Is the scolding equilibrium shifting, and if so why?

As the pandemic evolves, so is the tendency of people to take moral positions they would not normally endorse. Most notably, many left-wing commentators are becoming moral scolds, stressing ideals of individual responsibility.

Consider these words:

“So it’s time to stop being diffident and call out destructive behavior for what it is. Doing so may make some people feel that they’re being looked down on. But you know what? Your feelings don’t give you the right to ruin other people’s lives.”

If I had read that paragraph two years ago, I might have thought it was a conservative columnist lamenting inner-city crime, or perhaps complaining about the behavior of homeless people in San Francisco. But no: It is Paul Krugman discussing those who will not get vaccinated or wear masks. He calls it “the rage of the responsible,” and it is emblematic of a broader set of current left-wing attitudes, most of all toward the red state responses to the pandemic.

To be clear, I agree with Krugman’s point, and I frequently express similar sentiments. All the same, I wonder about the rules here. When exactly are “the responsible” allowed to express their quiet rage, on which issues and on which terms?

The alternative to this rage is the language of victimhood. For example, many on the left tend to portray the homeless as hostages to circumstances largely beyond their control: the high cost of housing, unjust eviction policies, a tattered social welfare state, perhaps mental illness or drug addiction.

There is some truth in all those hypotheses. Still, when it comes to the homeless, am I also allowed to express the quiet rage of the responsible? Or is only the rhetoric of victimhood allowed?

There is no doubt that homeless people suffer very real injustices. But it could be argued that allowing oneself to become homeless is a greater abdication of responsibility than refusing to be vaccinated. It is also worse for your health and bad for the community, as anyone from San Francisco can tell you.

One rejoinder might be that a pandemic is different. Maybe so, but if this were the 1980s, during the peak of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, one could imagine a Moral Majority advocate expressing sentiments similar to Krugman’s about gay men who engage in unsafe sex. Today such a view would be considered uncouth, at least in the mainstream media, and that’s not only because there are now effective treatments against HIV-AIDS. This kind of scolding has mostly gone out of fashion, especially when the recipients have been victims of prior or current social discrimination.

Or consider the question of suicide. There was a time in America when it was common to view suicide as a violation of Christian doctrine. Now there is largely sympathy for those who have killed themselves. Is this change for the better? Maybe, but it’s not clear that this issue has been given serious evidence-based consideration. Scolding sometimes helps to limit the number of wrong deeds, and everyone does it to some degree, even when it is sometimes not appropriate.

Then there are alcohol and drug abuse, which have some features of epidemics in that they exhibit social contagion. Your drunkenness, for example, on average encourages some of your friends to experiment with the same. But scolding alcoholics also is out of fashion, even though the social costs of alcohol abuse are extremely high, especially when considered cumulatively. As a teetotaler, I sometimes express my own quiet rage of the responsible, and my reaction is mostly considered a strange curiosity.

It is not only left-wing thinkers who have ended up in strange ideological positions. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a conservative Republican and one of America’s leading right-wing politicians, has essentially expanded public health-care coverage in his state by setting up mobile units to administer monoclonal antibodies to Covid-19 sufferers. I’m all for that. At the same time, I notice he continues to oppose Medicaid expansion in Florida.

What explains the attitudinal shifts we are seeing? One possibility is that left-wing thinkers are getting more puritanical and are more comfortable in their new role as scolds, including with respect to sex and vaccination and mask-wearing. That would leave Trumpist Republicans as the defenders of medical choice and the sexual libertinism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Another possibility, not mutually exclusive, is that few of us are intellectually consistent, and so our scolding is increasingly shaped by affective political polarization. The left will scold the practices of Trump supporters, while the right will scold the woke, and views on any particular issue will be adjusted to fit into this broader pattern. If an issue is not very partisan, such as alcohol abuse or suicide, scolding simply will decline.

Here is an article on the movement to treat vaccinated patients first. Fine by me! But what exactly are the egalitarians supposed to say? Is meritocracy now allowed to rear its ugly head?  Or do no other social outcomes have anything to do with your merit? Only this one? Really?


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