusting” comments from those of us who made the connection between Cain’s death and his mask-free mentality. We should, progressives believe, be able to talk about the facts, even in the face of tragedy. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as I believe the saying goes.
But let’s say you, like me, really do want everyone to engage in disease-suppression best practices out of singularly noble reasons. You’re likely well-intentioned when you deploy Cain’s death as an object lesson; it exists outside the sphere of politics and your commentary springs from genuine care and concern for your fellows. But you also have to recognize that it won’t be heard that way — not, at any rate, by those already primed to interpret their political opponents’ reactions as condescending and cruel. Facts may not care about one’s feelings, but one’s feelings definitely influence how much you care about the facts.
That doesn’t mean we can’t get the message across, just that we have to be thoughtful — and empathetic — about how we proceed. Tempting as it may be to point and laugh — or even just shrug and sigh — the best way to get people to treat Cain’s death as information and not potential propaganda is to recognize that some people really are in mourning, and even to join them in their sorrow. Humiliation changes no one’s mind, but shared suffering? That can make all the difference.
When we try to convince people to wear masks or wash their hands, we’re not trying to win political arguments. We’re trying to solve a public health problem, one that affects all of us. And it’s not just morally questionable to suggest that people on the other side “deserve it” when they get sick, it’s self-defeating.
My podcast, “With Friends Like These,” this season explored “the conversion experience” — delving into the conditions that allow someone who believes one thing to start believing something else. I’ve interviewed neuroscientists, psychologists, a former white nationalist who is now an anti-racist activist and a science writer who turned to mysticism after a chronic illness ground her down to the core. I have learned one overarching lesson: No one permanently changes their behavior out of shame; you cannot berate someone into a new way of looking at the world.
Neuroscience indicates that presenting contrary evidence to a misguided believer (or, to be frank, any believer) evokes a fight-or-flight response in the brain — a flood of chemicals and a symphony of firing nerves that simply reinscribe the original belief. Intense disagreement can turn a loosely held opinion into an identity. I doubt this is a revelation to anyone awake and alert and following the news.
I’ve also learned that people become more receptive when they start from a place of shared emotion. The current incalculable, global disruption should surely count. But so should the loss of life at any scale. If one could show genuine grief at Herman Cain’s death, that might resonate with someone otherwise skeptical of “the other side.” You would be taking a chance. You would be hoping that this person would, in grief, be open to any course of action that might have meant they wouldn’t be feeling their present pain. “You cared about Herman Cain? Let’s figure out together how you might have received the gift of his presence for a little while longer.”
And here’s thing: You’d have to mean it. Not all of us can summon such sincerity.
Cain was, in my opinion, not a good person. He was accused of sexual harassment and admitted he’d been involved in a settlement over his behavior. He favored policies that I found both greedy and stupid. We are long past his 2012 presidential campaign, and my life will move along just fine with no more Herman Cain in it.
It’s true that approaching mask-defiant covid-truthers with humility demands a lot (maybe too much) of people who are already doing the right thing, who have already paid immensely high costs. Why should someone who sees quite clearly how selfishness and willful ignorance amplified the situation we’re in use their scarce emotional resources on anyone who’s comfortable not sharing the burden? Let them eat hydroxychloroquine!
But this is a retreat only somewhat less morally suspect than the refusal to wash your hands, if just as understandable when you consider that — my God! — the world as we know it is over. Some of us react by retreating to familiar if no-longer-safe behaviors. Some mock that reaction. Both responses are grounded in terror and helplessness. Remember this and you may succeed in conjuring a connection to the person you automatically assume to be, ideologically, much farther away than a mere six feet.
It is so much easier, so much more comfortable to clash over our policy and political responses to the pandemic than it is to confront our enormous collective loss, or even singular loss that will feel enormous enough to some. The temptation to trade the discomfort of grief for giddy point-scoring is attractive to those who regard Cain’s loss as a horrible and inexplicable twist of fate and to those (like me) who suspect his time on this earth was cut short by bad choices fueled by thoughtless pride. It exploits a weakness in those who see Trump as a tragic hero beset by earthly enemies and cosmic bad luck. It does the same for those (like me) who believe Trump’s cackhanded corruption and mindless nihilism made all this possible.
Still, if your humanity calls you to try to get other humans to assist in the task of saving all of our lives, you cannot afford to skim over the hard truth that we are treating each other badly because we cannot emotionally afford to care as much about each other as the magnitude of current events demand. You are going to have to not just act like Herman Cain’s death matters. You are going to have to believe that it matters just as much as anyone else’s.