Naturally, there are also villains. Price gougers. Hate-mongers. And then there are the folks endangering lives by refusing to socially distance. How should we view this brand of villain?
I'm not referring to people massing in protest against quarantines, arguing that a shuttered economy
is worse than the virus. While concern for the poor and newly unemployed is laudable, their humanitarianism is curdled by their various political agendas
The rebels I refer to disobey the rules because, well, they wanna. Perhaps they don't know there's a virus going around. Maybe they do care about others, but their circle of caring doesn't include anyone they'd consider at risk. Perhaps it's tricky, understanding that massing in groups with uncovered faces might now be as dangerous as brandishing a weapon. Or maybe they're just selfish.
Comprehending their actions seems challenging, given their varied motivations. Here's what some of the prime public health flouters were saying as the virus took hold in March.
There were the religious leaders who appeared to believe no virus dared harm.
Megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne in Florida, proclaimed,
"This Bible school is open because we're raising young revivalists, not pansies." (Howard-Browne later moved his Easter services
online because, according to his lawyer, he had received death threats for holding his earlier services. During his Easter morning broadcast, he said he was waiting for God
to tell him when to reopen.)
The sexton of a synagogue in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Zalman Lipsker, who said that the synagogue
, "will be open until Moshiach [the Messiah]." (Synagogue officials later announced
it would be closed "for a period of time.)
Bishop Gerald Glenn, a Virginia evangelist, who held services because, "God is larger than this dreaded virus." Glenn has now died
from Covid-19, Brooklyn's Hasidic families suffer
excruciating losses and the virus rages in rural America
There are those whose flouting, rather than God- or Constitution-given, is youth-given -- a belief in their immortality and of those who matter to them. These were the spring-break revelers
and the nitwits who held furtive parties
stocked with post-ironic Corona beer while the virus proves more virulent among the young than predicted.
And then there are the "Don't Tread On Me" survivalists, convinced the government is confiscating constitutional rights through pandemic hoaxes, channeling Benjamin Franklin with statements of
"If you would trade liberty for security, you deserve neither," and, in a move that would pass for hilarious absurdity in happier times, comparing themselves
favorably to civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
Some of these partyers and religious leaders may now be taking social distancing more seriously than when they first disavowed it. But it's important to understand that religious fundamentalists weren't defying government rules because they want to become sacrificial lambs.
Instead, it's about wanting to congregate in congregations. Idaho revolutionaries
aren't revolting because the government conspires against their constitutional right to a speedy trial. It's the right to assemble.
And the invincible youth weren't defying rules against toilet-papering statues. It's defying a ban against hanging with friends and hooking up and puking their guts out after beer pong marathons.
Strip away the details and it's all the same. Congregating. Assembling. Partying. It's primate sociality.
We primates are the most social species in the animal kingdom. Hunter-gatherers spend their evenings gossiping around the fire; other primates show
the equivalent. Record the vocalizations
of the members of a group of baboons, splice things to make it sound like two individuals are fighting and play it from a speaker in the bushes, and everyone stops what they're doing to listen.
Our sociality comforts us. We turn to loved ones after trauma, and doing so lessens the hormonal stress response. After baboons have a close call with a lion, everyone sits, grooming -- and doing so lessens that same stress response
. Put us primates in solitary confinement and we unravel.
Sociality pays off. Chimps learn to make tools through social observation,
monkeys have trouble learning transitivity with physical objects ("If A is bigger B and B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C"), but master social transitivity
("If A defeats B and B defeats C, then A defeats C").
While a solitary altruist will be outcompeted by a solitary backstabber, a group of the former triumphs over a group of the latter, a means for the evolution of cooperation. And humans, with our lousy speed, strength and sensory acuity, avoided extinction by working in groups.
Our primate brains are sculpted by sociality. One brain region specializes in recognizing faces. Another categorizes people by sex, age, race and status cues, deciding, "Is this an Us or a Them?" in a fraction of a second. If a monkey lives in a bigger social group, his frontal cortex grows bigger
We have evolved to bicker, eavesdrop, joust, tryst, compete, aid and backstab, and we have the brains to prove it. No wonder then that the pixilated face of a friend on Zoom, or talking through a face mask with someone across the street, isn't the next logical step in social evolution. We are being asked to go against our primate essence.
This is not to excuse those who won't keep their distance, but to scientifically explain the sin while trying not to boil in fury at the sinner. And maybe even to understand how to change their primate minds.